With the incredible depth available in the safety class of the 2014 NFL draft, Ted Thompson and the Green Bay Packers finally have the opportunity to select an impact safety to fill the hole left by Nick Collins' injury and subsequent release in 2011.
That player should be Northern Illinois' Jimmie Ward.
By most accounts, Thompson won't be selecting a safety until Round 2. There are multiple teams who could look to draft a safety in Round 1 ahead of the Packers' pick at No. 21, including the Tennessee Titans at No. 11, Chicago Bears at No. 14, Dallas Cowboys at No. 16 and Arizona Cardinals at No. 20—barring, of course, potential trades.
The possibility of either Ha Ha Clinton-Dix or Calvin Pryor being available at No. 21 overall is slim—borderline negligible for Clinton-Dix. Even if Pryor is available, the Packers have other needs for which a first-round draft pick could be a worthy investment—especially if Alabama's C.J. Mosley is still on the board then.
Given Thompson's general adherence to the best-player-available strategy, it's not ridiculous to imagine him passing over Pryor in Round 1 with an eye toward some of the starting-caliber safeties available in Round 2—such as Jimmie Ward and Terrence Brooks.
Stats paint only part of the picture, but Ward's 2013 season is put into context with those of four of the other top 2014 safety prospects (Clinton-Dix, Pryor, Brooks and Deone Bucannon) in the table below:
|2014 NFL Draft Top Safety Prospects' 2013 Seasons|
|Total Tackles||TFL||INTs||Passes Defended|
|Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (Alabama)||51||3.5||2||4|
|Calvin Pryor (Louisville)||75||5.5||3||4|
|Jimmie Ward (Northern Illinois)||95||2.5||7||10|
|Terrence Brooks (Florida St.)||56||8||2||5|
|Deone Bucannon (Washington St.)||114||4.5||6||1|
Bleacher Report's NFC North Lead Writer Zach Kruse made a compelling case for why Brooks would be a great fit for the Packers, and it's a plus that he's already playing at free safety. But Thompson should have Ward even higher on his draft board.
Despite playing at strong safety for the Huskies, Ward's versatility could easily lend itself to a free-safety role. (And let's not forget that Morgan Burnett has played many snaps at free safety as well, if defensive coordinator Dom Capers wants to get creative). If the Packers decide to use Micah Hyde in a safety/corner hybrid role and in the slot, Ward is adept enough in coverage to cover the perimeter.
Some will of course object that at 5'11" Ward doesn't have the size to serve as the last line of defense against receivers like 6'5" Calvin Johnson. In fact, if Ward were just an inch or two taller he very well may be regarded as a Round 1 prospect.
Unless the Packers were to draft the best safety in this year's class—6'1" Clinton-Dix—or move down a few safety prospects to 6'1" Deone Bucannon, they are likely to end up with a 5'11" player in Pryor, Ward or Brooks anyway. So what makes Ward the best fit?
What the Packers need most out of a safety prospect is a rangy ball hawk who can make plays with his hands. They're less in need of a hard hitter who can come down the hill to play at the line—qualities current safeties Burnett and Sean Richardson both possess. When looking at Ward's past production compared to that of Brooks or even Pryor, it's hard not to feel like he is the answer.
Ward finished his career at Northern Illinois with 319 tackles (including six for loss), two sacks, 30 passes defended and 11 interceptions for 142 yards and a touchdown. Seven of those interceptions, including the one taken back for a score, and 10 of those batted passes came in his senior season, in which he was easily among the nation's best safeties in terms of creating turnovers.
Some of those picks are showcased in the highlight reel below, which demonstrates Ward's quick hands and diagnosis skills—in addition to an energetic doggedness in pursuit. He's a player who really stands out on tape:
Ward's height hasn't inhibited his ability to come away with the ball in contested situations, given the fact that he has a 38-inch vertical jump. He didn't work out at the combine due to a foot injury (from which he is expected to be medically cleared this spring, per Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun), but that vertical jump would have ranked with the best among all safeties.
Nick Collins was also 5'11", and no one seemed to see his height as much of an impediment when he was putting up six, seven interceptions a season, including four for a score over his career. From what he's shown so far, Ward could be a player in the same mold.
Brooks' and Pryor's 2013 stats certainly aren't anything to sneeze at—two and three interceptions, respectively, and a handful of tackles for a loss each—especially when the entire Green Bay safety group didn't produce a single interception in 2013.
But if the Packers want to identify the best potential ball hawk after Clinton-Dix, Ward is at the top of that list. He's a starting-caliber playmaker well suited to a move to free safety.
Especially given Thompson's tendency to draft the best value player on the board, is it more likely he would take the second- or third-best free safety available—or Ward, the highest-rated strong safety who can also play free safety, and land him with the No. 53 selection? That would be an incredible value pick.
In terms of fit, need, value and potential, Ward is the best fit at safety for Green Bay in 2014 if Clinton-Dix is off the board at No. 21 overall.