As has always been the case throughout the NFL's history, offenses are changing the game -- and defenses are forced to adapt or fall back. Inspired in part by the spread offenses that have overtaken college football in recent years, pro teams put more three- and four-receiver sets on the field now than ever before. According to Football Outsiders' charting data, NFL offenses have increased their percentages of three (or more) receiver sets from 49 percent in 2011, to 51 percent in '12 to 56 percent in '13. In that same period, we've seen the nickel defense become the NFL's base concept, and to a similar degree -- teams had five defensive backs on the field 40 percent of the time in 2011, 45 percent in '12, and 49 percent in '13.
And if there's a sea change in formations, you can bet that the mindset regarding personnel will change, as well. No longer are slot receivers and nickel defenders afterthoughts -- in fact, it could be argued that two NFL teams selected nickel defenders in the first round of the 2014 draft. The Denver Broncos took Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby with the 31st overall pick to play inside and outside, and the San Francisco 49ers took Northern Illinois safety Jimmie Ward with the 30th overall selection. And more than perhaps any other first-rounder in NFL history, Ward will be asked to be a pure nickel defender -- the fifth defensive back that used to be a fifth wheel in this league. Clearly, that has changed.
49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio told Bay Area radio station KNBR that Ward fits perfectly with what the 49ers not only want to do on defense these days, but what they really have to do.
"He's got the versatility to play the nickel corner position, we hope, and we'll see if he can when he competes with the other guys we have here. That's a position in today's game ... [that] plays a lot. Our starting nose tackles here the last few years, Isaac Sopoaga and last year Glenn Dorsey, our fifth defensive back has played more than those guys have. You've really got 12 starters on defense [now] -- you've got your 11 in your 3-4 package and when you go to your fifth DB, he's also a starter. That guy has played upwards of 60 percent for us in the last few years.
Fangio reiterated the "12 starters" mantra and then added with a laugh, "I just wish they'd let us play 12 all the time."
Sorry, coach -- that's still a penalty in the National Football League. But the 49ers have definitely been doing this for a while -- veteran cornerback Carlos Rogers led the league in 2013 with 428 snaps in the slot, per Pro Football Focus. Rogers also led the NFL with 437 slot snaps in 2012, and only Miami's Will Allen had more than Rogers' 394 in '11.
The 49ers released Rogers in March despite his 73.9 opponent quarterback rating allowed in the slot last year, ninth-best at his position in the NFL. Clearly, they wanted something more, and clearly, they think Ward will give it to them. Based on his college tape, it would seem that the 49ers may have hit the nail right on the head.
When I ran Ward's tape for the SI 64 pre-draft profiles, I noted that:
"[Ward] plays well everywhere in the defensive backfield -- from deep center field to slot cornerback ... 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. Ward makes plays in the passing game from inside the seams to outside the numbers and can roll back into deep coverage from linebacker depth. He times his hits exceptionally well to deflect and break up passes ... 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 catch -- if a receiver grabs a catch in his area, Ward is quick to end the play."
Let's look at what Ward will bring specifically to his new team.
This is Ward's best place to play, and it's evident that this is what the 49ers saw when making this pick. If you're planning to have a nickel defender on the field for half of your defensive snaps or more, he'd better be able to time his releases off the ball, follow and adjust to option routes, and flow quickly from the seam outside to curl/flat responsibility, or inside to cover the slot slant. Ward does it all, and at a very high level. Where he occasionally comes up short is when he's asked to deal with bigger, more physical receivers and tight ends who can box him out; and in the NFL, he'll have those bigger guys to deal with who understand route concepts at an entirely different level. That may be where his "Welcome to the NFL" moments happen. But he's got the flexibility and athleticism to recover in nearly any situation.
In Northern Illinois' 21-14 loss to Utah State in the Poinsettia Bowl, Ward put up five tackles and had an interception. That pick came late in the game when Ward expertly jumped a short route in the red zone, but I was even more impressed with 7:50 left in the first quarter. Quarterback Darell Garretson threw to receiver Travis Van Leeuwen on a drag route across the field, but Ward broke it up with perfect timing and an outstanding legal hit despite the fact that he started off in deeper coverage.
Ward isn't even in the picture when Garretson's preparing to throw the ball, but he's right on point when the catch is about to be made. Slot cornerbacks must play with great speed, but also great accuracy in short areas. Ward does that, but in his case, it's the recovery speed that stands out -- that short-level burst -- and it really benefits him when it's time to cover deeper as a more traditional free or interchangeable safety.
This play came with 4:39 left in the third quarter, and Utah State up 13-7. On this play, Ward is reading run on the backfield razzle-dazzle (Garretson actually starts out in the left outside receiver position before circling in on a reverse), and Van Leeuwen has a 10-yard head start on a deep go by the time Garretson gets the ball and starts to throw it. But Ward closes in on a ball that isn't thrown with optimal velocity, and once again makes a perfect breakup of what would otherwise be a catch. By this time, Van Leeuwen must have been seeing Ward in his nightmares.
The question is whether Ward is a safety in the traditional sense, and the answer is no. As Jim Harbaugh intimated, Ward often plays run fits close to the line, but this is not a strength -- at 5-foot-11 and 193 pounds, he's not a thumper. Ward doesn't wrap well when tackling, and he's blocked out of plays far too easily to be a run-stopping safety. He'll have to make his bones in coverage -- all types of coverage -- and he's prepared to do that for the most part.
Most encouragingly to the team, Ward is a film junkie who appears to be completely cognizant of the areas in which he needs to improve.
“Film plays a big part in it,” Ward told the team's official site in May. “If you don’t have to think on the field, that means you’re playing fast. If you know where you have to be at and you don’t have to think, that’s what you want to do. That’s my advantage. I just want to fly.”
The 49ers will let him do just that -- and sooner than later -- because Jimmie Ward is an optimal example of the NFL's current ideal when it comes to the truly versatile pass defender.