2016 NFL Draft: Illinois' Jihad Ward Poised to Continue His Rise Up Draft Boards

Eric Galko@OptimumScoutingFeatured ColumnistFebruary 3, 2016

FILE - In this Oct. 25, 2014, file photo, Illinois defensive end Jihad Ward encourages the crowd during an NCAA football game against Minnesota in Champaign, Ill. Ward, the teams best returning player, will miss the first two games this season after he suffered a knee injury that required surgery. Illinois hosts Kent State in their season opener on Sept. 4, 2015. (AP Photo/Bradley Leeb, File)
Bradley Leeb/Associated Press

Throughout the draft season, there is much discussion over “winners” and “losers” throughout the process. While that’s generally overblown and not indicative of how NFL scouting departments function, there can at times be prospects who surprisingly rise in the minds of evaluators after a portion of the draft process.

Illinois' defensive lineman Jihad Ward certainly maximized his 2016 Senior Bowl opportunity, impressing physically at his weigh-in and throughout the week of practice. Entering the week with zero buzz, Ward left Mobile, Alabama, forcing scouts to re-evaluate his game film and see if his flashes at the Senior Bowl could be more than just flashes at the NFL level.

Upon reassessing Ward after his Senior Bowl impression, the position-versatile defensive lineman showcased plus-interior strength coupled with explosiveness on the perimeter to quietly emerge as one of the best top-100 upside talents in the 2016 NFL draft. And his rise may not be done yet.

A starting receiver and defensive end in high school, Ward went the junior college route before working his way to the FBS. He left the JUCO level as the sixth-best college prospect in the country, opting to sign with Illinois. Over his two-year career at Illinois, Ward never made an All-Big Ten team and finished with just 4.5 career sacks.

But Ward was destined to be a better professional than college player, offering Illinois' defensive line versatility it couldn’t maximize, core strength it didn’t entirely exploit and explosiveness off the edge it couldn’t develop. 

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Despite a less-than-stellar college career, Ward’s Senior Bowl proved his flashes could be more than just that, and his potential was still remarkably untapped. 

Position Versatility: Tackle and End

Measuring in at the Senior Bowl at 6’5", 296 pounds with an 81 3/8" wingspan, Ward’s body type fits exactly what NFL teams covet for a developing defensive lineman. Looking the part of an NFL 5-technique, Ward’s experience in college at both defensive tackle and end aids in his transition to the pro level.

As a pass-rusher, Ward is both able to extend and drive on the interior against guards and inside-leveraged tackles, as well as bend around the perimeter when playing outside. That versatility both encourages teams about his NFL transition as well as highlights his still-untapped potential to do either on a consistent basis. 

On the interior, Ward (No. 17) extends in isolation with great initial and consistent push, transitioning his hand positioning at the start into a persistent pushback thanks to a powerful lower half and flexibility to bend at the knees and keep his power. Notice in the play below how Ward maintains leverage throughout his rush, yet his decision to stay linear forces the quarterback to remain in the pocket since Ward can adjust to either side of himself to finish the sack.

Illinois vs. Ohio State

And when playing end, where Ward saw most of his college sacks, he displays the ability to sink, extend and bend around to attack the quarterback. While the Penn State left tackle was among the worst in the Big Ten last year, notice how quickly Ward attacks off the edge, adjusts his lower half as he bends and maintains speed in his quarterback pursuit.

Illinois vs. Penn State

The flip-side concern for Ward’s versatility, however, is his relative inexperience and technique refinement at either position. On the inside, Ward is erased by double-teams or trap blocks too easily to be reliable on run downs early in his career. And on the perimeter, outside of “running the arc” on the edge, Ward doesn’t offer much in terms of developed initial or counter-rushes.

Run Defense: Interior Strength

Despite possessing a “leggy” body type, Ward offers a sudden ability to sink low, generate force and maintain balance through his upper-half explosiveness on the interior. With his NFL future likely requiring at least part-time work inside the tackle box, Ward’s initial leverage win coupled with his wingspan will need to continue to win him battles on the inside.

Ward struggled with double-teams at times in college, exposing too much of his midsection and allowing combo blocks to force him off the initial holding point. But when he had the opportunity to work one-on-one on the inside, especially against zone-blocking schemes, Ward highlighted his leverage strengths. 

As in the play below, Ward repeatedly was able to hold his ground and keep his blocker at bay with his inside shoulder. He splits a subtle double-block and maintains vision on the ball-carrier, using his plus-wingspan to finish the tackle despite the run working away from his initial position. It’s flashes like this that, once he’s able to correct his combo-block woes, can allow him to emerge as a high-quality interior run defender. 

Illinois vs. Ohio State

Pass Rush: Explosiveness on the Perimeter

As highlighted earlier, Ward is able to run the arc on left tackles with remarkable bend and quickness for a 6’5", nearly 300-pound defensive lineman. But for Ward’s future as a pass-rusher, his explosiveness will be more indicative of his production than his ability around the edge.

While he didn’t get the sack, his pursuit on the play below highlights his explosive potential when his motor is in full gear on the edge. His first two steps get him immediate and balanced penetration in pursuit of Christian Hackenberg. It requires three blockers to slow down his pursuit, and even then his length nearly allows him to reach through blockers to finish the sack.

Illinois vs. Penn State

One of the concerns that began to show through Ward’s film evaluation was a bit of an inconsistent motor throughout the game. As a pass-rusher, Ward seemed to labor a bit and take non-third-down passing downs off. And in the run game, Ward’s tendency to be erased by double-teams was partially due to a lack of effort in keeping his pad level low and working through blocks.

Underappreciated at Illinois, Ward’s Senior Bowl opened plenty of eyes for evaluators. His college film flashes first-round upside but highlights his concerns and staunch need for development.

But Ward’s rise from forgotten at Illinois to showing flashes in Mobile isn’t a finished story yet. The ideally-built, highly-athletic defensive lineman should certainly impress at the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine. And more importantly, as NFL teams bring him in for private workouts in March and April, his natural position across multiple schemes can finally be realized by individual teams. 

His sudden rise in the draft process has his value and intrigue at an all-time high, but NFL teams aren’t quite sure how they’ll use him yet. As the 2016 draft process continues and they begin to peg Ward’s position in their specific scheme, don’t be surprised if Ward begins to receive top-50 overall talk among evaluators.


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