Actually, it would be a return to his "roots" for the 39-game starter, as he entered the collegiate ranks playing free safety. Because of his man-coverage skills and timed speed, he wrested a starting job at left cornerback during his sophomore season. Blessed with natural hands, exceptional timing and excellent leaping ability, he shifted to strong safety for his final two seasons, where he recorded 199 of his 320 career tackles, intercepted 10 of 11 pass thefts and had 21 of his 26 pass deflections.
It seems like nothing will stop Ward on his road to the NFL — not after being slighted by the Southeastern Conference colleges that did not recruit him coming out of high school; not the recruiting services that gave him just a two-star rating; and not by a right foot stress fracture that prevented him from getting medical clearance to participate in agility tests at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine.
Those Southeastern Conference recruiters that dismissed the Mobile, Ala., transplant (moved to the city at age 7) as not being the "talent" they were searching for need only look at the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision active player statistical chart. There, they will see that Ward is one of only two defensive backs in the country to record at least 300 tackles for a career. In fact, the only SEC player with more tackles on that chart is Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson, whose 324 stops just inches past Ward's 320.
After working hard after the 2013 season to "put the icing on the cake" for NFL teams that were greatly impressed by Ward's performance throughout practices at the 2014 Senior Bowl, the Huskies standout was discovered to have a foot stress fracture. He had to observe fellow defensive backs going through agility tests in Indianapolis. Rather than simply "shut down" his training and undergo surgery, Ward had another plan.
Doctors told him he would need six to eight weeks to recover if he underwent the procedure. That would not give him a chance to show teams his athletic skills prior to the draft in early May. With NIU holding their Pro Day in early March, the defensive back planned on putting off surgery until after that event.
Ward claimed he was healthy enough to perform for teams and, in front of a throng of coaches and scouts that included representation from 30 of 32 teams, he put on a show that left all going home happy, even the player, who is sometimes his own worst critic.
First, he delivered a vertical leap of 38 inches, followed by a broad jump of 10 feet, 5 inches, before he officially ran the 40-yard dash in a head-turning 4.47 seconds, along with being timed at 1.56 in the 10-yard dash. He also clocked 6.89 seconds in the three-cone drill.To put those numbers in perspective, if Ward accomplished those feats at the NFL Combine, his 40-yard dash time would have ranked second behind Terrence Brooks of Florida State (4.42) among safeties going through physical testing. His vertical jump would have tied Mo Alexander of Utah State and Brooks for the top spot among those safeties. Ward's broad jump was surpassed by only Vanderbilt's Kenny Ladler, who topped all defensive backs with a leap of 10-7. The NIU senior's performance in the three-cone drill would have placed him second and was topped by only Brigham Young Daniel Sorensen's scorching 6.47-second clocking.
Northern Illinois University Huskies
Ward has an athletic build with minimal body fat (6.4%) and room on his frame to carry at least another 10-15 pounds of bulk without the added weight affecting his overall quickness. He shows good arm and leg muscle definition, but his arms are slightly shorter than ideal (31 inches). He shows good extension and natural hands to compete for the ball at its high point. He displays tight waist and hips, thick thighs and calves. He has more natural strength than weight room power right now (just nine reps in the 225-pound bench press), but has impressive upper- and lower-body flexibility (great contortionist going for the ball) and body control.
Ward runs with a short, quick stride, demonstrating above-average flexibility, agility and balance moving in the open field. He has the foot speed to cover most receivers on deep routes and can quickly redirect and accelerate when his man gets behind him (good recovery burst). He is a fluid mover on plays in front of him, showing the plant-and-drive skills to come off the block and make plays at the opposite end of the field. He has excellent hand-eye coordination and natural hands, easily extending away from his frame to reach and pluck the ball at its highest point (see 2013 Iowa, Purdue, Kent State and Utah State games). He is becoming an efficient downhill tackler that makes lots of plays in front of him. He will sometimes round his cuts, but compensates with an explosive second gear and the ability to take proper angles to the ball when working in space. He displays the ability to accelerate quickly to the plays in front of him. He times his leaps properly and has natural hands for the interception. He lacks overall strength when trying to fill the rush lanes, though, making him better served roaming the field as a free safety rather than lend ground support from the more physically demanding strong safety position.
