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NIU's Ward picked by San Francisco 49ers in NFL Draft’s 1st round

Northern Illinois safety Jimmie Ward was a late first-round draft pick Thursday and was selected by the San Francisco 49ers with the 30th pick.
Northern Illinois safety Jimmie Ward was a late first-round draft pick Thursday and was selected by the San Francisco 49ers with the 30th pick.

Jimmie Ward is heading to the Bay Area.

In a bit of a shocker, the former Northern Illinois safety was selected by the San Francisco 49ers with the 30th pick of the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft, becoming the second-highest Huskie ever selected. Defensive end Larry English was taken 16th overall by the San Diego Chargers in 2009.

Ward was a three-year starter for the Huskies, and two-time first-team All-Mid-American Conference selection. He finished with 95 tackles, seven interceptions and 10 pass deflections as a senior in 2013, and was named a third-team All-American by the Associated Press.

The crazy thing is, Ward was actually sporting a 49ers hat throughout the draft process, one he received from the team at the NFL Scouting Combine in February. He doesn't remember why he kept wearing it, but said that maybe it was a sign.

“I have no clue. I just ended up putting it on," Ward said during a conference call with the 49ers. "It went with my sweater, it was red with the white and I just ended up putting it on and it matched my NIU sweater."

He was the fourth safety picked Thursday, following Louisville’s Calvin Pryor (Jets, No. 19), Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (Packers, No. 21) and Washington State’s Deon Bucannon (Cardinals, No. 27).

Heading into the draft, Ward was considered the third or fourth-best safety available behind Pryor and Clinton-Dix.

“He’s a football player,” ESPN NFL Draft analyst Mel Kiper said on the ESPN broadcast Thursday night. “Love the kid, didn’t think he’d be a late [first-rounder], thought he’d be an early to mid-two.”

The Mobile, Ala. native joins a team that has made the NFC Championship game each of the past three seasons, coming up short in the Super Bowl two years ago.

The 49ers return pro bowl free safety Eric Reid from last year’s squad, but lost fellow pro bowler Donte Whitner to free agency. Whitner a strong safety who had 63 tackles and two interceptions last season, signed with the Cleveland Browns.

The 49ers also signed veteran safety Antoine Bethea in the offseason. Bethea started all 16 regular-season games for the Indianapolis Colts last year, finishing with 89 tackles and two interceptions.

Ward played in the nickelback spot when the Huskies went to five defensive backs, and that’s a spot ESPN analyst Jon Gruden said Ward could fit in this season out in the Bay Area. San Francisco is expected to be a Super Bowl contender once again. The 49ers, a team Ward said he had a visit with around two weeks ago, are also opening up brand-new Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.

“Basically, I’m going to try and fit in wherever I can fit in," Ward said. "Like I said, I’m versatile, so whatever spot I get, I’m going to try to start. I’m not just going to come in there, I’m a competitor. So, I
want to play. But, there’s a lot I can learn from them guys. Those guys have been there for a
couple years. I know I’m going to come in and I know they’re going to teach me a lot. ”

Ward had foot surgery in early March – he didn't run at the combine due to the injury, but said he should be cleared to play soon.

“I was shooting around OTAs, but it’s probably going to be a little bit later than that," he said. "I want to say probably two weeks, three weeks.”

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