2014 NFL Draft Close-Up: Northern Illinois Safety Jimmie Ward

Jimmie Ward made his presence felt all over the Northern Illinois secondary. And upon reflection, the recognition he’s earned leading up to May’s draft has been well-deserved. (USA Today Sports Images)

NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas

In the coming weeks and months leading up to the 2014 NFL draft, NEPatriotsDraft.com will profile college prospects that potentially fit the needs and draft seating of the New England Patriots. In this eighth installment, we will take a closer look at the film behind Northern Illinois safety Jimmie Ward.

Instinctual and determined.

Over the last four years, that was Northern Illinois safety Jimmie Ward in a nutshell.

Whether he was lined up as a special-teamer, a cornerback, a nickelback or a safety for the Huskies, Ward took the same approach to each play: make it count. The Mobile, Ala., native was able to do so dating back to his freshman season in 2010, when he participated all 14 games to block a school-record three punts, return one for a touchdown and record 21 tackles, a forced fumble and a pass deflection as a reserve safety.

Ward was named Northern Illinois’ Special Teams Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year. And that momentum carried over on defense in 2011, as the sophomore logged work in all 14 games once again, starting 12 as a defensive back. He went on to tally 100 total tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, a sack, an interception, four pass deflections, a forced fumble as well as another blocked kick, garnering second-team All Mid-American Conference acknowledgement in the process.

In 2012, Ward took another step forward, receiving first-team All Mid-American Conference honors in result. Despite missing one contest due to injury, the junior led the Northern Illinois defense with 104 tackles, one tackle for loss, three interceptions, 11 pass deflections and a forced fumble over 13 starts at safety. His best, however, was yet to come.

This past fall, the senior started all 14 games to register 95 tackles, 2.5 for loss, a sack, seven interceptions, 10 pass deflections, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery on his way to becoming a first-team All-MAC selection, a third-team All-American and a Jim Thorpe Award semifinalist.

Ward’s collegiate career ended with a 21-14 loss to Utah State in the Poinsettia Bowl. But an unceremonious finish could not derail the perception on the former Alabama 6A All-State honorable mention. He outdid expectations. And leading up to May’s NFL draft, expectations are that he’ll be a first- or second-round draft choice.

The 5’11”, 193-pound do-it-all safety may lack in terms of physical stature and program pedigree, but he doesn’t leave much to be desired on the football field. Not only is Ward an asset on punt and field goal units, but he is an asset in pass coverage and run defense. And that well-rounded skill set could very well interest an NFL organization like Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots.

Now it remains to be seen if Ward – who wasn’t cleared for drills at the NFL Scouting Combine yet participated in his pro day before undergoing surgery to repair a Jones fracture – will be available at pick 29 overall. It also remains to be seen how teams view him among the likes of Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Louisville’s Calvin Pryor. But what can be seen is his film.

Courtesy of the folks at DraftBreakdown.com, here is a closer look at No. 15.

A Cerebral Yet Aggressive, Closing Tackler

When you look at Ward, you see a thin, wiry football player. And when it comes to how that frame translates, you see more of a cornerback or a receiver than a safety.

Due to his size disadvantage at the position, Ward is susceptible to being bulled and even decleated when approaching ball-carriers in the run or screen game. But as someone who’s used to playing bigger than his build, Ward finds ways to compensate.

An instinctive defender who trusts his eyes pre- and post-snap, Ward locates his assignment while also watching the backfield. He takes that recognition to the next phase by firing downhill or across the field, depending on the direction of the run, screen or check-down.

He doesn’t run straight at his target; he stays ahead of the blocks or behind them in preparation for the cutback, taking proper angles to his intended destination. From there, his short-area burst and 4.47 40-yard dash speed takes over. Ward is sudden in redirecting in or around blocks, and he has good hand use to sweep at engagement before squaring his shoulders and lowering his hips.

There are moments where he loses control, however. He delivers with force you wouldn’t expect from a player of his stature; but on the other side of the coin, that force can also see him sail under or around ball-carriers, which can lead to overrun plays.

Nevertheless, more common than those miscues are low, wrap-up tackles that halt runners and even passers during blitzing situations. Ward is a form tackler who keeps his head up and facilitates his 31-inch arms like vice grips to drive through contact.

This was exemplified in his final college game against Utah State on Dec. 26.

On the second play from scrimmage, the Aggies assembled in a zero-back, one-tight end spread and motioned 5’7”, 151-pound wide receiver Bruce Natson across the face of Northern Illinois’ 4-3 front.

