Two years and a couple of months ago, the Dallas Cowboys were a very different team. They were coming off a 2015 season where Matt Cassel lead the team in passing and Darren McFadden led the team in rushing. The Cowboys had the fourth overall pick in the draft and due to their record, they coached one of the rosters in the Senior Bowl that year. That is where the Cowboys got to meet Jihad Ward up close.
Despite Ward being extremely raw, all of the potential was there for him to be a Pro Bowl-level player in the NFL. He had the frame at 6-foot-5, 295 pounds, with potential to add on more weight to go along with his quick first step and athleticism. Again, he was definitely raw, but with development and proper seasoning in the NFL, he had potential.
Instead, the Raiders overdrafted him with the 44th overall pick in the draft. A knee injury that required surgery led to him missing significant time over the offseason. But despite that, the Raiders threw him into the fire immediately in Jack Del Rio’s 4-3 base defense. He started a bulk of games for the Raiders as a rookie, but was largely ineffective, failing to get in the backfield or improving on those traits where he was raw.
In his second year in the NFL, similar issues arose. Another offseason injury led to Ward missing time, even into the season. He played in just five games, and was inactive for ten games.
After Oakland hired Jon Gruden, it was expected that Gruden would shape the roster to his liking, and that many of the players Del Rio brought in would be ousted by players Gruden would bring in. That is exactly what happened to Ward, after Oakland drafted DT P.J. Hall out of Sam Houston State in the second round and DT Maurice Hurst out of Michigan in the fifth round. With those additions, it came as no surprise that the Raiders were willing to part ways with Ward.
Ward is still only 23 years old with the potential to be a productive player in the NFL. Dallas’ coaching staff were huge fans of Ward at the Senior Bowl, particularly Rod Marinelli, who saw Ward’s potential at either defensive end or defensive tackle.
Nearly a week ago, the Cowboys were finalizing their 2018 draft class. And while they added a number of quality players who can make an impact in the short- and long-term, one position they have somewhat neglected is the defensive tackle position.
With the trade for Ward, the Illinois product will have a chance for significant playing time right away. I was able to catch up with Ted Nguyen of The Athletic to hear about Ward and his time in Oakland. Nguyen is a die-hard Raiders fan whose expertise comes in film review and talent analysis. Let’s take a look at some of Nguyen’s thoughts on Ward:
What has Ward been asked to do as a member of the Raiders?
First year asked to do two-gap too much. Last year he didn’t play much, but looked better as a single-gap shooter.
What has been Ward’s biggest weakness?
He simply gets overpowered at times. Combo of poor technique and average lower-body strength.
Why did Ward struggle in Oakland?
He was a project player that didn’t develop enough physically or technically.
What does Ward need to do to succeed?
He has to ignore the noise. Work hard on developing his lower body and his technique.
What is something Dallas fans should be excited about with Ward?
There are flashes of being a dominant player, but just too far in between.
The defensive line coaching combination of Marinelli and Leon Lett loves get-off and quick-twitch ability off the line of scrimmage. That is exactly what Ward does. Despite his rawness, he reads and reacts to the snap and uses his athleticism to consistently be the first one off the football.
When Ward can create space with his arms, he is able to use his athleticism to beat opposing offensive lineman. He does not have a go-to move to get after the quarterback, but he is good when in space. When he allows offensive lineman to get into his chest, that is where Ward struggles to win battles.
In recent years, the Cowboys have drawn out every bit of talent from players who did not perform elsewhere. Some examples of this are Terrell McClain, George Selvie, Jeremy Mincey, and David Irving.
An argument could be made that Ward’s stock increased most during his pre-draft process when Marinelli was working with him at the Senior Bowl. With his tools, athletic measurables, and long-term potential, it is way too early to give up on Ward and his NFL future. He is young and he learned how to play the game of football late in high school. With ample playing opportunity to play and perform in 2018, the Cowboys could very well have found yet another diamond in the rough in Ward.