It was not a good first year in Oakland for Raiders defensive lineman Jihad Ward. Now that he’s coming off the PUP list, does he make the year two leap?
Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie has been consistent with how he has drafted defensive linemen over the last few years. He’ll reach for a guy that he feels has great upside. McKenzie did so with guys like Mario Edwards Jr., Jihad Ward and Eddie Vanderdoes in the last three drafts.
While all three players are still young, as the most seasoned in Edwards is only entering his third season in the league, Raider Nation hasn’t seen either Edwards or Ward pop thus far in the Silver and Black. A reason for this is all three have dealt with a myriad of injuries.
Edwards was able to rejoin camp earlier in the month. Vanderdoes has been ready to go for a few weeks now. On Tuesday, Ward was able to come back into the fold after coming off the PUP list. Can he overcome his offseason foot surgery to make the proverbial leap in year two?
Well, Ward can’t be much worse than he was in rookie year for the 2016 Raiders. In 16 games for the Raiders, Ward made 13 starts, recording just 30 combined tackles and forcing one fumble. Pro Football Focus had him graded as the No. 125 defensive interior player in 2016 at an atrocious 39.3.
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While his pass coverage grade of 64.7 was respectable for a defensive lineman, Ward struggled mightily in run defense (40.2) and pass rush (45.0).
Clearly, the game was too fast for him in his rookie year out of Illinois, but familiarity with defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.’s system should help him out in year two.
Though Edwards, Vanderdoes and seventh-round rookie Treyvon Hester out of Toledo are still trying to sort things out in this defense, the Raiders have seen good things out of Denico Autry and Justin Ellis in the preseason.
Head coach Jack Del Rio did say in his press conference on Tuesday that he thinks his defensive line is his best defensive group in Oakland this year.
Del Rio might be a little ahead of himself, but this defensive line is a deep group for the Raiders. It is advantageous for Norton to use a healthy rotational mix to keep the defensive front fresh. However, it was embarrassing to see that unit struggle so badly in run defense against the Los Angeles Rams on Saturday night. Todd Gurley was able to rack up the yards after first contact.
To bring it back to Ward, he should be able to have a better season with the Raiders as a second-year player. He set the bar pretty low with a trying first year. Scheme continuity, a solid supporting cast and playing with a chip on his shoulder should hopefully bring out the best in him in 2017.