Ward has no problem learning and retaining plays, easily taking them from the chalkboard to the playing field. He makes quick and proper adjustments on the field, thanks to his natural football instincts. He is quick to react to the action in front of him and does a very nice job of tracking the ball in flight. He picks up play action and misdirection well and is not the type that will be fooled or baiting into biting on the quarterback's pump fakes. He has a true "take no prisoners" approach on the field and, even though he has no concern for his own safety, he is not the type that will overpursue or get too reckless on the field. He keeps his head on a swivel, doing a nice job of tracking the ball in flight.
Ward earned his starting position through hard work. As a freshman, he studied under Tommy Davis at free safety and, after easing into his role early in his sophomore year as a left cornerback, the "light clicked on" the next season and he was NIU's defensive playmaker ever since taking over strong safety chores as a junior. He might not be as physical with blockers and ball-carriers playing inside the box like a true strong safety, but he is highly competitive battling for jump balls when playing deep in the secondary, where he roams the field looking to wreak havoc on receivers. He is the type that will sacrifice his body to make plays on the ball in flight. Wherever the coaches want him to play, whatever scheme they need him to perform in, Ward is more than up to the task, having experience at both safety positions, in addition to excelling on special teams. He is a player who gives total effort until the whistle. He plays with a high intensity level, whether in games or practices. He competes with good aggression and is a high-motor type that will always hustle in pursuit.
Key and Diagnostic Skills
Ward shows very quick reactionary skills. Opposing offenses would have been smart to steer clear of his territory in 2013, as he displayed very good pass thievery skills (see 2013 Iowa, Purdue, Kent State, Akron, Massachusetts, Toledo and Utah State games). He has that natural feel for finding the ball, thanks to his quick decision-making that allows him to read and reacts in order to get to the pass in a hurry (31 passes defended during his last 27 appearances). He is seldom fooled by play action and misdirection, doing a nice job of keeping action in front of him. More than 35 percent of his tackles in his last two years came outside his territory, as he is alert to defensive breakdowns and feels it is his responsibility to serve as the "last line" for his unit. He is not the type that will bite on misdirection or play action, evident by his ability to easily read the quarterback and makes plays on the ball in flight. He sets the tone of the game with his aggressive play and does not hesitate to close once he spots the ball. He has exceptional blocker awareness and, because of that vision, he is able to slip through blocks to make plays in tight areas. He just has that natural feel for the ball, showing awareness in zone assignments. He does a nice job of keeping the play in front of him. He keeps his head on a swivel, tracking the ball in flight and times his leaps to get to the pigskin at its high point. However, he shows some hesitation stepping into the box to make plays in run force, as he seems to be aware that he does not have the strength to take on bigger blockers in the trenches. Where most of his stops are made is when he is on the move and roaming the field. He gets a good jump on the play in man coverage and it is rare to see him get caught out of position. He breaks on the ball well and gets a good jump from the hash.
Kirk Irwin/Getty Images
Man Coverage Ability
Ward has a quick plant-and-burst skill and constantly keeps his feet moving, demonstrating above-average change-of-direction agility. He has the speed for his coaches to feel comfortable in using him to cover receivers one-on-one on deep routes and, despite an obvious lack of raw strength, he is highly effective at playing the bump-and-run, as he rerouted receivers away from 47 pass attempts the last two years. He has the blazing speed needed to play in man coverage at the next level as a cornerback, but with his flexible hips and ease of movement when redirecting, he has no problem mirroring tight ends, slot receivers and running backs on underneath routes (his main pass coverage assignments averaged just 0.79 receptions for 9.29 yards per game vs. him in 2013, compared to averages of 3.14 receptions for 40.25 yards vs. other safeties on their schedule). He gets a good jump on the ball to stay with the receivers in the short-range area, using his hands well in attempts to impede the route's progression. If playing in a system that will man him up on slots receivers and tight ends, he will do a good job. He is just not the type to deliver blow-up tackles in run support. He easily stays on the hips of the pass targets in the short-to-intermediate areas and when he gets his hands on the opponent and gets physical, he will generally reroute his man or jam him at the line of scrimmage.
