Now that the draft is over, fresh out of college rookies get their first taste of life in the NFL as rookie minicamps are open all across the country. One name we'll have our eye on is former Illini defensive end Jihad Ward, who was selected No. 44 overall by the Oakland Raiders.
So far, Ward has been impressing in his first two days of minicamp after missing the team’s first day of camp to attend commencement ceremony in Champaign. He also earned shout outs in both of the Raiders.com rookie camp observations here and here. The question going forward is: how does the former Illini star fit in the NFL?
The Raiders are pretty multiple defensively, often showing both 4-3 and 3-4 looks in the same game. This is perfect for a player like Jihad Ward. As I outlined in his draft profile Ward is a 3-4 defensive end, or a 4-3 defensive tackle. With the Raiders’ current personnel, it would seem like he will be seeing more time in the interior of the line. For much of the last half of 2015, Ward played inside for Illinois, highlighted by an 11-tackle performance against Iowa in October.
Crowded Depth Chart
Though the Raiders used a 2nd round pick on Ward, he joins a position group that is stacked with competition. The team has a cornerstone pass-rusher in 25-year-old Khalil Mack. The 2014 1st round pick compiled 15 sacks last year and 77 tackles as one of the bright spots for Oakland. Mack stands at 6-foot-3, 250 lbs. and is a perfect size for a 3-4 outside linebacker. As for the other pass rusher spot on the outside, the Raiders have Aldon Smith (who is facing a suspension until November) and signed OLB Bruce Irvin from the Seahawks this past offseason.
In addition to the pass-rushing specialists on the outside, the Raiders have a warchest of young prospects on the defensive line. Mario Edwards Jr., who was recently cleared to return after suffering a scary neck injury last season, looks like he’ll be back in the fold. Edwards Jr. stands at 6-foot-3, 280 lb. and improved as the year went on in his rookie campaign last season. The Raiders also signed 23-year-old defensive end Damontre Moore last week, in addition to spending a 3rd round pick on Michigan State standout Shilique Calhoun, although Calhoun might be better served as a linebacker.
How does Ward fit in this jumble? Only time will tell, but the Raiders seem to have loaded up on young defensive linemen to fill out their defense for the future.
Right after Ward was drafted, NFL insider Adam Schefter dropped this bomb about Ward’s health:
There are NFL teams who believe Raiders' 2nd-round pick, DE Jihad Ward, will need arthroscopic knee surgery that could sideline him 6 weeks.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) April 30, 2016
Schefter later said that the Raiders believed that Ward won’t need surgery on his knee, but if there are some concerns, it’s hard to believe that he has a totally clean bill of health. For what it’s worth, Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio downplayed the situation by saying: "Don’t believe all the reports. We felt pretty good about our reports. He looks terrific. He’s very athletic."
Ward will need to set the tone early—which it sounds like he is doing—in order to continue to get reps once the vets show up for training camp in August. Keep posted, but Ward will have the chance that all NFL players can ask for: a chance to fight for playing time.