It was an end-around sweep that would pull the left guard to the strong side as the four other route-runners stalk-blocked the inside. It was a setup that Ward – positioned as the single-high safety between the hashes – identified and reacted to as No. 9 left the numbers. 

Ward leaned into the play, sprinting to the far third of the field while his fellow defensive backs awaited the movement of their receivers.

Quarterback Darell Garretson exchanged with Natson, and the blocks ensued, which meant 5’11”, 180-pound “Z” receiver Travis Reynolds was heading for Ward.

The split end – serving as the last man in a string of blockers – evened his stance to contain the fast-approaching Ward. The senior NIU safety had locked onto the football and taken a direct route to the front of the play. But nearby, he had company in cornerback Marlon Moore and linebacker Terrell Harris.

As Natson crossed the 20-yard line, his upfield block dove low to take out Ward.

It was to no avail. Ward left his feet to dodge the collision and stuck the landing in stride.

In turn, he found himself within four yards of his opponent, while Moore occupied the edge.

And as Natson pivoted back to avoid the corner, the safety met him.

Ward’s preemptive effort, chase, and vision through blocks ended the play with a violent wrap-around tackle. It was a gain of two.

Ward plays with patience and aggressiveness, and the two are rarely linked in the same sentence. He is wise in his decision making, but he is also rapid in his pursuit powerful in his tackling.

These characteristics suggest he could play strong safety at the next level, even if the scale or weight room suggests otherwise.

A Smooth Yet Physical, Rangy Outfielder

There’s something to be said for a player who can excel as a back-end safety, a Cover-1 closer, a press-man corner, an underneath nickel and as an umbrella in the box. Ward is interchangeable in each of those areas, and that should go a long way towards him carving a role on his next team.

Versatility is Ward’s calling card. It’s why many in attendance thought he was both the top safety and cornerback during Senior Bowl week in his hometown of Mobile.

It starts with his wit and responsiveness. Ward understands route concepts, the obligations of his coverage, and when he can make his move. After the snap, he can extend and jam receivers out of their routes while also showcasing fluid hips, an efficient backpedal and quick trigger to plant and propel with little wasted movement.

Ward transitions well through the responsibilities of his assignment. He doesn’t hesitate or get turned around; he trusts what he sees, which helps him delegate between multiple patterns.  And as the quarterback evaluates his progressions and readies to throw, the defensive back reads their eyes and body language to stay in position down the field.

Ward is comfortable in open space and in identifying the play’s developments. Yet conversely, he is also anticipatory; he’ll stay just far enough away from a receiver to get the signal-caller’s attention. This deception allows him to jump and undercut routes as he faces back to the line of scrimmage.

From that stage forward, Ward illustrates an ability to enforce the catch point. He can lower his shoulders and blow up intended receivers more prolifically than you’d expect from his lean build. But he also illustrates the range to be a ball hawk. And over the last four seasons in DeKalb, 11 interceptions and 30 pass break-ups were the byproduct.

Ward tracks the ball down arguably better than any other in the 2014 class. He uses his agility, 38-inch vertical and 10 1/2-inch broad jump to do so, high-pointing the ball down the sideline or leaping up to chop imminent receptions down.

He knows which buttons to press to keep the play alive, too.

That was seen against Toledo on Nov. 21.

With 8:55 remaining in the opening quarter, quarterback Terrance Owens and the Rockets dispersed in “11” personnel for a play-action zone read. Within it, the inline tight end was set to jailbreak out of his block towards the sideline; the tailback was set to fake the handoff and draw defenders; and the trips right was set to run conflicting corner, post and comeback routes, respectively.

The Huskies defense corresponded with the 4-3, shipping Ward out to monitor 6’4”, 190-pound wideout Alonzo Russell underneath due to the safety help over top.

He stood 10 yards off.

As the shotgun snap was harnessed, Owens extended his arms for the halfback fake.

Across the line, Ward didn’t bite; he bent his knees and sidestepped back with an open stance, occupying the two deep patterns with the shell behind him.

Yet as the post route broke, Ward’s off-coverage appeared to accentuate a window down the left hash.

The QB saw it, and so did Ward. His open stance allowed him to change gears and overlap his hips. At that juncture, his backpedal turned into a lateral beeline as he shifted his weight and tilted his front shoulder towards the receiver.

Owens released the ball. And it looked as if there was no coverage in sight.

In a split second, though, Ward was no longer out of the picture. He was no longer trailing, either.

He had cut the corner, jarring into Russell at the apex of the play. But he also had the awareness to split the receiver’s arms with his own one, tipping the ball back into the air.

Once it was in the air, he never lost sight of it. He fell into it to record a one-handed basket catch.

It wasn’t only an interception; it was a play that very few could have made.

