Northern Illinois has been on a magic carpet ride over the past few seasons. The medium sized, but definitely not
tiny, school from the Chicagoland suburban city of DeKalb has been amongst the most consistent winners in college football for awhile now. But for all the on field success and national media attention the school has had, it's been fairly quiet in the NFL Draft.
Since Larry English went No. 16 overall in 2009 only one Huskie player has been drafted, and that was 2012's Mr. Irrelevant: Chandler Harnish. For all his flash and accolades, Jordan Lynch isn't the NIU player that's going to get the Huskies back into the early rounds of the NFL Draft. No, that duty falls squarely on the shoulders of safety Jimmie Ward.
More On Ward
More On Ward
For four seasons Ward has quietly went to work as the anchor of the defense on the best team in the MAC. While Khalil Mack and Roosevelt Nix were fighting their way up the NCAA's tackle-for-loss leaderboards, Ward was roaming the secondary, cracking MAC wideouts and picking off QBs, all while going relatively unnoticed. But while MAC fans outside of DeKalb may not have paid much attention to the 5-foot-11 safety (outside of when their team was playing NIU), NFL scouts were watching.
With just a few weeks to go before the 2014 NFL Draft, Ward is steadily rising in the ranks. Once projected to be a 3rd round pick, he's almost a unanimous second rounder, with some people going so far as to project him as a late first round guy.
The former 2-star prospect out of Mobile, Ala., who only carried a pair of FBS scholarship offers coming out of high school, is among the best secondary prospects available in the 2014 NFL Draft. The only safeties ranked ahead of him are freak-show athletes Ha'Sean "HaHa" Clinton-Dix (Alabama) and Calvin Pryor (Louisville). Then you have the smaller Ward, who stands just 5-foot-11, and weighs in at 197 pounds.
A stud performer in college with stats to back it up (in a three year span he's logged 299 total tackles, 11 interceptions, 29 passes defended and three forced fumbles) Ward has the experience and versatility to make up for his lack of size.
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Despite his small frame, Ward has played all over the field, in a variety of coverage schemes. He's played corner, free safety, strong safety and nickel. He's succeeded against top flight receivers from the ACC and B1G and the MAC's speedy slots. As far as safeties go, he's done it all.
Because he doesn't quite fit into the mold of a typical free or strong safety he actually can use that to his benefit. By having some of the better qualities of both positions, he can sell himself as a hybrid safety, able to be plugged in in multiple spots around the field.
His ball skills are above average, and with his speed, he's able to zip around the field and swoop in on even the fastest of slots. He's especially good at getting to the ball and causing turnovers. He knows how to create good angles and can identify routes at an above average clip. He's also above average in run defense, and with his physical style of play he isn't afraid to mix it up in the backfield.
Despite his lack of size, Ward is about as physical as the come, almost to a detriment. There were several plays throughout his career where he looked to get his bell rung by throwing his whole body into a play. He's not a dirty player, but he has been called for a few infractions in his time for illegal hits. He goes all out and plays bigger than he is.
Oh, and going back to his No. 1 selling point-versatility-Ward could step in right away and contribute on all 32 teams on special teams. He got his start at NIU as a dynamic special teams guy, blocking three punts as a true freshman, and even returning a few.
Strength is an issue, however. His nine reps at 225 on the bench weren't impressive, and already having the disadvantage in size, being at less than peak strength could really allow the bigger NFL receivers to bully him. Luckily for him he's shown he can excel vs physical wideouts, such as when he notched 14 tackles vs. Florida State in the 2013 Orange Bowl. Clearly he's smart enough to make adjustments, but can he outsmart NFL wideouts?
Another thing I've noticed popping up in a few scouting reports of Ward, such as this one on NFL.com, is a possible maturity issue. He already has a child which could raise some flags about maturity level, and statements such as: "could rub some people the wrong way" and "needs to learn what it means to prepare like a pro" are never positive marks.
Attitude issues are a sure fire way to scare off some teams. Granted, Ward's never gotten in any kind of trouble as far as we know, so these could be meaningless, and with how he's been slotted higher and higher recently, he could be proving those statements wrong when meeting with teams.
But where will Ward go? As I've said, he's projected as anywhere from a late first to an early third round guy, with the conscious being somewhere in the middle of those. Recently he keeps poping up higher and higher. In a recent round of mock Drafts on CBSSports.com, Ward went in the first round of three of their experts mocks. Dane Brugler and Will Brinson both have him going No. 21 overall to Green Bay, while Pete Prisco has him going two spots later to Kansas City.
Think CBSSports may be sipping some funky Kool-Aid? They're not alone on the Ward train.Bleacher Report's Alessandro Miglio also has Ward going No. 21 overall to the Packers.
Other popular destinations for Ward include in the second round to St. Louis, where Mel Kiper and SB Nation's Matthew Fairburn both have him going, and Baltimore, where plenty of the older mocks had him landing at, and where Todd McShay still sees Ward landing (Insider access only).
Honestly, where Ward goes relies heavily on how early Clinton-Dix and Pryor are taken. If both are off the board before Green Bay picks, it's unlikely Ward falls past the Packers. But, if he does slip it doesn't look like he'll even make it into the middle of the second round.