SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Armed with 11 picks, including a league-high six in the first three rounds, the San Francisco 49ers were expected to trade up to acquire a receiver or a cornerback.
Instead, they stood pat at No. 30 overall and addressed a key need via an unlikely source. They selected safety Jimmie Ward from Northern Illinois.
Ward (5-foot-11, 193 pounds) joins the 49ers as a potential long-term solution at strong safety, the same position for which the team signed Antoine Bethea at the start of the offseason. Bethea will turn 30 at the start of training camp.
In the short term, the rookie will compete for snaps at nickel corner -- a position that was on the field for roughly 60 percent of the defense's snaps over the past two seasons.
"We're very confident in his cover ability yet very impressed with the way he plays the game physically," general manager Trent Baalke said. "He's a very physical football player. Don't mistake the size for lack of toughness because that's not the case."
Last year in the first round, Baalke orchestrated a trade with the Dallas Cowboys to move up from No. 31 to No. 18 to take another safety, Eric Reid. The former LSU star went on to make the Pro Bowl in his rookie campaign, giving the 49ers a promising young duo at the back end of its defense.
The 49ers lost veteran corners Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown to the Oakland Raiders in free agency, making corner perhaps the team's biggest need in the draft. In taking the versatile Ward, they plan to utilize his physicality and cover skills by playing him in the slot while grooming him to play safety at the same time.
"Those guys need to be able to tackle, need to be able to blitz," Baalke said. "They need to be able to hold up in the box."
Ward's background as a safety will help him as a nickel corner. His ability to play in the box against the run paired with his ball skills could make him a valuable piece of the defense.
"(He is) a playmaker, has an instinct for reacting to plays before anybody else sees them," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "Just a step ahead of the rest of the defense and covers a lot of ground. Covers up a lot of holes."
Ward suffered a fracture in his foot during his final season at Northern Illinois, but it didn't prevent him from starting in all 14 games and leading his team in tackles. Even with the foot injury, Ward ran a 40-yard dash in the 4.4s before having surgery March 11. He likely will miss the team's rookie minicamp and organized team activities but is expected to be fully recovered at the start of training camp. The fracture prevented him from participating in agility drills at the scouting combine.
The 49ers will have veterans Eric Wright and Perrish Cox compete with Ward for the nickel job, Harbaugh said. However, given his first-round status, Ward likely is the front-runner.
"I don't have a timetable on that," Harbaugh said. "But, again, it's a very valued position. We treat it like a starter who plays 60 plus percent of the time."
Ward said on a conference call, "I take pride because I'm versatile, so I take pride in covering, show how versatile I am. I can tackle, I can cover, I can do a lot of things, so I would love to compete for that nickel spot."
At his pro day, Ward ran a 4.47 and jumped 38 inches in the vertical leap, which would have been first and second, respectively, among safeties at the combine. Ward was eager to show off his speed when his team played Kent State, covering running back Dri Archer, who posted a combine-best 4.26.
Many had linked the 49ers to LSU wideout Odell Beckham Jr., who wound up going to the New York Giants with the 12th overall pick. The 49ers had the assets to move up and take Beckham, but ultimately the price was too high, Baalke said after taking Ward.
Without moving up, San Francisco still was able to address one of its pressing needs in the secondary, and it did so without sacrificing mid-round picks. Friday, the 49ers are slated to have two picks in the second round (Nos. 56 and 61 overall) and three picks in the third (Nos. 77, 94 and 100).
With those picks, the 49ers have the flexibility to move up for a number of different players, including some of the talented receivers still available such as Jordan Matthews, Marqise Lee, Davante Adams, Bruce Ellington and Martavis Bryant.