Raiders defensive lineman Jihad Ward had a good-news, bad-news type of debut in the National Football League.
The team’s second-round pick out of Illinois, a 6-foot-5, 296-pounder, stayed healthy, played in 16 games and started 13. Coaches at times were impressed by the progress he made, and Ward was in on 30 tackles while also recovering a fumble.
Defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. said in December that he was pleased with Ward’s attitude and aptitude.
“He’s always hustling, plays really hard, in meetings early, asking for extra help,” said Norton. “He’s durable. He’s playing every play. He’s here every day, shows up all the time. Extremely happy with his development.”
But not everyone was as positive. The analytic website Pro Football Focus wrote that Ward “was simply not ready for the rigors for the NFL and finished as the (Raiders’) lowest-graded starting interior lineman.”
Ward didn’t get a single sack in 16 games and often was overpowered at the line of scrimmage. In a game against the Titans early in the season, for instance, Pro Football focus noted Ward “was consistently moved from the point of attack and simply couldn’t anchor against the Titans’ line, getting smashed back and allowing big gains all day.”
Jeff Smith, who writes about the Raiders for Fanragsports.com, said Ward’s production in 2016 was “not even close” to the type of production anticipated from a second-round pick.
Even before he played a down in the NFL, there were skeptics. Many analysts believe Ward didn’t merit being selected in the second round, and pointed to the fact he had just 5½ sacks in 24 games at Illinois, with only 13 tackles for loss.
Others, however, see Ward as a project who could pay off if the Raiders stay patient. He’s just 23, he’s physically gifted and he’s shown a willingness to play hard and work. Norton has faith Ward will take big steps in 2017 and 2018.
“Some players take one, two, three years,” Norton said. “Myself, I didn’t get to go and play until my second year.” He says he didn’t start playing well until his third season.
Added Norton: “We brought him here to … play and grow and develop every day and he’s doing just that.”