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.
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.