Superb at picking up receivers in off-man coverage
Natural zone-safety skills
Could use more strength
Could get pushed around by big receivers, tight ends
Receivers, tight ends can make catches over him even in tight coverage
Lacks size to be the eighth man in the box
Level of competition
Summary: The NFL is a passing-driven league, and safeties with the ability to play some man coverage are a hot commodity. That makes Ward one of the more intriguing safeties in the 2014 NFL Draft. While Ward is undersized, his pass-coverage skills are special, and he looks like he will be an asset as a defender of slot receivers.
Starting early in his career, Ward was an impact defender for Northern Illinois. He recorded 100 tackles, an interception and four passes broken up as a sophomore in 2011. The next season, Ward was even better with 104 tackles and three interceptions. He finished his junior year with a good game against Florida State and its talented wide receivers.
In 2013, Ward had 95 tackles with seven interceptions and 10 passes defended. He followed that up with an impressive week of practice at the Senior Bowl. Ward did really well matching up in coverage against the all-star receivers. He picked them up down field and kept them from getting open. Ward did well in one-on-ones and looks ready to compete at the next level.
Ward's best trait for the NFL is his ability to line up and cover slot receivers. His quickness, flexibility and fluid athleticism allow him to line up at the line of scrimmage or pick up slot receivers in off-man coverage. Ward will be a real asset to his defense when going against dangerous slot receivers.
In the deep part of the field, Ward covers a lot of ground and is very smart about getting in position to defend deep wide outs. Coaches should be able to trust Ward as the deep safety over the top who can help his cornerbacks.
Ward was a good run-defender in college, as his tackle totals indicate. He tackles well and does a nice job of weaving through blockers. Ward is smart about how he tackles by taking the legs out from underneath backs. However, Ward is undersized and could have some issues with power backs.
The size could be a detriment for Ward in covering receiving tight ends and big wide receivers. He has the skills to match up on them and prevent separation, but tight ends and tall receivers will be able to make catches over him. Ward's size is the biggest negative, and if he were larger, he could be a first-round prospect.
For the NFL, Ward will work well as a free safety who plays center field. His ability to match up on slot receivers will be a real asset for his defense. With Ward's coverage abilities, he should be a second-day pick in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Player Comparison: Eric Weddle. There is a key similarity between Ward and Weddle. Like Weddle, Ward has the ability to cover slot receivers and tight ends. Neither Weddle or Ward is overly physical at laying the lumber on receivers downfield. However, both can be impact players in pass coverage. Weddle has been selected as an All-Pro three times and has gone to the Pro Bowl. Weddle (5-11, 200) is slightly bigger than Ward and was a second-round pick in 2007. Ward could be a second- or third-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. In the NFL, Ward could turn into a safety who is similar to Weddle.
NFL Matches: St. Louis, Baltimore, Minnesota, Chicago, Green Bay, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Arizona, New York Jets
There are a lot of teams that could consider drafting Ward on the second day of the 2014 NFL Draft. The Eagles have a huge hole at safety, but Chip Kelly has a preference for safeties with size.
Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said that improving the safety position would be a goal of the offseason. Ward and Matt Elam could form an athletic tandem.
The Jets need to improve their safeties, and Ward would be a good fit for Rex Ryan.
In the NFC North, the Vikings could use a safety to pair with Harrison Smith and have an extra third-round pick from the Percy Harvin trade. The Bears could look for an upgrade over Chris Conte and Major Wright. Ward would fit Mel Tucker's defense well. The safety position was a weakness for the Packers last year. They need to find a partner to go with Morgan Burnett. Ward isn't really their type of defensive backs as they prefer longer and rangy athletes, but Ward's coverage skills would come in handy for a defense that had a lot of busted coverage last year.
In the NFC West, the 49ers could use an understudy to Donte Whitner. The Cardinals got a good season out of Yeremiah Bell last year, but they will need to get a long-term starter. The Rams have a huge need at safety. They need a safety with coverage skills to pair with T.J. McDonald.