The 6’5″, 297 pound shined for the Illini in his senior season, recording 53 tackles (3.5 tackles for loss) and 1.5 sacks–making all 12 starts along the defensive line. As a result, he was named All-Big Ten Honorable Mention by coaches for the 2nd straight season.
Ward is an intriguing developmental prospect because he started out as a wide receiver/safety in junior college before eventually making the transition to defensive line, which eventually led him to joining Illinois in 2014.
Theoretically, he could still be figuring out his size and potential–possessing rare quickness and coordination for a defensive lineman, as he didn’t start playing organized football until he was 14 years old.
Currently, Ward is projected to be an early round draft pick by many draft experts (via his NFL.com draft profile):
"DRAFT PROJECTIONRounds 2 or 3"
"BOTTOM LINEAbove average athleticism for a man his size and he has the effort level that should lead to continued improvement in the areas where he is deficient. Ward is a developmental prospect who has the size to fit as a 4-3 base end or defensive tackle and as a 3-4 defensive end. Is he mean enough to play inside though? He might need a position coach to draw that out of him while he continues to develop."
However, there are mixed opinions about his long-term potential (via MMQB’s Peter King):
"“Opinions of Ward as a player cover an expanse,” writes King. “His standout week at the Senior Bowl led Mel Kiper to project him as a first-round pick in February. Others see an inexperienced, position-less project that doesn’t deserve a thought in the first two rounds.”"
However, some scouting personnel like NFL.com’s Gil Brandt believe that he’s one of the draft’s most underrated defensive line prospects:
"Jihad Ward, DE, Illinois: Ward (6-5 1/8, 297, 5.17) was a high school wide receiver and defensive back who started at a junior college before transferring to Illinois. He has an unbelievable backstory of perseverance. He played just two years with the Illini with only one spring practice. He’s strong and a very good competitor. He’ll improve with experience and NFL coaching."
Some even speculate that he could be a first round pick:
However, durability could be a major area of concern, as Anderson is rehabilitating from a torn ACL and Jones is coming off a season-ending ankle injury.
If the Colts were to draft Ward, it means that the team is really intrigued by his long-term potential as a starting defensive end because there are more immediate needs on the roster defensively.
We’ll find out soon enough.