“We aren’t looking at him outside as a corner.” Those are words spoken from San Francisco 49ers GM Trent Baalke shortly after the team selected DB Jimmie Ward in the first-round (No. 30) of the 2014 NFL Draft.
Ward was considered a bit of a ‘tweener.’ Due to not having prototypical size [5-10, 193] to play strong safety, but yet displaying the toughness of one, Baalke and his scouting department believed Ward’s best chance for early success would be relishing the nickel role.
“As a young guy you can’t learn the safety position, the nickel position, and the outside. You’ve got to concentrate somewhere. So, initially, he’s going to be focused on the nickel position and the safety [strong and weak] position,” Baalke said.
The road to success is unforgiving in the NFL, and Ward was no exception. In only his second NFL game, Ward found himself lined up across two-time All-Pro WR Brandon Marshall. At 6-4, 230, the size difference proved to be too much for the diminutive yet versatile defensive back.
Three times the Bears targeted Marshall inside the red zone, and three touchdowns resulted. That essentially set the tone for the remainder of Ward’s rookie season. Ward would be placed on IR (injured reserve) just eight weeks later, but not before finishing the year with 20 tackles and 2 PBUs.
Haunted by the Chicago Bears game, Ward vowed he learned from his rookie mistakes. “Brandon Marshall,” said Ward back in December 2014. “That’s all I gotta say. I’m going to leave it at his name. That’s all I’m going to say.”
And Ward lived up to his word.
After ranking third-worst on the team in pass coverage (-2.6) by Pro Football Focus his rookie season, Ward did a nice 180 degree turn in 2015. In one of the biggest improvements for defensive backs, Ward quickly went from laughing stock to bonafide shutdown corner.
Ranked as the 3rd best cover cornerback (+6.6) by Pro Football Focus during the final five-game stretch, Ward limited quarterbacks to a stingy 38.8 quarterback rating. However, despite the recent success, Ward re-hashed that horrendous game against the Bears just one year later, as it will forever be in the back of his mind.
— Ryan Sakamoto (@SakamotoRyan) May 19, 2016
“Coming off last year, I really had a let-down year, got hurt [jones fracture]. I’ll never forget that Chicago game. It was my welcome-to-the-NFL game. I’m just trying to help my team out any way possible,” Ward said back in December 2015.
Ward would finish his sophomore season with 57 tackles (6 for loss), 1 interception (returned for TD), and six PBU’s.
So what’s in store for Ward in the all important year three? Expect Ward to pickup right where he left off, as a premier shutdown corner.
During our annual pre-draft interview, Baalke alluded to the fact that times have changed in terms of a player’s development citing a three-year window.
Ward is living proof of that ideology.
“A year ago [rookie season] we heard how Jimmie Ward was a bust. Well look at the last eight games of this season [year two] and tell me how Jimmie Ward’s playing,” Baalke said.
The numbers don’t lie. Ward was the third best cornerback in the NFL during the final five-game stretch with an overall Pro Football Focus grade of +7.6.
While Baalke said the team was not initially banking on Ward being an outside press cornerback, it appears that Ward is slowly making that transition all while exceeding Baalke’s expectations. During the first practice of OTAs, Ward was seen taking first team reps opposite of CB Tramaine Brock.
Do you think Baalke is surprised? I don’t think so, as Baalke spoke highly of Ward’s versatility in his post draft press conference.
— Ryan Sakamoto (@SakamotoRyan) May 17, 2016
“Dynamite comes in all packages. And this is a young man that’s proven that he’s been able to hold up physically, play a physical style of football and also have the rare traits to be able to go down and cover. So, there’s just a lot of versatility to his game, and the fact that he can play it physically and play it mentally is extremely important.”
With the 49ers trying to return to their winning ways, you can count on Ward playing a vital role in making that a reality. A player who has shown significant progress while learning multiple positions — it appears the 49ers may have struck gold, despite earlier reports.
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