The expectations for Jimmie Ward were set well before players arrived for training camp.
Jim O'Neil had no problem telling media during the offseason program that Jimmie Ward was one of his best 11 players. The San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator ultimately decided that he was best suited as a starting cornerback.
Ward, who entered the league as a college safety and then moved to nickel corner, has thrived at his third position in as many NFL seasons.
"I'm starting to get comfortable," the team's 2014 first-round pick explained. "I've been playing three different positions since I've been here, and now everything is starting to settle down."
Even though Ward still dabbles at nickel when the 49ers are in a pinch, the team sees his best fit on the outside. Chip Kelly went as far as to say that Ward is the team's top cornerback on the roster.
The defensive back is second on the team with nine pass breakups despite missing three games due to a quad injury. Three of those PBUs came in the first half of a road game against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 10. Ward did battle with future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald throughout the contest and finished with seven tackles.
"It was sweet," Ward said of the matchup. "Every time you're going against somebody like that, who competes and gives it 100 percent on each play, it helps me to get better. It helps me know what to look for in the next game."
Following the game, Fitzgerald offered Ward his jersey and these words of wisdom:
"Jimmie, I like the way you play, I like the way you bring it each time we meet up," the legendary wideout wrote on the jersey. "That's going to help you the rest of your season. I think you're going to do great."
Ward and the 49ers will travel to Soldier Field in Week 13 for a matchup against the Chicago Bears. When he takes the field on Sunday, it will be nearly the one-year anniversary of his first career interception.
Last season against the Bears, also in Week 13, Ward picked off Jay Cutler and returned it 29 yards for a touchdown. The takeaway helped propel San Francisco to a 26-20 overtime victory.
"I remember watching film and seeing a lot of screens," Ward recalled. "I remember (NaVorro) Bowman calling it out in the game."
If you watch the replay, it's easy to see Bowman signaling to his teammates exactly what was coming – a wide receiver screen toward the right sideline. Ward explained that he was worried Bowman's diagnosis of the play would force Cutler to call an audible.
But Cutler stuck to the play call and sent a quick pass to the right. Ward jumped the route, sprinted towards the goal line and front-flipped into the end zone.
After such a momentous play in his young career, Ward must have the prized game ball in a special place, right?
"No. I never," Ward paused, "I forgot it."
Ward lost control of the ball as he flipped and never went back to collect his personal memorabilia. It wasn't until a postgame phone call with his mom that Ward realized he'd left the ball in the end zone.
"I regret that," Ward said, half laughing. "I have to get another one. Then I'll keep it."
He'll get another chance on Sunday. This time, it will be against Matt Barkley, who is starting under center for the Bears in place of an injured Cutler. Chicago placed Cutler on Injured Reserve on Thursday with a shoulder injury.
It's a golden opportunity for the 49ers to end their 10-game losing streak and claim their second victory of the season.