Draft Expert Now Has 49ers Taking Fast, Potential Successor to Captain

Jimmie Ward

Getty Jimmie Ward of the 49ers

The San Francisco 49ers are 23 days away from deciding on who will be their first selection for the 2022 NFL Draft class.

Fans of the ‘Niners have chimed in throughout the offseason — the demands for a cornerback, the plea for edge rush help or how the team should draft a towering wide receiver.

There hasn’t been any chatter of the 49ers gravitating toward taking a safety…until the latest NFL mock draft by veteran ESPN draft expert Todd McShay got released on Tuesday, April 5.

And this defender can be added to the list of fast prospects linked to the 49ers along with Christian Watson of North Dakota State and recently, Kalon “Boogie” Barnes of Baylor.

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Who McShay Picks for the 49ers

McShay has 6-foot, 215-pounder Nick Cross out of the University of Maryland going 61st overall.

“Welcome to the draft, San Francisco! With Jimmie Ward entering the final year of his deal, the Niners might look to the secondary here,” McShay wrote.

Ward isn’t just entering the last season of his three-year, $28.5 million deal with a base salary of $8.9 million for 2022 per Spotrac. He’s also an aging veteran who will be 30 when he returns to the field come the fall.

Cross left Maryland following his junior season. He went on to lead the Terrapins with three picks and two forced fumbles, plus finished second on the team in tackles with 66 (delivered 44 solo stops). Cross added three sacks as well during his final season with the Terps. He went on to earn three consecutive All-Big 10 Honorable Mention nods from 2019 to 2021.

McShay not only likes Cross’s size, but his ability to play multiple spots.

“At 6-foot and 212 pounds, Cross has great size, center fielder speed and plenty of versatility,” McShay wrote.

‘The Bouncer’ of Maryland’s Defense

If opponents ever treated Maryland’s defense as a nightclub, Cross was the bouncer who got physical.

That was according to Lance Zierlein of nfl.com in his draft evaluation of Cross.

“Cross operated as the bouncer of the Maryland defense, playing with the aggression and explosiveness to throw opponents out of the club,” was how Zierlein’s first sentence read in his scouting report of Cross.

Zierlein added “he is a chase player who seeks to make a statement upon impact and has impressive stopping power near the line or as an open-field tackler” while adding “enforcer” as another word to describe Cross’s game.

The safety also shows a knack for attacking from behind — seen here versus Virginia Tech: Other draft analysts caught a glimpse of that closing and exploding ability Zierlein was describing.

Cross took on his share of highly touted draft prospects in the Big 10 — including Ohio State wide receiver Chris Olave, who’s a projected first rounder. Here’s how Cross was able to play him when he drew coverage of Olave:

Staying on the topic of coverage skills, Cross shows his ability to deny six points near the goal line.

Shrine Bowl representative Eric Galko called Cross an early round pick. Finally, there’s this title Cross held at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis during the first week of March:

Other Uncertainties at Safety

While Ward is the primary reason behind why McShay has Cross going to the 49ers, the aging veteran and captain isn’t considered the only person on why the 49ers could consider safety first.

The opposite starter to Ward Jaquiski Tartt remains a free agent. Second-year player Talanoa Hufanga and newly added George Odum from the Indianapolis Colts help provide depth, but are also considered special teams options. Tarvarius Moore helps fill the depth at safety, but that only gives S.F. four options in the middle of the secondary.

Picking Cross gives the 49ers a chance to fill that depth, add some versatility and aggression then potentially give the ‘Niners peace in knowing they have a future successor to Ward.

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