With their 2nd round pick (44th overall) in the 2016 NFL Draft, the Raiders surprised many by selecting Jihad Ward, the 6’5 and 300 pound defensive end out of Illinois. Having just started playing Defensive End in junior college, Ward was considered raw and would need considerable coaching.
“Jihad has been playing defensive line for a handful of years,” Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie said after the draft. “You can count them all on one hand and still have fingers left. He’s just so raw at the position. We just thought he was a good football player with a great upside. We just jumped at the chance to be the team to have him, coach him up and see how far he can go.”
The Raiders were not expecting for Ward to have a major role his rookie year but an injury to fellow D-lineman Mario Edwards Jr. forced him into the lineup, making 13 starts. With some poor results. This report from PFF says it all.
Top overall grade: OLB Khalil Mack, 93.9
Lowest overall grade: DE Jihad Ward, 37.7
Much like Aaron Donald with Los Angeles, Khalil Mack can carry a front-seven all on his own. The Raiders, though, gave him considerably less help the Rams gave Donald. The interior, in particular, was a sieve. Rookie second-round pick Jihad Ward was simply not ready for the rigors of the NFL, and finished as the lowest-graded starting interior lineman. Even more disappointing was the season from nose tackle Dan Williams, who was dominant in 2015 with a 12.1 run-stop percentage, but then saw that plummet to only 4.9 percent this season.
The good news for the Raiders is Ward’s issues are in his technique, or lack there of, which are completely coachable. A perfect example was this play from week 13 against the Buffalo Bills. Ward seems lost and is completely stonewalled by Richie Incognito. Ward does not get a yard behind the line of scrimmage giving Taylor a wide open throwing lane.
The coaching staff will be focusing on his pass rush moves this offseason and should improve his technique. Developing pass rush moves and then subsequent counter moves takes time and repetition. It will help that those reps will be against one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. Not all the blame lies with Ward for the Raiders’ lack of pass rush though, the defensive scheme played a role as well.
“Part of it is that our attack needs to become a little more attacking,” said Raiders Head Jack Coach Del Rio. “There was a little too much catch-and-read at the line, which system-wise, we’re looking at to make sure we’re teeing off and doing the things we need to do to give those guys a chance.”
To address the schematic aspects of the defense, The Raiders hired former Chargers defensive coordinator, John Pagano, as assistant head coach - defense. Having another experienced coach on the defense will help to develop the young players as well as utilize them in ways that highlight their talent.
“Jihad’s got great talent” said Del Rio. “We’ve got to develop that talent and get him to play a little bit better, and he will. I really believe he will.”
Though don’t expect that belief to change Ward’s approach to the season. He knows what he is capable of and is intent on becoming a great defensive lineman.
“I still act like I am in JUCO. I just keep grinding, keep staying uncomfortable, and staying uncomfortable is staying focused” Ward said. “If I do something good, don’t even worry about it; that’s in the past. What’s next? I just have the same mindset as I keep going. I don’t want to hear the good stuff that is coming out. I want to hear the stuff that I need to work on. That is the part of being a good defensive lineman.”
Ward understands the work he has to put in. He showed up to camp in great shape and has received praise for his work ethic. Though don’t tell him, he isn’t interested in being praised.
What kind of impact will Ward have in 2017?
This poll is closed
He will be a dominant player
He will be a below average starter
He will only be a rotational player
He will be cut before the season