Jimmie Ward made an immediate impact upon arriving at Northern Illinois. As a true freshman in 2010, he registered 21 tackles, a pass breakup and a forced fumble in a backup role, and blocked a school-record three punts, returning one of them 15 yards for a touchdown. In 2011, he started twelve games at cornerback, logging an astonishing 100 tackles (2.5 for loss) as well as a sack, a forced fumble and another blocked punt. The following season, he switched to free safety, leading the Huskies in tackles (with 104). As a senior, started all 14 of NIU's games, tallying 92 tackles (including 62 solo stops), 10 PBUs and adding seven interceptions, including a 62-yard touchdown return for a score against Purdue. In recognition of his fine senior campaign, Ward was named a Jim Thorpe Award semifinalist.
As his positional history suggests, one of the intriguing aspects of Ward's game is his versatility; he has the ability and experience to play any position in the defensive backfield (he's even taken snaps at weakside linebacker). In addition, Ward is a fluid athlete, with impressive body control and change of direction skills. Although a bit undersized by NFL safety standards, he hits like the big boys, driving through ballcarriers. Thanks to the gurus of gamefilm at Draft Breakdown, we can see his skillset on tape. They have six of his games cut-up for our study, including the 2012 Orange Bowl against Florida State, where Ward had 14 tackles, and a 2013 tilt at Toledo, during which he had 10 stops and a highligh-reel interception.
After watching Ward throw his 190 pounds around, lets see what our esteemed panelists think of his game, shall we?
Rob Rang (CBSSports.com): top-ranked SS; 41st overall
Strengths: Compact frame. Remarkably fluid athlete with quick feet, smooth change-of-direction agility and easy acceleration. Dropped down to cover slot receivers with solid man-to-man skills to handle a similar role in the NFL. Good balance and lateral agility, including the ability to sprawl to avoid cut-blocks. Physical, competitive defender who doesn't back down from the challenges of bigger opponents. Very good diagnosis skills and closes quickly and forcefully. Takes proper angles in pursuit, limiting breakaway opportunities for opponents. Eased concerns that his stellar play was due in part to questionable competition at the Senior Bowl.
Weaknesses: Shorter than scouts prefer, a fact that could lead to some projecting him at cornerback. Good but less-than-ideal speed to recover if beaten initially. Gets too grabby once he's turned around. Leaves his feet to tackle, creating some impressive collisions but occasionally failing to wrap up securely. Misses tackles against the bigger, stronger athletes.
Compares To: Glover Quin, Lions - Quin might not be the most popular player in the league but the six-year veteran out of New Mexico has quietly proven a quality starter despite marginal size (6-0, 205).
Gary Horton (ESPN.com): 4th-ranked safety; 47th overall
Instincts/ Recognition: Will get caught peeking on occasion. Can be late with key-and-diagnose, and occasionally will be late reacting to pass (and will be forced to recover in coverage). Has playmaker aggressiveness and confidence. Good anticipation and route recognition when working in zone. Knows when to attack ball and when to attack body. Can improve down-to-down focus. See too many plays on tape where he's not dialed in when ball snapped.
Cover Skills: Quick, balanced athlete with good body control, but has a touch of stiffness in hips and has good but not elite top-end playing speed. Bit high in pedal but shows solid burst out of pedal, and also closes quickly in short area. Offers versatility with extensive experience working both in slot (man and zone) and at high-point (as man-free centerfielder). Good in press coverage. Physical. Can improve technique, but usually good job making contact and re-routing.
Ball Skills: Excellent ball skills for DB. Can pluck away from frame. Very good hand-eye coordination. Quick to adjust and has good body control. Has been late locating over shoulder on occasion. Production matches skill set: 11 career INTs and dangerous with ball in hands (see: INT return vs. EIU 2013).
Run Support: Physical, competitive and effective. Competes hard. Love the way this guy plays the game.
Intangibles: Comes with some maturity and character red flags, according to several NFL scouts and coaches. Inconsistent personal discipline. Special teams' standout early in career. Set school-record three punt blocks as a freshman in 2010. Career-high 14 tackles vs. FSU in Orange Bowl (1-1-13). Son of Torcivia and Derrick Daniels.