Zone Coverage Ability
This is one of Ward's better assets, as he is quick to read and react, using his speed and acceleration well to close ground on the ball. He consistently finishes plays with either an interception or pass deflection (see 2013 Purdue, Akron, Western Michigan and Utah State games) and has possibly the best vision and range of any safety at the NCAA level. He shows very good field vision and awareness, along with route recognition on his drop. He is adept at handling the switch-offs vs. backs and tight ends, showing alertness and a good feel for the ball. He is quick to locate the pigskin when working in the box and gets a good jump on the play due to his ability to anticipate and diagnose the patterns. He is a highly effective ball-hawk with natural hands for the interception (see 2013 Iowa, Kent State, Massachusetts and Toledo contests). He does a good job of staying low in his pads while driving hard with his legs to neutralize receivers making plays in front of him. His vision and feel for the play will generally see him in position to make the tackle. The thing you just do not see often on film is any ability to fly up to the line to support vs. the run.
Ward's outside-the-box role increased greatly in 2013, as he was generally assigned to cover slot receivers and produced seven interceptions for those efforts. He is agile, balanced and smooth when having to move fast coming out of his pedal and shows ease of movement flipping his hips to change direction in this area. He reminds me of Darren Sharper in his prime, for the way that he is a smooth mover with quick feet, flexibility, balance and suppleness to easily turn with no wasted motion coming out of his backpedal. He is quick to redirect, thanks to sharp plant-and-drive agility. He has the quickness and body control to turn and run, staying low in his pedal and rarely ever gets up on his heels. He breaks cleanly and stays in control, thanks to his loose hips. He shows above-average quickness in transition.
Ball Reaction Skills
Ward is a calculating type who might take a few chances that will not be the norm for a safety, but he has very good vision to make the pick or break-up. He does a nice job of stepping in front of the pass, as he works in perfect sync with what the quarterback is trying to do, making him more often than not in position to make a play on the ball (five of his seven interceptions set up NIU touchdown drives and he also scored via one of those pass thefts — vs. Purdue — in 2013). He is aggressive using his hands, resulting in him having success in jamming or rerouting receivers on 52.63 percent of the passes targeted into his area since becoming a starter (130-of-247 tosses). He gets an explosive break to close on the thrown ball and does a very nice job of locating and tracking the ball over his shoulder. What he excels at is chasing down the ball in flight, showing steady acceleration and timing to compete for the pass (see 2013 Iowa, Kent State, Purdue, Toledo and Utah State games).
Ward plays with good speed and an explosive closing burst. He has the acceleration needed to close on plays in front of him and is quick to react in pursuit or get under the ball when the pass is in flight. He builds to top acceleration nicely and can really "haul the freight" when he gets a good jump on the ball, which he does often. He is also consistent going for the ball, taking proper angles as he times his hits. He is a secure tackler in the open field who displays his power as he consistently drives the opponent back. He has enough lateral movement to change direction and string the plays wide. When he locates the ball in front of him, he has good take-up speed to compensate. He is simply a high motor player that always hustles in pursuit.
