SANTA CLARA -- The NFL draft is overrated in so many ways. But it is never overrated in this way: The first round is the ultimate truth serum.

After all the malarkey that's been tossed around for months, with very rare exceptions, every team makes a pick based on what it believes to be its weakest area.

At 49ers headquarters Thursday, where everyone waited well over three hours for the team to make the night's 30th selection, here's what the truth serum poured out of the bottle:

A safety of relatively small stature who likes to run onto the field and explode.

Jimmie Ward, a 5-foot-11, 193-pound defensive back from Northern Illinois, did a brief phone interview after his selection by the 49ers. In several answers, he mentioned how much he likes to hit people hard.

Trent Baalke, the 49ers general manager, confirmed this.

"Dynamite comes in all packages," Baalke said.

Coach Jim Harbaugh, meanwhile, said Ward "has a knack for making the appropriate tackle" and described Ward's tackling style as "pretty violent" and "pretty vicious." Which made Harbaugh smile.

"You see the instincts and the traits come out quite a bit," Harbaugh said. "He can be a violent cut-tackler. He is a presence when he's tackling ball-carriers."

So what does the 49ers draft truth serum tell you? It tells you the team permitted cornerback Carlos Rogers -- who played the nickel back position -- to leave the team as a free agent because the 49ers believed a replacement in the draft could be there, to fill what they must have considered a soft spot.


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It also tells you that, compared to Rogers, Baalke thinks Ward can make life more miserable for opposing receivers -- or tight ends or running backs -- who line up in the slot.

To a lesser extent, the truth serum also revealed the 49ers believed there was enough defensive secondary talent in this year's draft that they did not fret too much when cornerback Tarell Brown also left the roster. So you might look for another defensive back selection as the draft plays out over the next two days.

But on Thursday, they began by tabbing Ward. At Northern Illinois, he spent many downs playing the nickel position. And Ward was eager to try anything the 49ers wanted when the team spoke with him during a visit to Santa Clara two weeks ago. Any concerns about Ward coming from a Mid-American Conference school rather than a BCS program were put to rest quickly.

"This stage is not going to be too big for him," Baalke said. "If anything, we'll probably have to pull the reins back a little bit."

In today's football, of course, making explosive contact can be a double-edged sword.

With the NFL and NCAA putting emphasis on prevention of concussions, many tacklers who loved to produce mega-collisions have found it difficult to adjust. Ward said that wouldn't be a problem with him.

"I don't go for the big hits all the time," he said. "I try to be a smart tackler."

Ward said he was ejected from one game last season for a questionably brutal hit. But conference officials later determined it amounted to legal contact. So there was no suspension. Ward said he had no other personal foul penalties following that play.

If that's correct, it definitely demonstrates intelligence. One pre-draft scouting report mentioned Ward has some maturing to do and that his attitude might rub some people the wrong way. It's probably easy to over-swagger as a big fish at smaller-pond Northern Illinois than it would be at a BCS program. But at least there are no flashing red lights of arrests or suspensions on his college off-field transcript, a must for the 49ers in this year's draft after their recent spate of player arrests.

In a good way, Ward carried a chip on his shoulder through college. He comes from the heart of Southeastern Conference territory in Alabama. He is from Mobile. That's the same hometown as former Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell (yikes). But unlike Russell, who was recruited heavily and fawned over to the extreme, Ward was ignored by SEC schools and seethed about that a little bit through his four years at Northern Illinois.

Most important, he seethed consistently. When Baalke asked his scouts what game video to watch of Ward, the answer was: Pick any of them.

That tells you something. Ward has been working hard every week of his college career to become a pro.

He didn't ease his way through some games and then turn on the switch at the Senior Bowl or at his pro day workout to try and make an impression.

You never know what to expect from a rookie. But it sounds as if Ward is determined to give the truth serum a nice biting taste.

Read Mark Purdy's blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/purdy. Contact him at mpurdy@mercurynews.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/MercPurdy.

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Niners select a safety with first-round draft pick for second year in row. PAGE 6.