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SANTA CLARA -- The 49ers picked a safety in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft.
The team has already invested heavily in its two starting safeties. The 49ers traded up in the first round a year ago to select Eric Reid. And in a move that coincided with Donte Whitner leaving as a free agent, the 49ers awarded former Indianapolis Colts safety Antoine Bethea a four-year, $21 million contract this offseason.
While rookie Jimmie Ward of Northern Illinois is listed as a safety, the 49ers envision him beating out veterans Perrish Cox and Eric Wright to win the job as the team’s nickel back -- the cornerback who matches up against the slot receiver.
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“(He’s) a playmaker, has an instinct for reacting to plays before anybody else sees them,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. "(He’s) just a step ahead of the rest of the defense. Covers a lot of ground. Covers up a lot of holes. I like his ball skills. He’s going to play the safety position with corner skills and that’s something that we value very much.”
Technically, Ward will not be a starter in his rookie season -- unless the door swings open due to injury. But the 49ers are not viewing it that way.
After all, the 49ers had three cornerbacks on the field for 55 percent of the 49ers’ defensive snaps last season. In 2012, the 49ers’ third cornerback, Chris Culliver, played 63.2 percent of the defensive snaps. Carlos Rogers handled the nickel chores for the past three seasons. The 49ers cut Rogers this offseason, and Rogers signed with the Oakland Raiders.
“If you just look at statistically, our nickel has been on the field over 60 percent of the time,” 49ers general manager Trent Baalke said. “That’s a starter, in our opinion. That’s a guy who’s going to get a lot of play time. He’ll get an opportunity to compete for that spot.”
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The 49ers’ selection of Ward illustrates that the 49ers believed Ward was simply a better player at the slot position with more upside as a safety than anyone the team could have chosen at cornerback or wide receiver.
Tramaine Brock and Culliver are the presumptive starters at the cornerback positions. The 49ers have five scheduled draft picks on Friday – in the second and third rounds – to address that area, too.
When asked if Brock and Culliver are the 49ers’ starting cornerbacks, Harbaugh answered, “They certainly have the license and the ability to be our starting cornerbacks.”
A source told CSNBayArea.com that the 49ers were not all that sold on the cornerbacks who would be chosen in the first round. Thus, the 49ers did not pull the trigger to move up to select cornerbacks Darqueze Dennard (Michigan State) or Jason Verrett (TCU) who were available within six spots of where the 49ers picked at No. 30.
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Baalke did not answer whether Ward was the top cover nickel back on the 49ers’ draft board -- an indication that Kyle Fuller or Verrett could have been ahead of him. But it was also clear the 49ers feel comfortable about Ward’s ability to run with small, quick receivers.
“I think he showed through the process that he can cover the slot,” Baalke said. “He was used there quite a bit in Northern Illinois’ defense. He also showed down at the Senior Bowl that he can do that. We’re very confident in his cover ability. Yet, very impressed with the way he plays the game physically.”
The 49ers have four games against Seattle and St. Louis, teams that figure to test Ward often with Percy Harvin and Tavon Austin in the slot. Also, the 49ers play against Denver’s Wes Welker, who has rolled up more than 110 receptions in five of the past seven years.
Ward has proven he can run with small, quick receivers. Despite a metatarsal Jones fracture in his foot, Ward still ran an unofficial time of under 4.5 seconds at his pro day on March 7 -- just four days before undergoing surgery.
“He wanted to prove he could run in the 4.4s with a bad foot,” Baalke said. “If you look him against Dri Archer, a guy that was a confirmed 4.19, he ran step-for-step with him and picked off a pass in the end zone.”
Archer, the Kent State speeder, ran the fastest time in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine with an official 4.26. Ward led Northern Illinois with 95 tackles and he ranked seventh in college football with seven interceptions.
“The guy can either run on film or he can’t,” Baalke said. “And we felt very confident he can run on film. I believe he’s faster than a 4.48. I believe he would be. How fast is he? He’s fast enough to get it done.”