Football / Sports

Niners will ask Ward to step into Rogers' shoes

SANTA CLARA, Calif.--Jimmie Ward's daunting task for his rookie season on the San Francisco 49ers: Cover the slot receiver, a role previously held by Carlos Rogers since 2011.

"He showed through the process he can cover in the slot and was used there quite a bit in Northern Illinois' defense," general manager Trent Baalke said Thursday night after drafting Ward 30th overall.

Ward's addition is the latest, needed step in the secondary's overhaul this offseason, seeing how Rogers and fellow starting cornerback Tarell Brown joined the Raiders in free agency.

Besides competing with veterans Eric Wright and Perrish Cox for the nickel role in the slot, Ward will be asked to learn the safety roles, though he's not expected to unseat starters Eric Reid (last year's first-round pick) and Antoine Bethea (a free-agent acquisition from Indianapolis).

The 49ers considered moving up the draft board--five wideouts and four cornerbacks were drafted ahead of them--but gladly sat tight for Ward, who graded well in Baalke's eyes dating to last fall.

"There were lot of teams showing a lot of interest," Ward said, noting he made visits to the 49ers and nine other clubs. "I ended up getting a phone call. It was Coach (Jim) Harbaugh, telling me, 'Are you ready to play?' I was excited."

Harbaugh described Ward as very upbeat and likable when they met at 49ers headquarters a couple of weeks ago.

"He has an instinct to react to plays before anyone else sees it," Harbaugh said.

Ward (5-foot-11, 193 pounds) is coming off March 11 foot surgery, and although that might sideline him into June workouts, he expects to be fully cleared for training camp. Baalke echoed that prognosis for a foot injury Ward overcame to run a 4.45-second, 40-yard dash at Northern Illinois' pro day.

The 49ers allowed the seventh-fewest passing yards in the league last season (221.0 per game), while the Super Bowl-champion Seattle Seahawks ranked first in that category (172.0).

The 49ers yielded one touchdown pass in each of their three playoff games, including a go-ahead score Rogers gave up in the Seahawks' 23-17, NFC Championship win.

Not only must Ward fill Rogers' shoes, he'll also be asked to study the safety spots, perhaps as an eventual replacement for Bethea, who left the Colts after eight seasons to fill Donte Whitner's starting role. Bethea signed a four-year, $21 million deal in March.

A year ago, the 49ers drafted Reid and saw him start every game last season. Meanwhile, their cornerback corps is in flux after the departure of Rogers and Brown.

Tramaine Brock is slated to return to a starting job he secured midway through last season, so vying for that other starting slot are Wright, Cox, Chris Cook and Chris Culliver, who missed last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Culliver's health isn't all that might factor into his bid for a starting job. He was involved in a March car accident and has since pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor hit-and-run and felony weapons charges; a civil suit has also been filed from the incident.

Ward is not a candidate to start outside at cornerback, Baalke said. Instead, gaining command of the nickel spot will be of utmost importance in defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's scheme.

"I take pride because I'm versatile, I can tackle, I can cover, do a lot of things," Ward said. "I'd love to compete for that nickel spot."

Baalke said the nickel back has been on the field over 60 percent of the time the past two seasons, and that's unlikely to change.

Asked if Fangio or secondary coach Ed Donnatell tested his nickel-back knowledge during his visit to the 49ers facility, Ward replied: "Not just nickel, but safety, too. They put me on the board a little bit to describe a couple plays. It was simple. I know football."

Ward said he also visited the Ravens, Colts, Bears, Vikings, Panthers, Saints, Raiders, Cowboys, Texans and Falcons.

"We aren't alone in the thought process," Baalke said. "There was a lot of like in this guy."

While Ward impressed many at the Senior Bowl, Baalke raved about Ward's consistency throughout a seven-interception senior season.

"I don't remember watching a bad game (on film) of him, and that stuck with us," Baalke said.

(c)2014 San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

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