Northern Illinois’ Jimmie Ward comes from a small school and is vying for a draft slot with safeties from Alabama and Louisville — two of the better programs this past season and ones that were often in the headlines — but that’s not stopping him from making ripples through the draft conversation.
Ward led the Huskies with 95 tackles last season after previously eclipsing the 100-tackle mark each of the two prior seasons. Ward also notched 10 pass breakups, a team-high seven interceptions and 2.5 tackles for loss, finishing as a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award. And if his stock wasn’t up after that senior campaign, he took to the Senior Bowl to generate even more buzz.
While in Mobile, Ala., Ward reminded scouts of how fluid and instinctive he was lined up in center field. And for anybody who had doubts about whether the former MAC standout’s talents would compare to the power conferences or future pros, they were quickly silenced. Ward thrived in deep coverage as well as defending slot receivers, and was touted as the best pass defender at this year’s Senior Bowl.
The 5-foot-11, 191-pound safety was a surefire tackler for Northern Illinois, the kind of player who goes after the solid wrap-up in favor of the big play. His senior season he developed into more of a ballhawk in the secondary, excelling in coverage all over the field.
On the next level Ward will have that small-school label to shed, though he already addressed that a bit during the Senior Bowl. There are mild concerns about his size and some about his speed, though the latter seems irrelevant when watching Ward in coverage.
Ranked No. 46 overall by Rotoworld, the third-ranked safety behind Pryor and Clinton-Dix will come off the board at the end of the first round or more likely in the second.
A number of teams need to address safety, and it could be the Green Bay Packers doing so as early as with the No. 21 pick. A strong combine outing, paired with his Senior Bowl performance, could allow Ward to rise to the late first round to the Pack, which needs to sure up the back end of their defensive backfield.
The Washington Redskins also have a need at the position, with Brandon Meriweather set to hit free agency. The Skins secondary was horrific a season ago, and a fresh face at safety could start the transformation.
The New York Jets and Chicago Bears should also be in the Ward market. Dawan Landry is a free agent after next season, and Rex Ryan often uses three safeties on the field. Given Ward can also play nickel, it’s an even better fit. The Bears may lose Major Wright and several members of its secondary to free agency, leaving Chris Conte as the only experienced safety on the roster.