During his press conference Thursday night, San Francisco 49ers general manager Trent Baalke explained why he felt there was enough value in defensive back
Surprised a few people, why did you make that decision, to hold at 30 first of all, and then take DB Jimmie Ward there?
“Well, we explored a lot of opportunities. The possibility of moving up, we even explored the possibility of moving back, but felt really good about Jimmie through the whole process. From the fall grades on, we had this guy ranked very highly as a football player, and feel he’s a good fit for this team, this organization and what we’re going to ask of him.”
What are you going to ask him to do--?
“Well, I think he showed through the process that he can cover in the slot. He was used there quite a bit in Northern Illinois’ defense. He also showed down at the Senior Bowl that he can do that. So, we’re very confident in his cover ability, yet very impressed with the way he plays the game physically. He’s a very physical football player. Don’t mistake the size for a lack of toughness because it’s not the case. He’s energetic. He’s got a short memory and a highly competitive young man that’s kind of beat the odds his whole career. So, we’re excited to have him.”
Started all 14 games his senior year as a strong safety. Was it kind of more of a traditional strong safety position at Northern Illinois?
“Well, if you look at the film, like I said, he plays a lot in the slot. He’s used quite a bit down there covering. He’s lined up all over the place. He’s lined up in the slot, he’s played outside a little bit, played in the free safety position and also played in the strong safety position. Very versatile player and a very smart football player.”
How important is physicality for a slot cornerback in your defense?
“Very. Those guys need to be able to tackle. They need to be able to blitz. They need to be able to hold up in the box. And you look at the difference between [Tampa Bay Buccaneers S Dashon] Goldson and [Cleveland Browns S Donte] Whitner. Goldson was a little taller, a little bigger. Whitner, a little shorter. Dynamite comes in all packages. And this is a young man that’s proven that he’s been able to hold up physically, play a physical style of football and also have the rare traits to be able to go down and cover. So, there’s just a lot of versatility to his game, and the fact that he can play it physically and play it mentally is extremely important.”
Where did he rank in college football as far as guys who played the slot, played the nickel back position?
“Rank for who?”
For you guys. How did you view him among all the guys in this draft to be able to push inside and play the nickel?
“Do you honestly think I’d tell you what my board looked like?”
I would expect you to.
“Wrong, you won’t get that answer. Highly. Obviously, we had him ranked very high, Matt [Maiocco]. In order to make that pick at 30, we had him ranked very highly at that position.”
You said that, and head coach Jim Harbaugh talked too, about his tackling style. The way he can play physically as well as mental. Sounds almost like you are describing Whitner that way? Is that a fair comparison or not?
“Yeah, I mean in terms of – they’re totally different players, Mark [Purdy], to be honest with you. Jimmie’s a guy that probably has more cover ability. A guy that can line up as a corner, in the slot and cover guys, and where Whit[ner] was also a very physical presence. So, they’re a different style of player. ”
Would you compare his style to anybody else?
“Well once again, what he’s going to be asked to do is he’s going to be asked to A) compete for a spot, right? We’ve got some good football players on this team that are going to be competing for that nickel role as well. He’s going to come in we’re going to expect him to learn the nickel position. We’re going to expect him to learn the safety position and how he fits into the scheme, that’s going to be up to the coaches and what they feel is going to ultimately be his best fit. But we’re very confident in his ability to cover, work inside and also play the safety positions, both strong and weak.”
With so many teams running three wide receiver sets, is that nickel position evolving, in a sense where, instead of just sticking a corner there, you want maybe a guy with the skills of a safety to come in and play the run? Is that position evolving?
“Well, if you just look at last year statistically, the last two years, our nickel’s been on field over 60 percent of the time. So, that’s a starter in our opinion. That’s a guy that’s going to get a lot of play time. And he’s going to get an opportunity to compete for that spot.”
When will he be able to join the team as he recovers from his foot?
“Yeah, we have no concern over his foot. He’ll be full-go with training camp. He’s going to come in, he’ll be in here tomorrow, and that’ll be up to the doctors and everything else. But very confident that he’s going to be able to get going fairly soon, and start to work through the offseason program and be fully, 100 percent for training camp.”
When will he be able to just report here and be in the building?
For the duration?
“Yeah, he’ll be able to be here for the duration.”
I was going to ask, do you want your outside guys, will they be in competition to be the nickel as well, like Oakland Raiders CB Carlos Rogers did? Or do you want them to just to concentrate on outside and have a group of guys competing at nickel solely?
“Well, that’s a good question, but probably a better question for the coaches. But in terms of versatility, you want your guys to be able to do as much as possible. So, he’s a young man that’s not probably going to be competing for outside playing time, he’s going to be competing for that nickel spot and safety. And the rest of the corners will be competing for every spot.”
You mentioned pondering the possibility of trading back. How seriously did you think about that and I guess as one of the factors, you weren’t sure how much longer Ward was going to be there?
“Yeah, we had concern. We had a couple inquiries about the possibility of trading back and just didn’t feel good about it. This is a young man that we felt really good about. We’re confident in the pick in terms of if we were sitting at 30, and this young man was there, we felt the value was there.”
