Rookie defensive tackle Jihad Ward hasn’t been everything some thought he would be right away.
His 17 tackles, one fumble recovery and total absence of sacks already have many fans clamoring for a change, ready to slap him with the bust label and go on to the next option. Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., though, isn’t on that side of things:
“As far as him understanding what we do, as far as him understanding how to work well with others and to really accept the coaching, very happy with what he’s doing. Obviously, from your standpoint, everybody talks about sacks, but at the same time, his discipline, his gap control, his mentals are down. He’s always hustling, plays really hard, in meetings early, asking for extra help. He’s durable. He’s playing every play. He’s here every day, shows up all the time. Extremely happy with his development.”
Norton isn’t the type of guy to speak poorly of his players, but also offered an example of one of the league’s best linebackers of all time developing at their own pace:
“You go from Year 1 to Year 2 to Year 3 and some guys develop right away. Some come and develop impactful, right when they step on the field. Some take one, two, three years. Myself, I didn’t get to go and play until my second year and until my third year until I really started playing at a really high level.”
In the modern NFL, failure goes unforgiven, and the failures are quickly forgotten.
What’s almost always forgotten among fans, though, is that there’s a steep learning curve in the NFL. And the talent level that player’s compete with isn’t remotely close to what guys see in college.
Khalil Mack was getting the bust label by some, in fact, as was fellow draftee Derek Carr.
The quarterback and pass rusher are now three years in, and being given a different type of label. Carr is in the running for most valuable player, and Mack could very well finish the season as the defensive player of the year.
For every Ezekiel Elliot, there are a few Antonio Brown types — before setting the league ablaze in 2015, Brown caught only 16 passes for 167 yards in his rookie season, then catching 69 passes for over 1,000 yards during his second season.
Mack recorded only four sacks during his rookie season, and Carr threw for barely more than 200 yards per game in that same rookie year.
Norton said of Ward:
“He’s big and strong and has some veterans around him who have been there before. Bruce has done a lot. Khalil has done a lot. He’s not the only guy in the room. They all kind of work together. They have a good rotation. We brought him here to be here and play and grow and develop every day and he’s doing just that.”
The wrap on Ward as the draft season went along was that he was a physical specimen who had a lot to work on as a football player. The NFL has seen a lot of guys like that come and go.
Ward, though, has plenty of time to grow, and his per game numbers say he’s doing just that: Ward recorded seven tackles in the loss at Kansas City last Thursday night, tied for second most on the Raiders defense behind safety Nate Allen.
The Raiders surely hope that trend continues, especially with Oakland looking to clinch their first playoff berth since 2002 with a win over San Diego on Sunday. Norton added:
“There’s lots of things to improve on. There’s things we’re doing really good. Things we certainly need to improve on. Sacks, I think last year we were up in the 38 area, where you end up. The season’s not quite over yet.”
Jason Leskiw is SFBay’s Oakland Raiders beat writer and member of the Professional Football Writers of America. Follow @SFBay and @LeskiwSFBay on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of Raiders football.