The San Francisco 49ers have made it clear they aren’t taking any chances when it comes to injuries this summer. That’s why is was somewhat surprising when first-round pick Jimmie Ward entered training camp on the active roster and not the NFI list.
After all, Ward missed the entirety of the team’s offseason program while recovering from a Jones fracture in his foot he didn’t know he had until the scouting combine. It’s been said that particular type of fracture might have trouble healing because of a lack of blood flow - so Ward starting on the NFI list - like a slew of other 49ers rookies - seemed like a reasonable precaution to take.
But it’s clear Ward’s foot is no longer an issue. And Ward didn’t waste any time making a good impression. In his first pro practice Thursday he made the play of the day when he made a diving interception of Colin Kaepernick in team drills.
"Like guys say on the sideline, he’s always around the ball," veteran safety Antoine Bethea said. "That’s one thing you’ve seen on film: him in college making plays. And then yesterday making a good interception."
When Vic Fangio and the personnel department evaluated Ward leading into the draft, they saw a player that had experience both on the back end of the defense and a playmaker as a corner. Fangio wasn’t surprised, then, when he saw Ward break up a slant pattern against seven-year player Stevie Johnson in one-on-drills.
"If I keep making plays like that I’m definitely going to be seen and maybe hopefully I’ll get some playing time," Ward said.
But it wasn’t all roses for the rookie in his practice field debut. After spending his time during offseason program rehabbing his injured foot, Ward did the majority of his work in the classroom. Did he carry over his classroom lessons to the playing field in his first practice?
”At times,” Fangio said. “And at times he didn’t.”
The versatility in Ward’s game was attractive to San Francisco coming into the draft, when he was selected with the 30th-overall pick. In traditional sets he was a safety at Northern Illinois. But he also spent time covering the slot, which will be his primary task as a rookie with the 49ers.
Carlos Rogers, tasked with playing the nickel position for the last three seasons, excelled at the position because of his preparation - knowing where he needed to be and where his other defenders were. Without having that same level of experience, the mental aspect of the position will be Ward’s biggest hurdle in winning the nickel job over Perrish Cox.
"That nickel position, as you can tell, over the years in the NFL has become one of the most critical positions not he field on defense," said Bethea. "So it is experience. It’s studying film. It’s knowing what your help is. Once you get more playing time on the field, once he understands the defense more, where he has his help, he’ll be much better."
But as he exhibited in his opener press conference when he first joined the team, Ward doesn’t appear to lack the confidence it takes to be an impact player - which he will need standing 5’11” and weighing just 193 pounds.
"I like him mentally. I think he’s confident without being cocky or arrogant," said Fangio. "I think he knows he has a daunting task ahead of him, that he was put behind the eight ball with no offseason work. I think he’s ready to work. I think he’s very coachable. He’s ready to fight through the growing pains. I think everything about him emotionally and mentally will be on the plus side of his ledger."
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