Ward glides through the secondary from one sideline to the other, regardless of his starting point. He takes clean angles to get where he’s heading. And once he’s there, he has the acceleration, toughness, length and ball skills to create opportunities.

Outlook

Whether he’s on the field goal, punt block or defensive unit, the Huskies defensive back is never out of a play. He’s sound athletically and fundamentally. And he plays with the mentality to mitigate his less-than-ideal size and strength.

He can add a dynamic in the slot, on the outside, in the box or in the deep half.  He can be as impactful versus the run as he is versus the pass. He could be a first-day pick this May as a result.

Even though the MAC is not the SEC, Jimmie Ward is proof that smaller conferences can produce immense talent.

Tags: 2014 NFL Draft, Draft Close-Up, Film Breakdown, Jimmie Ward, Northern Illinois

37 Responses to “2014 NFL Draft Close-Up: Northern Illinois Safety Jimmie Ward”

  1. MaineMan says:

    I see Ward as being a slightly more athletic version of Earl Thomas and precisely what BB wants in a safety – a guy who can play up or deep equally well and cover like a CB – and it’s also what he’s developed McCourty into. Another thing that BB has been trying to accomplish (IMO) since about 2009 is to have TWO such safeties who can move around interchangeably – moving away from the old-school FS-SS division and absorbing the classic SS/LB hybrid role into the LB corps.

    IOW, I think Ward is a perfect fit for BB’s vision. Unfortunately, I doubt very much that he falls past KC at #23.

    The other side of all this – the “coverage LB” part – I think could be owned by Shazier.

    Shazier is now frequently ranked in the 10-20 range on the more credible big boards, but I’m not seeing any of the handful of teams with LB as one of their critical needs (who are drafting ahead of the Pats) taking Shazier over Barr, Mack or Attaochu (or even Dee Ford). If he gets past the Saints at #27, he could fall into the 2nd round where the Pats might even be able to take him after a trade-down (though there’s some risk that the ‘Skins could take him at #34).

    Anyway, with Shazier, the continued quality coverage support that Collins showed toward the end of 2013, some further development from Harmon and some occasional role-switching among Browner-Ryan-Arrington, I think the strong safety *role* could be resolved in the aggregate. So, I don’t think it needs to be resolved by one guy who appears to be a classic, achetype (Harrison) strong safety who can step in and start, and I don’t think there’s a guy like that in this draft class anyway.

  2. Dan Sullivan says:

    Patriot Predictions

    Free Agents
    Will Smith DE Saints
    James Anderson OLB Bears
    Uche Nwaneri G Jaguars
    Owen Daniels TE Texans

    Draft
    1 C.J Fiedorowicz TE Iowa
    2 Scott Crichton DE Oregon St.
    3 Anthony Johnson DT LSU
    4 Bryan Stork C Florida State
    4 Matt Patchan OT Boston College
    6 Rajion Neal RB Tennessee
    6 Damien Williams RB Oklahoma
    7 Daniel Sorenson SS BYU

  3. Dan Sullivan says:

    I have to go to work but regarding two in my free agent draft Brown had fumble problem
    which am thinking the Pats can do like they did with Ridley on fumble problems.

    Also with Ingognito we all know people that have needed help and have gotten it and changed there lives all know with Incognito is that he has gotten Professional help with
    his problems.

  4. Dan Sullivan says:

    Mark Cuban on comments about NFL he should be most concerned of NCAA Basketball
    which is a much better game than the NBA.

    Patriots Free Agents
    Andre Brown RB Giants
    Richie Incognito G Dolphins
    Kyle Cook C Bengals
    Parys Haralson LB Saints

    Draft
    1 Taylor Lewan OT Michigan
    2 Stephen Tuitt DE Notre Dame
    3 Arthur Lynch TE Georgia
    4 Xavier Gimble TE USC
    4 Josh Mauro DE Stanford
    6 Bruce Gaston DT Purdue
    6 John Martinez G USC
    7 Preston Brown ILB Louisville

  5. Dylan says:

    If Calvin Pryor falls to the Pats @ 29 would he be worth it? He certainly fits the SS mold they are looking for to compliment DMAC @ FS but I also like the depth in later rounds at the safety position (Deone Bucannon comes to mind). If you had to choose between Pryor, Nix, or Su’a-Filo who would you take?

    If the Pats wanna take a TE they definitely need to wait or trade down because unless Ebron falls I hate the idea of taking Jace Amaro in the first like so many of the mailed in mock drafts have. I guess the good thing is that whenever the Draft pundits link someone to the Pats they never end up drafting them.

