The San Francisco 49ers have none of the four starting members of the secondary that helped them to the Super Bowl two years ago. They got LSU safety Eric Reid in the first round of the 2013 draft as an estimable building block, and now, by adding Northern Illinois safety Jimmie Ward to the mix, San Francisco has potentially as good and versatile a safety duo as there is in the league -- outside of divisional rival Seattle, of course. Ward is a special player with unusual versatility.
Strengths: Plays well everywhere in the defensive backfield — from deep center field to slot cornerback. Ward has tremendous range and can cover a lot of ground in a big hurry, and he’s on point when he gets there — he doesn’t overreach as much as you’d expect for a player who’s going all-out at all times. Makes plays in the passing game from inside the seams to outside the numbers and can roll back into deep coverage from linebacker depth. Times his hits exceptionally well to deflect and break up passes. Ward plays a lot of slot coverage, and this may be his most appealing value to NFL teams. His footwork is outstanding, and his backpedal speed really shows up on tape. Doesn’t allow a lot of yards after the catch — if a receiver grabs a catch in his area, Ward is quick to end the play.
Weaknesses: Gets a bit stiff in coverage situations where he needs to turn his hips and run quickly in a straight line; not a natural mover in those circumstances. Though he can get vertical, Ward will be challenged by tight ends and bigger receivers — with his height, there’s only so high he can go. Takes on blockers fearlessly at the line of scrimmage, but needs to put on functional weight to deal with them — he’s a thin guy who struggles in physical battles and needs to shoot through gaps to tackle or blitz. Will occasionally bite on play-action and play-fakes because he’s so aggressive to the ball.
Grade: A+. In Super Bowl XLVIII, Seattle’s Kam Chancellor re-established the value of the safety who could play in lurk (midfield) coverage against slot receivers and tight ends, adding an important element to a team’s overall defensive concepts. Ward has already done a lot of lurking, and he'll be a great asset when the 49ers move to their nickel and dime coverages, because he covers so much ground, and in so many different ways.