Jihad Ward, DL
School: Illinois | Conference: Big Ten
College Experience: Senior | Age: 22
Height / Weight: 6-5 / 297 lbs
Projected Draft Status: Late-Second to Early Fourth Round
NFL Comparison: Michael Bennett
The curious case of Jihad Ward begins this weekend. Ward was a skill player a few years ago, playing receiver and safety in junior college before bulking up and switching to defensive lineman — hardly a standard transition. He's very clearly still a work in progress, and his technique is far from a finished product, as is his body. He weighed in at 297 pounds at the Combine (298 at his Pro Day), but he looks skinnier on tape, which is in part because he measures 6-foot-5 and therefore looked lighter than he probably was.
He spent most of his time playing on the inside in a 4-3 front at Illinois, and it remains to be seen if that's where he'll end up in the NFL. His weight isn't a huge problem, though it's a bit on the slight side considering his height, but he needs to fill out his frame some. He looks top-heavy on film, and if he wants to mash inside with NFL interior linemen, he'd be well-served to level out around 310 pounds.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a player with as much upside in this draft, with DeForest Buckner as a major exception. Seriously, consider how insane it is that in 2012 he was a receiver/safety in junior college, and in 2014, he managed 3.0 sacks and 8.5 tackles for a loss as a defensive lineman in the Big Ten. With so little experience under his belt, and based on the moderate success he's experienced so far, it's easy to fall in love with his potential.
- The guy is athletic as hell.
- With a 6-foot-5 frame and already up to about 300 pounds, his body is ready to be fine-tuned into an ideal defensive lineman build. As Prince (RIP) would say, U Got The Look, Jihad.
- That build makes him quite versatile, and he could appeal to any defensive coordinator. Want him on the inside? Fine. Want him on the outside? No problem. 3-4? That's doable. 4-3? Been there, done that.
- He's got quick feet, no doubt due to his background as a skill player. He changes direction quickly and knows how to sneak past big, bulky lineman with relative ease. This is another skill that could be improved upon considerably with proper coaching.
- There's something to be said about a guy who, in order to prolong his football career, agreed to move to a totally different, much less glamorous position, while in junior college, no less.
- Naturally, Ward has a tremendous amount of work to do to get to where other top defensive linemen in the draft are. He's years behind in his development, and though he's made up ground quickly, there remains a considerable gap.
- His technique is well below average. He routinely gets pushed backward by capable offensive linemen, and sometimes it's not even close. On the first snap against Ohio State in 2015, Ward is pushed two yards back before Ezekiel Elliott, who took the handoff, even makes it to the line of scrimmage.
- He could play pretty much anywhere on the line, but right now, he plays nowhere. In weighing roughly 300 pounds at the Combine, it suggests he's in the process of bulking up — again, I don't buy that he played at that weight in 2015 — but he still has some filling out to do. Considering his height, he should probably add a few more pounds if he wants to play on the edge, or about a dozen pounds if he wants to play inside.
- If the team that drafts him doesn't have the means or patience to develop him properly, there's a real chance he never pans out as an NFL player. Frankly, if Ward had been a defensive lineman his whole career and was entering the draft with his current numbers, his stock would be lower. It's the potential you're buying, and potential often goes unreached.
How He Would Fit on the Redskins
He doesn't really have a reputation for a mean streak, which Scot McCloughan wants his linemen to have, and he isn't an especially physical lineman, which is another trait McCloughan wants in his big fellas. He does, however, have the potential to develop both of those things, which is something that you can't say about most linemen coming into the NFL. Usually you either have those or you don't; because Ward is still so early in his development, he has the ability to add both of those to his resume.
The major downside to Ward, at least when it comes to the Redskins: He is going to need time. Washington needs help on the defensive line this season, and while Ward can surely fit into the rotation, he (probably) won't be an impact player as a rookie. If McCloughan is confident in his coaching staff's ability to develop young talent, which I believe he is, Ward is an intriguing pick, especially if he falls to the third or fourth round. At that point in the draft, the Redskins won't be seeking an immediate contributor, and Ward will have the chance to develop at his own pace. That could make all the difference.
To me, his best fit is on the outside in a 3-4 front, where he can take full advantage of his quickness and length without having to further bulk up a body not used to being as heavy as it already is. I can see him basically playing the role Jason Hatcher — another tall, somewhat skinny lineman — played the past two seasons.