SANTA CLARA — The 49ers selected defensive back Jimmie Ward from Northern Illinois with the 30th pick in the NFL draft Thursday night.
General manager Trent Baalke and coach Jim Harbaugh might move Ward from safety to cornerback to fill a need on the defense after San Francisco released Carlos Rogers and then saw both Rogers and Tarell Brown join the Oakland Raiders across the bay. Ward could become the team's third cornerback in nickel formations.
The 5-foot-10, 193-pound Ward started all 14 games at strong safety last season, leading his team with 95 tackles — 62 solo — with a 10-yard sack and 10 pass deflections. While starting 39 of 55 games for his career, 12 of those came at left cornerback, so he does have experience playing that spot.
Tramaine Brock is returning for the Niners after receiving a four-year contract extension in November that takes him through 2017.
If healthy, cornerback Chris Culliver will likely play opposite Brock. He is working back after missing the 2013 season because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee sustained during training camp.
Culliver pleaded not guilty last month to misdemeanor hit-and-run charges and felony possession of brass knuckles from a March 28 arrest in which San Jose police say he struck a bicyclist, then rammed a witness' vehicle that was blocking him from leaving until officers arrived.
Baalke certainly hopes Ward can make an immediate impact during the highly anticipated first season at new Levi's Stadium next door to team headquarters. That's been the case with first-round picks in recent seasons since Baalke took over lead draft duties. In 2010, offensive linemen Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati started every game, and 2013 rookie safety Eric Reid immediately became a key defender.
Ward is the first of San Francisco's 11 selections in the draft — and two of the 49ers' biggest needs in this draft were cornerbacks and linebackers.
All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman is recovering from a serious left knee injury suffered in the NFC championship game loss at Seattle in January, while pass-rushing specialist Aldon Smith could face an NFL suspension for a variety of off-the-field issues.
San Francisco saw safety Donte Whitner leave for the Cleveland Browns, but replaced him with Pro Bowler and locker room leader Antoine Bethea.
The 49ers have a pair of second-round picks Friday, at Nos. 56 and 61, and three third-round choices.