Looking at the wide receivers that are left in this draft after the first round, do you feel pretty good that there’s going to be a lot of options for you there in the second and third round?
“We feel good about the wide receiver corps all the way through the draft. We feel there’s going to be value to be had at every level. And that is one of the positions that we feel, or have felt all along, that had some depth to it.”
I’ll just try this, but so many reports linked you to New York Giants WR Odell Beckham at 12, which can be pretty steep as far as a trade up. Can you offer any inside if that was a person of interest?
“We certainly liked him as a football player, no doubt about it. But as you mentioned yourself, the price of doing business when you’re trying to move from 30 up in to near the top 10 or close to the top 10 becomes pretty stiff. And you’re giving up a lot of football players to go get one football player. And if you look at history that sometimes or a lot of times works against you.”
Jimmie was saying he visited about eight or nine teams, did you fear that somebody was going to hop out or did you figure that they had him down their boards?
“Well, I think as you guys do a little more research you’re going to find out, going back to Matt’s first question, we aren’t alone in the thought process of this young man. There was a lot of like for this guy. As you mentioned, he took eight visits, he’s a guy that a lot of people got their eyes on at the Senior Bowl. You don’t get invited to the Senior Bowl out of Northern Illinois unless you’ve caught the attention of a lot of people. So, he’s a young man that people had on their radar for the whole process, from the beginning of the fall on.”
Will he be included in any special teams?
“We hope so. All of our guys, we’d like them to get out there and compete. What better way to compete and show your competitiveness than to lineup on special teams regardless of when you were drafted.”
Was there anything said during the interviews that stood out that made you feel even better about picking him?
“Well, when we had him in here and visited with him, he’s just a young man that, and you’ll get a chance to meet him like I said tomorrow, he’s got energy. He’s a bright-eyed guy, he’s got a great smile, he’s very confident, the stage isn’t going to be too big for him and if anything we’ll probably have to pull the reigns back a little bit. This guy loves to compete. He loves the game of football. As we said earlier, he shows that in the way he plays and the intelligence that he plays with.”
The MAC obviously isn’t a joke conference, but sometimes guys from smaller schools are focused on how they played against elite competition. I know he played in the Orange Bowl, but were there a couple of games that stood out to you where he played that top competition and played well?
“I think if you look at the film, he plays well week in and week out. I don’t remember watching a bad game on him. That’s something that really stuck with us and it stuck with our scouting department as they were going through the fall, because one of the things you do when you get into draft meetings in the position that I’m in is you ask. What game stands out? What game do you want me to put on for the room to watch? Both guys that had looked at him in the fall said, ‘Pick one, he’s the same guy week in and week out.’ And that’s something that you learn to respect as an evaluator, because a lot of times that isn’t the answer that you get. You get, ‘Well, you’re going to have to look at him in this game or this game if you want to like him. Don’t look at him in this game if you don’t want to.’ This is a guy that just pick a tape. I feel pretty good about that that he’s been the same guy week in and week out.”
Did you see him play in person at all?
“Have I seen him? I did see him play in person, yes.”
At the Senior Bowl?
“No. It was in Detroit. I think it was Bowling Green game in Detroit.”
The conference championship game?
“I think it was the conference championship game, yes.”
Obviously his body changes when he gets older, but is it going to be a sticking point for him to change his body, to add some weight as he gets older?
“Well, I think if you look at some of the great safeties, go take a look at [S] Ed Reed’s card. And I’m not comparing this young man to Ed Reed. But when you talk about height, weight and speed and stuff like that and you start looking at all of the safeties that have played and have played very well at this level, his card stacks right up in there. Are we going to ask him to gain a little weight and get stronger? We ask that of all of our guys.”
He ran on that bad foot at his Pro Day he was saying.
“Yeah, and I believe he made a quote at some point the reason he ran was he wanted to prove that he could run in the 4.4s with a bad foot. Because if you look at him against [Kent State RB] Dri Archer, a guy that was a confirmed 4.19, he ran step-for-step with him and picked off a pass in the end zone. He did it because he’s a competitor and wanted to show that he could run.”
Do you take that into account that with a good foot those numbers would be even better?
“Once again, I go back to the film and we do as evaluators, you go back to the film, the guy can either run on film or he can’t. And we felt very confident that he could run on film. Do I believe he’s faster than a 4.48? Yeah, I think he would be. How fast is he? Fast enough to get it done.”
Did it factor in that he wanted to compete with an injury?
“We love competitors. This is a guy that you’re going to get that. Week in and week out you’re going to get a guy that loves the game of football, loves to compete, not afraid to get beat and is going to keep coming. In this game that means something.”
As you look down the future and down the road with him, is it possible that he could be a starting cornerback in the NFL, for this team?
“I think I’ve said that earlier, Matt, that we aren’t looking at him outside as a corner. I’m not saying that he can’t. We don’t put any restrictions on players around here. The sky’s the limit right? Dream big. This is a young guy that initially we expect him to come in, and as a young guy you can’t learn the safety position, the nickel position and the outside. You’ve got to concentrate somewhere. So, initially, he’s going to be focused on the nickel position and the safety position.”