    • steve earle says:

      My answer to your question is that I’d look for a SS ( Loston or Dixon ) both around mid 3rd to mid 4th round. Look for one of the 4 top TE’s mid/early 2nd with O line and D line and LB in between. This arrangement should meet needs and value picks nicely unless BB goes off on a tangent and reaches for another Travon Wilson type.

    • Pete H. says:

      Out of your 3 first round choices, I think Nix would be the guy. A double team magnet who can hold his ground and make plays or who can shove a single blocker into the quarterback’s lap is a valuable piece no matter which direction the league is trending. He certainly has the potential to be more than a traditional run-stuffing, 2-down nose tackle. I think it’s tough to find a guy like that outside of the first round. If he is really this year’s Poe or Lotuleilei, getting him at the bottom of the first would be too good to pass up on. Su’a-Filo I like, but I think they can get a quality interior lineman in the second or third, and I’m not sure they need two 1st round safeties, especially with the corners they have this year.

      • Matt says:

        Agree with you on Nix. I have watched him play for ND and he is a sold NT. He can stop the run very well get after the QB and make good holes for the middle linebackers to get through.

  6. Ken W says:

    I don’t think the Pats will go safety in the first two rounds. The top two will most likely be gone before 29 and Bucannon most likely middle of the second. I think there are bigger needs on the Pats and Harmon played pretty well for a rookie last year. I see them taking one in the middle to late rounds that would complete with Tavon Wilson for a spot on the team. Here are a few I like:

    Terrence Brooks – Fast and has been on a championship team, could help on Special Teams also
    Brock Vereen – Surprised at combine w/ good speed, quickness, and strength numbers
    Craig Loston – Doesn’t wow in any phase but is solid, most likely have to get him in the 4th ish

    • Daniel R. Martin says:

      Loston wow’s in the spectacular way he lays the wood to opposing receivers! :-) Precisely what we need, and a great value to boot in the 4th round.

  7. J H TARBORO says:

    NFL.com has the Comp pick list, some teams have as many as 4 picks, we should trade down and trade Mallett to gain depth and take advantage of this talent pool.

    • steve earle says:

      Agree but still the problem of finding someone who wants Mallett.

      • J H TARBORO says:

        Steve E. I still believe Houston might be in play, Texas wants Manzel,scouts says Bortles but O’donnell knows Mallett and what he can do and his system.

        • steve earle says:

          Thats a big IF JH. I was shocked and surprised we got Revis and again Browner so anything is possable. Still I’ll believe it when it happens.

      • cc says:

        Cleveland, Jacksonville, Arizona, Oakland, and K.C. along with Houston are all feasible spots for Mallet to recover a minimum of the 3rd rounder spent on him,(noting he has N.E. SEASONING BEHIND HIM AS WELL)…….

        &
        Personally, I’d dip Gronk too whomever will take his injury consistency & unwanted hype IMO. Personally I’d work a deal and get rid of BOTH Mallet & Gronk together……. Tell me what above mentioned team’s would’t bite that apple¿?
        Save cap space on Gronks contract +get draft pick consideration for both collectively……..

        A total win-win for both sides.

  8. Dan Sullivan says:

    Ward any round but first would be a steal. Wilfork took his belongings in a box from a
    Company that should end his time as a Patriot no New Englander can do that to their
    employee and go back to that Company.

    Free Agents
    Maurice Jones Drew RB Jaguars
    Kevin Williams NT Vikings
    Will Montgomery C Redskins
    Rob Jackson LB Redskins

    Draft
    1 Trade for 2,3 and 6 round choices.
    2 Kareem Martin DE NC
    2 Justin Ellis NT Louisiana Tech
    3 Arthur Lynch TE Georgia
    3 Jarvis Landry WR LSU
    4 Caleb Lavey LB Oklahoma State
    6 Brock Vereen S Minnesota
    6 Tyler Starr OLB North Dakota
    6 Spencer Long G Nebraska
    7 Jake Murphy TE Utah

    • Pete H. says:

      I think you’ve had better mocks Dan, but Will Montgomery looks like a great target in free agency – won’t count against the comp. pick formula, and should bring some steadiness at center. What would his contract be though – I have no idea. Would he come on a 1-2 year deal at low dollars?

      • Dan Sullivan says:

        A lot is still up in the air with Pats but I think a veteran center would help greatly
        just feel Brady got roughed up too much last year.

        • cc says:

          Agreed on the need for a REAL (C) Dan Sullivan……but unfortunately the team just signed the reason for TB12 getting foughed up all last year……Wendell, to a TWO YEAR DEAL!!!
          Hopfully they draft the best Center on the block ASAP in the draft and Wendell would be just O-line help and a reserve center…………..
          Yup, Mallet & Gronk in a package deal for extra picks is a cure for the pats In Many Opinions……many.
          Sure would garner the needed Center We Don’t Have + another slot as well…….