Dan Shonka (Ourlads): top-ranked SS; 56th overall
Three-year starter. A competitor who loves the game and is always around the ball. He collected 7 interceptions and had 10 pass deflections in 2013. A run-through-the-target type tackler. A reliable and disciplined safety who is instinctive and always in position. Takes good run support on pursuit angles. Will sacrifice his body to take out the lead blocker. Equally as skilled up on the line of scrimmage or back in halves coverage. Huskies' leading tackler. A sticky coverage safety who will get in a tight end's back pocket. Plays well in the slot and is competitive when asked to play man-to-man coverage. Shorter than ideal for a strong safety. Has an injury history over his career.
Dane Brugler (NFLDraftScout.com): 2nd-ranked safety; no overall grade
Strengths: Sudden feet with fluid backpedal and easy movements in all directions - rangy athleticism with good football speed...diagnoses and reads quickly with excellent timing and anticipation...very active and alert, putting himself in position to make plays on the ball with a high football IQ...loves to get his nose dirty and is a magnet to the ball - no hesitation to his game...nice job sidestepping blocks and a disciplined tackler in space with a very good sense of his surroundings...versatile skill-set with experience in man and zone, playing inside and outside, and near the LOS at LB and in the deep third as a centerfielder...passionate football player and hates to leave the field - four career blocked kicks on ST coverage in college...three-year starter (39 career starts) with excellent production, leading the team in tackles and interceptions as a junior and senior - All-MAC honors the past three seasons.
Weaknesses: Tweener size with marginal bulk and a near-maxed out frame...needs to spend more time in the weight room to develop his strength for the next level...light anchor and can be driven out of plays when blockers get a grip on him...bad habit of tackling too high and needs to refine his technique to be a more consistent finisher...needs to refrain from grabbing with too much unneeded contact down the field...some durability concerns due to his physical play style and limited frame - had March 2014 surgery to repair a stress fracture in right foot...most of his production came against a lower level of competition.
Summary: An overlooked two-star recruit, Jimmie Ward had only two FBS-level offer out of high school, committing to Northern Illinois over New Mexico. He saw limited action as a true freshman, but started to blossom as a sophomore in 2011 with 100 tackles, starting seven games at FS and five at CB. Ward moved to FS full-time as a junior and senior, leading the team in tackles and interceptions both seasons and earning First Team All-MAC honors. He has excellent play speed with good COD skills and start/ stop quickness to hold up in space vs. both the pass and the run. Ward doesn't look like much but packs a punch and plays bigger than he looks with an energetic mentality and confident attitude. He is instinctive, scrappy and physical and plays the game with strong conviction. Ward's tape shows off his versatility with experience lining up at FS, CB, and WLB, spending time in man and zone and handling multiple responsibilities - future NFL starter at FS and top-25 NFL Draft pick who does his best work in nickel situations.
Our panelists grade Ward fairly tightly, slotting him between 41st and 56th overall, or roughly in the top half of the second round. As it so happens, the Cowboys' second-rounder is smack dab in the middle of that range, so I'll place him in round two on my "little board."
This begs the question: why are the Cowboys looking at second-round safeties like Ward and FSU's Lamarcus Joyner, when it also seems apparent that they are loading up on early-round fortifications for both lines? Notice one trait that they both have in common: position versatility. Both have spent entire seasons at cornerback and safety, and have the athleticism to play either at the NFL level. After profiling the front-seven players in whom Dallas has expressed interest, it became clear to me that they are looking especially for guys who can play multiple positions (DE-DT; OLB-DE; CB-NB-FS). This will allow the Cowboys defensive coaches to keep the same guys on the field and to disguise their intentions until they actually break the huddle and line up.
That said, I believe they'll draft a lineman (either offensive or defensive) in round two, unless the value skews very heavily in favor of one of these versatile defensive backs.
Later today: Now that you've seen how the national draftniks rate Ward, stay tuned for our in-house scout, Joey Ickes, who will post a detailed film study of the former Husky. Also, I'll have a profile piece on two small-school draft targets with big upside: Northwest Missouri State CB Brandon DIxon and Shepherd OLB/ DE Howard Jones