Yes, the 49ers considered the possibility of trading up – way up – in the 2014 draft to land Odell Beckham.
But after determining the price of doing business to land the explosive wide receiver was too steep, the 49ers held onto their original selection spot at No. 30. There, they selected defensive back Jimmie Ward.
Beckham has proved worthy of the New York Giants’ selection with the No. 12 overall pick from the moment he stepped onto the field. Ward has yet to distinguish himself on a consistent basis, as he saw action in just eight games as a rookie after sustaining a re-fractured foot.
But Ward is coming off the best game of his NFL career while playing 85 percent of the 49ers’ defensive snaps from the nickel back position against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday.
“Basically, I’m feeling comfortable coming off that injury with my foot, being able to run around,” Ward said. “I feel like my breaks are on point. I’m still not perfect with it, but I’m trying to chase it. That’s why I take practice so seriously.”
Ward recorded five tackles and broke up an Aaron Rodgers pass in the end zone as the 49ers held the high-powered Packers offense to a season-low 17 points. He was matched in the slot most of the day against Randall Cobb, who caught five passes for just 44 yards.
On Sunday, Ward will see plenty of Beckham. The Giants line up with three wide receivers for three-quarters of their snaps, and Beckham is most often positioned in the slot.
Ward said he realized while studying to face Cobb that when Rodgers keeps a play alive with his scrambling, Ward had to remain transfixed on Cobb. The moment cornerbacks turn to look back at the quarterback, Cobb breaks off his route and Rodgers finds him.
“That carries over to this game,” Ward said. “Odell gets in the slot and he’s shifty a little bit, but not as shifty as Cobb. I see he has some of the same traits. If it’s s scramble route, he’s going to go the opposite way.
“He (Beckham) goes and gets the ball. He comes back for it. He’s going to get the ball no matter what. If the ball goes out of bounds, he’s still going to catch it. He’s trying to build that rhythm, too. He feels like he’s going to catch any ball that the quarterback throws to him. He’s a feisty player. He’s going to fight the whole game.”
Beckham has quickly become the central figure of the Giants’ passing game for quarterback Eli Manning. In 16 career games, Beckham has 115 receptions for 1,612 yards, figures that rank as the most ever for an NFL player in the first 16 games of his career. Beckham also has 14 touchdown catches.
Beckham and Ward are both listed at 5 foot 11, so Ward is not at a height disadvantage. But Beckham is adept at making leaping catches over defensive backs that are even taller than him. Ward realizes he has to be ready to make aggressive plays on the ball against Beckham.
“Normally, the person who wins the battle is the one who leaves the ground first,” Ward said. “If he beats me off the ground, I got to play to his hands. If I beat him off the ground, I just have to catch the ball and make a play.”
It’s a tough assignment, to be sure. But Ward is certain to be well-prepared for the assignment. The second-year player from Northern Illinois has distinguished himself for his practice habits and attention to detail. Defensive coordinator Eric Mangini said it’s a common practice for Ward to seek out defensive backs coach Tim Lewis on team flights to go over the minutiae of the team’s game plan.
“He’s going to make sure he’s got it all down and you love that about him,” Mangini said. “And then, sometimes you know he’s got it all down, but it’s checking that list off a couple different times. (It's) really, really a great trait from a young player.”
Ward said he is always thinking about his craft – to the point that he will awaken in the middle of the night and wonder about what he needs to do if the opponent runs a certain route combination that he has yet to see on film.
“I just want to know, in case it happens in the game,” Ward said. "The offensive coordinator might not call that play, but if I think about it because it might something that leads to me making a big play in the game.”