Ward has the athletic ability to reach and pluck the ball at its high point. He tracks the ball well in flight and has the smooth change-of-direction agility to adjust when needed. The thing you see on film is his aggression combating for the ball (see 2013 Kent State, Purdue and Utah State games). He is a very good leaper, which he combines with his ability to track the ball and readily adjust to get under it. He shows no hesitation sacrificing his body to compete for the ball in a crowd. He can elevate from a stand-still position and times his leaps so he does not get there too early to make the play. He loves to compete for the high passes, as he is good at elevating to catch the ball in his hands and away from his body. He demonstrates body control flowing to the ball, taking no wasted steps when closing. He has good angle technique to close the cushion, especially when asked to support vs. the outside plays. While he does a good job of mirroring the receiver, he also shows very good intent to attack the ball.
This is Ward's best asset, evident by the fact that he ranks ninth in school history with 11 pass thefts and has 37 passes defended through 55 games at NIU. He makes the interceptions with his Velcro-like fingers and his hands are so superior to other defensive backs, it is somewhat surprising the NIU coaches did not try to use him as a receiver for a few plays. While he has shorter-than-ideal arm reach (31-inches) and marginal strength, he compensates with good leaping ability, timing and natural hands to reach and pluck the ball at its highest point. He catches the ball with his hands properly extended from the body's frame. When he competes for the ball, he will generally get a piece of the pigskin. He uses his hands with force in pass coverage, doing a good job of jamming and rerouting tight ends when attacking at the line of scrimmage.
Ward is a solid wrap-up tackler in the open, but his obvious lack of strength has me concerned that he will be bounced around quite a bit if he is to play strong safety in a scheme that calls for him to see lots of action inside the box. He is quick to react to plays in front of him, and he charges up fast to fill the rush lanes, but more often than not, the lead blocker will stymie him. He has to rely on his quickness and ability to escape to make plays in the backfield (just six stops for loss in 55 games). He runs with an effortless stride and is very decisive in his movements on plays in front of him, but is not going to be able to crush the ball-carrier with his initial hit. He takes good angles to the ball and will not shy away from contact working in-line, but he is not asked to blitz much due to obvious strength issues. He is just not the type that should be residing near the line of scrimmage.
Ward shows good courage taking on bigger blockers, but can get pushed around quite a bit due to a lack of strength and he can be easily engulfed by bigger linemen, as he often fails to keep his hands inside his frame when working in tight areas. He was not used much in the box the last two years, but when assigned to make plays on the ball in flight, his tackle totals greatly increase. He will miss a few tackles when he tries to give a side and not execute his wrap-up technique, but does have good body control moving in the open field. He is not used often on blitzes as his lack of power makes him a liability there, and he lacks that low center of gravity and leg drive needed to surprise a lethargic blocker when asked to shoot the gaps. In the open field, he has a good feel for angles and his range, combined with impressive foot speed, has led to a high amount of his open field tackles being made away from his assigned area.
Ward is developing into a very efficient coverage man for the kickoff and punt units, playing with reckless abandon. On special teams, he is a highly effective and fearless wedge-buster who breaks loose up the middle in a flash. He will generally line up as the R3 on the kickoff coverage squad (the middle of the five players on the right side). He has also utilized his great leaping ability (38-inch vertical jump) to excel as a kick blocker.
NICK COLLINS-ex-Green Bay: Like Collins, Ward has enough range to play centerfield and his 11 interceptions and 37 passes defended are evidence that he is a solid ball hawk. He can mirror the tight end underneath and stays tight with the slot receivers up the seam. When working the zone, he gets a much better jump on the ball on plays coming from the middle hash. He will square up and hit with good pop and is a solid wrap-up tackler in the open, but is a liability playing in tight quarters or when asked to operate near the line of scrimmage in run support. He appears very instinctive going for the jump ball, timing his leaps to get to the pigskin at its high point, leading me to feel he will bring more value roaming the field as a free safety rather than take on inside-the-box assignments as a strong safety.
Dave-Te' Thomas has more than 40 years of experience scouting for the NFL. With the NFL Draft Report, Thomas handles a staff that evaluates and tests college players before the draft and prepares the NFL's official Draft Packet, which is distributed to all 32 teams prior to the draft. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.