While there is a learning curve for all rookies regardless of position, this week’s matchup should be a telling story of how far along San Francisco 49ers (4-4) rookie first-round pick (No. 30) DB Jimmie Ward has come along. A player that struggled through the first quarter of the season (4 games), Ward has improved with each snap since. In his first four games, Ward finished with negative grades by Pro Football Focus with -0.9, -2.9, -0.7, and -0.4 respectively. However, those grades quickly became positives the following two weeks with a steady 0.3 against the Kansas City Chiefs and St. Louis Rams.
Now, as Ward faces a high-octane New Orleans Saints (4-4) offense, the question remains how will he fare against the No. 1 ranked rookie in terms of rookie receptions. Yes, I’m talking about Saints WR Brandin Cooks. The player I was extremely high on entering the draft, it was Cooks who I thought would be selected by the five-time Super Bowl Champions. From lining up in the slot to fielding punts in the return game, Cooks is as electrifying as they come. A great matchup as Cooks’ quickness and agility should prove to be a problem from anywhere on the field, it will be Ward that will need to bring his A-game on Sunday.
Cooks, a diminutive yet tough pass-catcher has all the tools to be the second-coming of a WR Steve Smith. He’s fast, shifty, and savvy. Not to mention, Cooks’ is tied for first for all rookies in terms of receptions with 43, it will be tough but a very competitive matchup for Ward. Two first-round picks going head-to-head, it should be fun to watch as they both have a similar H-W-S (Height, Weight, Speed). However, one area that may be a concern is Ward’s ability to cover the quick slant.
Throughout training camp, Ward struggled during one-on-one drills in covering the 2-banger (quick-slant). Cooks’ who is one of the best at getting open with his short area quickness (burst) should get open on 3rd and short situations. And while Cooks’ has the ability to take it to the house on any given play, Ward should receive some help over the top and inside in DC Vic Fangio’s complex cover-2 scheme. But if Ward can prove his worth as a first-round pick and stay stride-for-stride with the speedy receiver like he did with speed demon RB Dri Archer, he should be in for a big day. And I believe he can.
Ward has been hit pretty hard by the Forever Faithful and media for his lack of production thus far. A rookie who continues to earn his stripes week in and week out, do not be surprised if Ward holds his own in pass-coverage as he has steadily improved from week-to-week. But that’s not to say that Cooks won’t get his fair share of wins as well as I predict him to finish with a stat line around eight catches for 97 yards and one touchdown.
With the Saints ranking No. 3 in the passing game, Ward will need to come up big as he displays his ball-hawking skills while trying to limit the big play. A tough task for any defensive back, Ward will have no choice but to hold his own as he will likely be matched up one-on-one with Cooks more often than not.