Taking a look at selected players leading up to the NFL draft, which begins May 8. The reports are based on watching multiple games on draftbreakdown.com; I'll let you know when there is an opinion other than my own. I'm not a fan of having to only watch them off a TV feed -- you don't always get the best angle, or see all the players -- but it's the best I can do now and it helps provide a snapshot. The draft analysts -- especially those from ESPN.com, NFL.com and CBSSports.com -- help fill in the gap, especially in terms of where they are projected.
Player: Jimmie Ward
School: Northern Illinois
College production: Finished with 320 career tackles, four forced fumbles and 11 interceptions (seven this past season). Also had two sacks and six tackles for a loss. Returned three punts for 46 yards in his four years.
How he’d fit: Ward would give the Redskins a young safety to groom and someone who would be able to play both free and strong. They have other young safeties and could opt to focus on them, of course. But none entered the NFL as higher than a fourth-round pick, so Ward would enter with more talent. He would also help on special teams.
What I liked: With defensive backs I always like seeing their competitiveness. Ward has it; he does not back down from blockers and knifes through traffic to get involved in the play. You can tell he likes being on the field and being part of the action. Ward played mostly strong safety, but did line up deep on occasion – and showed in at least one game I watched the ability to come downhill from deep middle to make a tackle. But I don’t think there would be a big adjustment to playing deep more often; he often covered in the slot and to the wide side of the field. To do so, you have to have good reaction, quickness and adequate speed. He was timed at a 4.47 in his pro day (players always are timed faster on their pro days, but he could not run at the combine because of a foot injury). His play did not drop off against schools from the power conferences (he did a nice job against Florida State in a 2013 bowl game with 14 tackles). He showed patience covering in the slot; he was physical there, too, and showed good awareness in zone coverage.
He also understood his help. Against Utah State, Ward made a nice interception when he allowed the receiver inside knowing he had safety help. The quarterback tried to force it in, but Ward cut the route and caught the ball. He has good hands. Did not see Ward miss many tackles. Showed good form, too, though occasionally his initial pop was not enough and he would have to rely on hanging on as the runner tried to pull away. Overall, though, he was a consistent tackler in space. Saw him line up deep middle and drive on the ball. Also saw good recognition on a scramble play vs. Akron in which he quickly spotted a receiver racing behind him out of his peripheral vision and, with no one in front of him, sank deeper – and picked off the pass. Liked how he came up from deep middle to outside run support on a jet sweep, stepped over a cut block by the outside receiver and made the tackle. Also didn’t overcommit on runs, allowing him to be more under control and make more stops in traffic. Made a great pick vs. Toledo in which he undercut the route from deep middle, tipped the ball and maintained focus to grab it on the way down.
What I didn’t like: He needs to get stronger. Ward is not a big guy (5-foot-11, 193 pounds), which is not a death sentence of course for an NFL career (durability was not an issue in college). But it makes it tougher, and there is a definite need to add strength (only nine reps of 225 pounds). He can fix this of course, but it would take a toll on him until he does. And, early on, I’d wonder about him taking on bigger backs as opposed to those he faced in college, or lead blockers. It’s really hard to tell how he moved deep middle off a TV feed; he appeared to take good angles to the ball to compensate for any shortcomings – and it’s not as if he’s slow by any means. But there were a couple plays where, had he been facing an NFL caliber quarterback or receiver, he’d have been in bigger trouble because of either technique or recognition. One thing I’ve read – on ESPN.com’s Insiders Page and NFL.com – suggests concerns about maturity issues.
Projection: Most experts/analysts peg him as a late first or early second-round pick. He had an excellent week at the Senior Bowl, and though he does not come from a power conference, his play has been steady regardless of competition, which is why he’s been consistently pegged in this area.
Other players examined: