Breakout: Raiders DT Ward Expects 2017 Improvement

Raiders DT Jihad Ward
Jan 1, 2017; Denver, CO, USA; Oakland Raiders defensive end Jihad Ward (95) in the second quarter against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

There is a lot of talk about the Oakland Raiders defensive line this offseason. For good reason as the Raiders finished towards the bottom in sacks. Their running defense wasn’t much better. Ultimately, Football Outsiders ranked the Raiders defensive line at No. 23 based on opposing offensive lines’ success versus the unit.

Still, last year’s starting NT Dan Williams was cut. Oakland also invested another draft pick in the unit by selecting Eddie Vanderdoes in the third round. Mario Edwards Jr. is also healthy again. Edwards Jr.’s strength was desperately missed across the defensive line.

Either way, Jihad Ward seems like the forgotten man along the defensive line. Last offseason, Ward caught the attention of coaches and the media with his unique athleticism.

Now, he has an entire year of NFL development under his belt. Thus, Ward is the Raiders biggest variable on the defensive line.

In his rookie season, Ward played all over the defensive line. He played various shades on the outside and inside. The former JuCo safety displayed the length and quick first step that is the reason the Raiders invested a 2016 second round pick in Ward.

Still, Ward had a forgettable rookie year. He had 30 tackles and zero sacks. Ward saw less action as the season went on and the moments got bigger. His PFF grade was terrible too.

Regardless, Ward offers a unique skill set to the Raiders defensive line. He needs to get stronger to drop anchor when two-gapping offensive lineman. Ward also needs to get better hands to shed blocks in the running game. Too often, opponents washed him out .

The second-year defensive lineman must add some bend and pass rush moves when attacking the quarterback. This way he can finally sack the quarterback.

These are all teachable techniques for a player who is 23-years-old and still relatively new to the defensive line position. Once Ward can grow into his frame and learn some technique, he could become a dangerous player on the Raiders defensive line.

Ward has the athleticism, length and first-step that you want in an inside/outside interior defensive lineman. His versatility to play end and tackle could make him a force against the run and the pass.

The Raiders depth on the defensive line should give Ward the flexibility to only play in positions that he can succeed at. Oakland should use Vanderdoes in more interior roles, while Edwards Jr. should stay on the edge due to his recent weight loss. Edwards also played out of control during his limited snaps on the inside last season.

This means Ward should concentrate on learning the end position for the base defense. Ward offers the length to play the position in odd and even fronts. Otherwise, he could slide inside in pass rushing situations.

Twitter: @Petecertified

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