  9. Ryan says:

    Ward seems like a very good player, but McCourty is already playing the position that I think he would work best at. I could see him becoming a Pro Bowler, so it’s a shame he doesn’t seem like a positional fit for the Patriots, especially considering that Belicheck probably wants a bigger safety due to his signing of Adrian Wilson last year. He may not stick to that plan, but if he does then award will likely be off the. Patriots board.

  10. jim r says:

    Comp pick Rd.4

  11. Joe Blake says:

    i

  12. Bill Vermont says:

    I question if Smith is ready for SS. he’s pretty small and only benched 9 times. He needs to be a corner/ free safety and bulk up. I wonder if Pats would want to wait when a 2nd rd guy like Buchanon, who might be a less coverage guy, but is ready to go.

    MOCK DRAFT
    1 ( traded) With a team looking for QB, trade down 10-15 spots to Minn/ Tenn/St Louis ( with all their picks the last 2 years a QB might not be bad pick with Bradford’s history. They have 2- 1st already) The Pats could trade down and get a extra 3rd for 10-15 spots.

    These lists change every time I read a story or see a UTube film, but here is todays MOCK

    2- trade) Deone Buchanon SS
    2 – own) Marcus Martin OG
    3- trade) CJ Fiedorowicz TE
    3- own Will Clark DE
    4) Jordan Tripp OLB
    6A) Michael Schoefield OG
    6B) Khyri Thorton DT
    6 Comp) James Wilder RB
    7) Walt Aiken CB

    • Bill Vermont says:

      That was Jimmy Ward I was questioning with being too small for SS. Maybe Telvin Smith also, he’s pretty lean guy

    • Jim R says:

      Would love to see the pats come out of this draft with a SS and a TE in the first 3 rounds. I like Buchanon, with the TE I think CJF,ASJ or Nicklas get you mismatches in red zone and short yardage, any 1 of the three would work IMO

    • Pete H. says:

      Not bad, but a bit surprised no DT until the 6th – I’m guessing you expect big Vince on the roster? My favorite picks here are Marcus Martin and Jordan Tripp. I’m still not sure about Buchannon and Fiedorowicz, especially being selected so high, but if they live up to your expectations the Patriots would certainly have filled a lot of needs with this draft.

    • steve earle says:

      Good mock Bill, this is something we could all live with and it’s reasonable and possable. This draft is deep enough that several scenaros like this could work out very well. I like it!

  13. acm says:

    My biggest issue with Ward has always been related to questions about his top-end speed and if it would be enough for him to cover deep at the NFL. In that respect, I’d be very interested in knowing where that 4:47 in the 40 comes from. Unofficial pro day timing?

    Other than that, because of his physical style of play, I think he needs to add another 7-10 lbs of muscle to be the best he can be at FS, not SS, in the NFL. If I have to be perfectly honest, I like Ward better at FS than McCourty – better instincts, more physical, breaking on the ball, short area explosiveness – and if the Pats are trying to recreate the Seattle secondary, I believe Ward would be more suitable than DMac at FS for that style of defense. DMac seems better suited to the current prevent-style defense in the secondary and am not sure how he would fare if he’s asked to be more physical in the way of Thomas or Byrd, for example.

    Provided he has the top-end speed to cover deep, I think Ward can be that next Byrd or Thomas in the NFL.

  14. tonn says:

    i’m not buying it. we already have a centerfielder-type safety and i’m skeptical about ward’s abilities as an SS. he’s a good prospect who is bound to be over-drafted seeing the love safeties get nowadays, so i wouldn’t expect him to even fall to the pats’ 2nd-rounder.

    all in all, a developmental defensive back can be found in the closing rounds, we need to get out of the 1st and 2nd rounds with a DT and a TE, then use the following rounds for depth at DE and LB. the one name that’s stuck in my head when it comes to later-round safeties is the Sunseri kid from alabama. son of a coach, good work ethic, will drop because of an ACL…maybe he’ll fall enough for us to swoop him up.

  15. Pete H. says:

    It seems like this guy’s draft projection is in the top half of the second round or so. Certainly could be higher or lower, but if he is there, and the Patriots acquire a pick in that range via a trade, would you rather have the Pats take one of the top TEs to diversify the offense and provide Gronk insurance or Ward to complete the secondary?

    • Matt says:

      I would rather the Pats draft a good TE then Ward. I’m sure hes an OK safety but he seems kind of small.






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