With the NFL Draft and free agency inching up, the heat on the front office to build a champion. Equally important is the ability to sustain excellence. Since the Raiders invested heavily in Jon Gruden, the heat also intensifies on Reggie McKenzie to succeed. For better or worse, the roster sits on the shoulders of McKenzie. Recently, many of his decisions fell flat. Jihad Ward serves as glaring reminder for improvement.
he Ward Issue
When the Raiders drafted Jihad Ward 44th overall in 2016, many scratched their collective heads in wonder. If you look at the career paths of the players drafted immediately following Ward, eyebrows raise. Alabama’s Derrick Henry and A’Shawn Robinson fell to the Titans and Lions. Imagine wither one of them in Oakland. Instead, Ward’s tenure remains marred by struggle, injury, and controversy.
Lack of Production
Upside alone should not merit a second round pick. Granted, Ward did not receive high level coaching at Illinois, embroiled in their own issue. However, considering the expectations of a plug and play lineman, Ward never capitalized on his opportunities. In 762 snaps, he tallied 32 tackles, 1 sack, and a fumble recovery. Meanwhile, the undrafted Denico Autry finished 2017 with a career-high five sacks. Additionally, Autry batted down seven passes. Autry enters free agency with elevated value, while Autray enters 2018 with an unsure future.
So far, Ward’s tenure in Oakland has not remained free of controversy. From social media posts that bashed his defensive line coach, cracks appeared in Ward’s outlook. In itself, that undermines the authority of a position coach, leading to tension. As Jon Gruden took the podium, he mentioned accountability. As a result, coaches will enjoy a tighter control over the team. Entering his third and possibly final season with the Raiders, Ward needs to adjust to the new staff, not vice versa.
As mentioned, Paul Guenther brings a new scheme to the Raiders. Within that scheme, the defensive line must generate pressure, occasionally without blitzing. Think of it like basketball, where players need to create their own chances without screens. As a result, the heat on Ward to produce during preseason increases. While no one expects him to transform into Carlos Dunlap or Geno Atkins, one sack in two seasons is not going to maintain a roster spot.
In reality, Year 3 remains crucial for Jihad Ward. By all accounts, he is a Reggie McKenzie project. Now, with Gruden and Guenther aboard, his chances to impress lessen. The Raiders want him to succeed in the new system. In addition, Reggie McKenzie cannot afford another failed second round picked, based on potential. Upside is great. Unrealized potential gets coaches and management fired. In that case, this cannot serve as Ward’s lone Raiders highlight.