Northern Illinois safety Jimmie Ward has man-coverage ability, ball skills and plays the game with a physical style. But should Ward be considered a first-round talent at the position?
Let’s take a look at the versatility of the former MAC standout and discuss how his overall skill set translates to the NFL game.
When I talk about “alignment flexibility” in the secondary, I’m looking at prospects that can play multiple roles in the game plan.
Ward told The Kansas City Star at his pro day, "I did a lot of Cover 1 in college. I was in man coverage, and sometimes I was the back safety and sometimes I was the nickel. I just feel like that’s what a lot of people look for.”
Ward (5’11”, 193 pounds) has the athleticism and speed (4.47- and 4.48-second 40 times at NIU pro day) to roll back to the deep middle of the field/deep half while also aligning over the slot or playing down in the run front as a strong safety. That gives coordinators plenty of options to show some creativity in both the base fronts and defensive sub packages (nickel, dime).
Think of Ward as an underneath defender in the sub-packages, where he can align as a nickelback/dimeback in Cover 1 or 2-Man, drop as a zone defender (curl-flat/hook-curl), pressure off the edge and fill versus the run game.
The key here is the versatility Ward brings to the stadium. He can play multiple positions in the secondary because of his skill set, closing speed and lateral movement/transition quickness. That sells from a scheme perspective at the pro level.
Ward can play press-man coverage over a slot receiver versus Posse/11 personnel (3WR-1TE-1RB). He is very active with his hands, physical on the initial jam and shows the ability to slide/mirror to stay in phase (on the hip) versus a “two-way-go” (inside or outside release).
The NIU product will also use what I call a “taxi” technique from a press position. That means Ward can align in press, “inch off” on the release (give ground) and still play to the hip/upfield shoulder of the receiver to put himself in a position to close on the break.
Ward will take some chances with his eyes/leverage and sit low versus the 7 (corner) or outside breaking routes. This forces him to grab/pull within the route stem at times, and it will have to be corrected (or developed) versus pro receivers.
However, Ward does have the ability to play some press inside because of his core technique and footwork on the release. That’s a major plus at the safety position.
Ward had seven interceptions during the 2013 season (11 total during his career) to go along with 10 PBUs (passes broken up). The safety can find the ball in zone schemes, and he will finish at the point of attack when driving to the receiver in man-coverage.
Go back to the game versus Toledo, when Ward intercepted a pass on a deep crossing route. The safety closed to the receiver, secured the upfield shoulder and used his off hand to find the ball, tip it up and finish.
Or look at his interception versus Utah State in the Poinsettia Bowl down in the red zone on the inside seam route. Knowing he had safety help inside/over the top (with a reduced field), Ward played from an outside leverage position, undercut the route and took points off the board. That’s a smart, veteran play at the college level.
I wouldn’t say Ward has top-tier range when breaking from the deep middle of the field, but given his ability to create angles and identify route stems/concepts, the safety is consistently around the football as an underneath defender or playing over the top because he understands the game.
Ward doesn’t have prototypical size at the safety position, but I see the physicality needed to produce in the run front.
The NIU product will flat-foot read versus the run game, fill the gap and tackle at the point of attack. Ward seems to be a competitive player; he will control his angles to close cutback lanes, and he isn’t shy about initiating contact as a second-level defender that is asked to squeeze or reduce the edge.
(Video courtesy of DraftBreakdown.com)
Ward does drop his headgear often to chop/cut down defenders at the knees. While every safety can get in the habit of going low to put ball-carriers on the ground, NFL running backs can run through first contact if you don’t bring your arms.
Ward can get stronger (only nine reps on the 225-pound bench press), and he must show the ability to disengage versus second-level blocks. That will be part of his development when asked to use his leverage/hands to defeat blockers and hold the gap.
But there is no question that Ward will mix it up versus top competition, such as he did against Florida State in the 2013 Orange Bowl (14 tackles) and down at the Senior Bowl this past January.
Special Teams Impact
Ward is the ideal prospect to start or contribute on all four core special teams units (kickoff, kickoff return, punt, punt return) at the NFL level.
Given his straight-line speed and tackling ability, Ward could get down the field as the gunner on punt team, play the R/L 3 or 4 (count outside-in to the kicker) on kickoff coverage, align as a jammer on punt return or win as a front-line blocker on kickoff return.
If you play defensive back in the NFL, then special teams is a part of your job on Sundays. Ward has the skill set to have an immediate impact in the kicking game as a rookie.
Will Ward Come off the Board in the First Round?
I would put Ward in that second tier of prospects at the safety position after Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Louisville’s Calvin Pryor. Those are the two safeties that I see carrying first-round grades at this point of the draft process.
But as I wrote during the first week of NFL free agency, safety is becoming a premium position because of the ability to take away the middle of the field and match up versus the multiple personnel groupings/alignments we see from NFL offenses.
Given the versatility Ward brings to the position, plus the production he put on tape at NIU, there is a real possibility the safety jumps up into the first round this May during the opening night of the NFL draft.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.