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2016 NFL Draft: Potential Panther? Jihad Ward

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A Philadelphia native, one quick look at Ward's twitter page, and you quickly get the idea that he is a Panthers fan. He calls former Panthers DE Julius Peppers his idol, he writes "The Panthers have not been to the Super Bowl in over a decade. Guess who led them there this time? A JUCO product did, referencing the fact that Cam Newton and Ward both played at a Junior College.

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Ward's frame is very similar to his idol, as he measured just over six-foot-five, and 296 pounds. Ward combines power with agility, a formula that has Journey to the Draft Podcast's Fran Duffy believing he could end up in the first round.

During his latest podcast, Duffy gushes "just a really impressive player because of his combination of size, his athleticism his high motor.  He showed the ability to win with his hands early in the down. Today, in one-on-one drills, a couple times he beat Stanford's Kyle Murphy, really clean off the ball."

When discussing Ward on The College Draft with Ross Tucker podcast Duffy explains that after watching Ward for the first time, against Iowa, that he thought "there is no way this kid does not go in the top-25."

Ward started all twelve games last season, spending time at both end and tackle, but the game that stands out was the game against Iowa, when he primarily played three-technique, finishing with a career-high eleven tackles, including nine solo stops.

Neither Daniel Jeremiah or Dane Brugler have Ward in their recently released top-50s, and NFL.com's Lance Zierlein does not have him in his top-100. DraftInsider.net's Tony Pauline graded Ward as just a fifth round prospect after the season. Understandable, given Ward's statistics, 54 tackles with 2.5 sacks, numbers that don't scream elite prospect.  Understandable, but I think the world is about to catch-up to Duffy.

Why is Ward flying under the radar?

A former HS basketball player, Ward only started playing football in 10th grade, and spent two seasons at Globe Tech Community College, in NYC before signing with Illinois, where the Illini are just 11-14 over the past two seasons.

Rotoworld's Josh Norris reported that NFL scouts have really taken to Ward, not surprising because his ability to play anywhere on the defensive line.

During Senior Bowl interviews Ward said "I'm extremely versatile. If they want me to pay three-technique, I can play three technique. If they want be to play five technique, I can play five technique. It really don't matter. I love being coached so wherever it is, I'm just with it".

After the first day of practices at the Senior Bowl, Optimum Scouting's Eric Galco wrote Indiana's Jason Spriggs was the only tackle to consistently block Ward, "who dominated every other offensive lineman".

DraftBreakDown's Bryan Perez wrote "Ward has opened a lot of eyes through two days of practice, most notably during the bag drills. Two words: Heavy Hands!  He doesn't have an array of rush moves in his repertoire that can complement his top-end power."

Also of DraftBreakDown, draft analyst Kyle Crabbs called Ward "the most impressive defensive player on the field for either team. His natural athleticism, crisp and efficient movements skills and active hands made him a handful".

For those of you not familiar, DraftBreakdown.com has a collection of 10-15 minute cut-ups focusing on a particular prospect. Their videos are often used by the highest profile media draft analysts in the business.

Currently, they only have one game for Ward, against Ohio State. In that game, Ward was the recipient of countless double-teams, often resulting in him being pushed backwards. Also, there were a few times, Ward lost his balance. Taken within context, the Illini defensive line as a whole can't possibly hold up to the likes of Taylor Decker, Pat Elfein, and company.

As Perez noted, Ward is far from a finished product. I don't think I am being to presumptuous if I say he has not received the best coaching to this point (two seasons at Globe Tech, followed by two at Illinois, who fired their head coach just one week before their 2015 opener).

Given the depth along the defensive line, one of the strengths of this year's draft class, it is difficult to predict how high Ward can climb the rankings. For now Duffy's prediction appears to be overly optimistic, but this time last year, few would have predicted Byron Jones or Damarious Randall would have cracked the top-30 picks.