With the NFL combine just a few weeks away, many former college players are preparing for the big weekend and hope to make a good impression. There should be at least a handful of MAC athletes at the event, and I know with certainity that Khalil Mack, Jordan Lynch, and Jimmie Ward will be in attendance. I am going to focus on Jimmie Ward and his NFL chances.
Ward, was a standout at NIU and looks to have a good draft stock. During his tenure in DeKalb, Ward wreaked havoc on his opponents. As a freshman he contributed on special teams and blocked three punts. He went on to be a three time All-MAC performer (first team twice) while accumulating 11 interceptions, four forced fumbles, and over 300 tackles while only missing one game in his career.
Many believe he was just as valuable as Khalil Mack and Jordan Lynch were this previous season. This previous season is really were Jimmie saw his draft stock rise. I remember looking before the season at his draft stock and many believed he was a late round pick and could possibly be an undrafted free agent. That has significantly changed.
Jimmie had a huge season, with big interceptions in the Iowa, Purdue, and Toledo games. He finished the year with 7 interceptions and 95 tackles. He was named on numerous All-American lists, generally garnering 1st or 2nd teams. After those accolades, he then was invited to the Senior Bowl in his hometown of Mobile, Alabama. While at the Senior Bowl, Jimmie was named the top defensive back of the week, and has risen to what many believe is a solid 2nd round choice.
Dan Kadar has changed his opinion of Ward a ton. At the beginning of the 2013 season, he didn’t list Ward in his top 15 MAC prospects. Ward is now his #3 safety, 48th overall choice, and 45th overall player. I’ve seen multiple fan blogs that actually believe Jimmie is worth a first round choice, but his size holds him back. He is 5’10 and 3/8 and weighs 191 pounds.
However, he has a wingspan of 77 1/8 inches, which is the equivalent of someone who is 6’4. This gets people to call him "rangy", which could signify his knack for making plays. Although Ward lacks ideal size, he has some of the best football instincts around. Hence the 11 interceptions and 4 blocked punts over his career. I’d consider him the Tyrann Mathieu of the MAC, because no matter what, Ward seems to be in the right place at the right time. It’s difficult to find players like that.
Jimmie’s coverage abilities (which are probably the best of all safeties in the draft), ability to play each safety spot and nickel corner, his special teams skills, and the NFL need for safeties are going to be Jimmie’s biggest pros. Oh, and he can hit too, ask Alex Neutz. His biggest cons are going to be the knock of competition in the MAC (which is bogus, as Mack will be a top 10 pick and there are tons of MAC players in the NFL), his lack of top-flight speed, and his size.
So going into the combine, Ward needs to show his strength, ability to run, and probably clock something higher than his expected 4.5 40 yard dash. If he can show he can run again, like he did at the Senior Bowl, and surprise with his speed, there is reason to believe the MAC could have two first round picks this year.
There has been some discussion that Ward’s goal is to weigh 200 pounds by pro day to have closer to ideal weight as well. I strongly believe Ward is by far the second best MAC prospect in the draft. That’s not a knock considering the hype Mack has warranted. If Jimmie had better size, I think he would be the number 1 safety in the draft and be taken in the top 20. Let’s see what Ward does with his opportunity in Indy. If it’s a good week, keep your eyes open for a possibility of two MAC first round picks.