Mock drafts are polluting the airways, but as a Baltimore Ravens fan I want more in-depth analysis about each prospect and how they fit in specifically with this Baltimore team. A tremendous scouting report is all well and good, but the Ravens are most concerned with how each prospect figures into their team-specific roles.
And you should be too.
Hence, the series of scouting reports that I’m going to release covers a range of early-round draft targets and how they could contribute to the Ravens in their rookie seasons.
This one starts with safety Jimmie Ward out of Northern Illinois.
Initially, Ward was being overlooked because of the level of competition he faced in the MAC and was considered a mid-round pick. After scouts spent more time with his film, however, he started to impress and has worked his way into the conversation as a potential first-round pick.
For my evaluations of safeties, I’m going to focus on four things: physical tools, run support, tackling and coverage ability.
Let’s start with the measurables since that’s what everyone loves to fawn over. Ward doesn’t have the hulking frame that many defensive coordinators are looking for as means of copying the big, physical secondary of the Seattle Seahawks.
The 5'11" safety has a relatively slender 193-pound frame, which means that he may have trouble against bigger tight ends and receivers that can box him out.
While he doesn’t have insane speed, the unofficial 4.47 40-yard dash time from his pro day shows that he has plenty of range, and that shows up on film, as he covered a ton of ground for the Huskies defense in 2013.
This is definitely the weaker facet of Ward’s game so he won’t be in the box too frequently in the NFL. He actually reads running plays pretty well and does a great job of setting the edge, but his struggles come when blockers are involved.
He has a tough time navigating through blocks and disengaging once an offensive player has locked onto him. Part of that is because he needs to improve his strength (only nine reps of 225 pounds in the bench press), but it’s also because of poor hand use and unrefined technique.
How much that can be improved remains to be seen, but that’s the only thing that’s holding him back from being a better weapon in run support.
He plays his role very well, however, so if the big men up front are doing their part and eating up blocks, Ward is more than capable of flowing to the football and making plays.
Playing alongside Matt Elam would be a good fit for Ward, since Elam is a very impressive in-the-box safety with the burst and power to break through blocks and blow up running plays in the backfield. Just don’t expect to see that kind of thing from Ward.
This is, of course, a huge part of run support but it gets its own category because tackling is such a necessary skill for an NFL safety being that he's the last line of defense.
Once again, Ward is a nice complement to last year’s first-round pick. Elam plays so fast that he makes big hits quite routinely, but he can be hit-or-miss in the making open-field tackles because of his aggressiveness.
Ward tends to the other side of the spectrum. He is much safer in his approach to bringing a player down as takes great care to ensure proper angles. He also keeps his head up and displays good form by wrapping up.
Because he’s so careful, it sometimes means that he gives up a little more yardage, but it’s rare to see him completely whiff on a tackle. That said, he is more than capable of laying the hurt on a ball-carrier when the moment presents itself:
His excellent angles also make him a very sure tackler in the open field, so he’s not going to give up massive yardage after the catch. Furthermore, he is very quick to read and react with no blockers to muddy the waters and shows great closing speed without overpursuing.
Ward doesn’t make too many “sexy” tackles that will find their way to the SportsCenter Top 10, but he almost always brings his man down.
In the previous three categories, Ward is very solid but doesn’t excite. Fortunately for him, he definitely brings a “wow” factor in pass defense.
For starters, he’s really versatile. In Baltimore, he would probably be playing in deep coverage most of the time, but he was used in so many different ways by Northern Illinois. Their defensive coordinator Jay Niemann broke down Ward’s versatility for Tyler Dunne of the Journal Sentinel:
He was playing in deep zones. He played in underneath zones. He played down as an eighth man in the box. He played man-to-man on slot receivers. He blitzed. I mean, he did everything. While I’m sure they wouldn’t use him that extensively within a system in the NFL, it does show you that he can do a lot of different things.
Ward lined up in the slot very frequently and did a good job in man coverage while displaying his ability to also play press coverage and get physical with receivers at the line of scrimmage. Having two safeties (including Elam) who can cover the slot would be a tremendous luxury for the Ravens and allow them to be more creative with how they design their coverages.
But as I mentioned before, Ward would mostly be used in that Ed Reed role as a deep rover in the Ravens defense, and that’s a perfect fit for him. He’s excellent in deep coverage and would shore up an area that was a big problem for Baltimore last year: defending the deep ball.
His speed helps him in that regard, but it is his instincts and eyes that make him an outstanding center-fielder. He is able to read quarterbacks very well and process where the ball is going. There will obviously be a period of adjustment in the NFL against quarterbacks more adept at pump-faking and looking off safeties, but Ward also possesses the recovery speed to make up for his mistakes.
Moreover, many defensive backs can get to the ball in time, but it is ball skills that separate the great ones. Ward has no problems turning his head around in deep coverage and locating the football, which help him consistently make plays and create turnovers.
Another aspect of his pass coverage that makes him so ready for the professional game is his timing. Rarely is he called for pass-interference penalties. because he always gets to the player at the same time as the ball and he never leads with his helmet or goes high on receivers. As a result, he’s not going to draw flags too frequently in the NFL.
This is the purpose of these Ravens-specific scouting reports. The general consensus on the safety prospects is that Calvin Pryor (Louisville) and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (Alabama) are the two best prospects and only surefire first-round picks, while Jimmie Ward is probably a Day 2 pick.
Pryor may be the better overall player in absolute terms, but Ward is a much better fit for this Ravens defense than Pryor (Clinton-Dix would still be the best choice). The Louisville product is an explosive athlete who makes a lot of great plays in coverage, but he’s very similar to Matt Elam in that he looks more like a strong safety with great coverage skills as opposed to a true free safety.
On the contrary, Ward is definitely made for the center-fielder role and complements Matt Elam very nicely—something noted by B/R’s own draft expert Matt Miller:
Ward’s shortcomings against the run aren’t as damning for the Ravens because Elam is so effective in playing in the box. Meanwhile, Elam won’t be forced to play the uncomfortable role of a single-high safety because that is Ward’s forte.
At this point, it seems more likely that general manager Ozzie Newsome will pull the trigger on Ward in the first round instead of him lasting to them in the middle of the second round, and that’s not as crazy as it seemed at the start of the draft process. Count Josh Norris of Rotoworld as one of the draft experts who feels that way:
The most preferable scenario would be for the Ravens to trade back into the 20s to nab Ward, but he would still be a fine pick at No. 17.
He would come in and run away with the starting FS job, giving defensive coordinator Dean Pees a ball-hawking playmaker in the secondary that will make quarterbacks think twice before throwing in his vicinity.
Note: All heights, weights and combine results are courtesy of NFL.com’s official draft page
Shehan Peiris is B/R's Lead Featured Columnist covering the Baltimore Ravens and a co-host of Ravens Central Radio, a weekly podcast on the Pro Football Central radio network that focuses on all things Ravens-related. For the latest Ravens news, draft analysis and links to episodes of Ravens Central Radio, follow me on Twitter:
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