Earlier this week, the Jets signed running back Jonathan Ward to their practice squad. Today, we break down Ward in detail.
The 25-year old Ward is listed at 6’0” and 202 pounds and was undrafted out of Central Michigan in 2020. He has played in 32 regular season games with the Arizona Cardinals over the past two and a half seasons, rushing for 33 yards, catching four passes for 45 yards and a touchdown and registering 13 tackles on special teams.
Ward, who was a two-star recruit out of high school, was a useful reserve in his first year with the Central Michigan Chippewas as he rushed for 200 yards and two scores and caught eight passes for 69 yards.
He broke out as a sophomore and had a thousand yard season while also putting up career best numbers as a receiver with 48 catches, 470 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed for 10 scores as he was second in the MAC for yards from scrimmage.
Unfortunately, he failed to build on that in his junior year as injuries affected his performance and limited him to nine appearances and six starts. He rushed for just 212 yards, averaging less than three yards per carry, and only caught eight passes.
Ward was able to bounce back with a big senior year in 2019, though, rushing for career highs in yardage (1,108) and touchdowns (15). He also caught 34 passes as he was named an all-MAC third team selection.
Having not been selected in the 2020 NFL draft, Ward was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Arizona Cardinals and, although he was released in final cuts, they re-signed him to their practice squad and elevated him for two early season games before promoting him to the 53-man roster.
He only played four offensive snaps as a rookie, but did score his first career touchdown on his only touch and racked up seven special teams tackles. In 2021, he saw brief action on offense with nine carries and three catches for a total of 67 yards and again contributed on special teams. He was once again back in a special teams role in 2022 but got injured in week five and was released. The Jets signed Ward to their practice squad earlier this week.
Now let’s take a look at what Ward brings to the table, divided into categories.
Ward, who isn’t very big, but has large hands, was part of the 2020 draft class that didn’t get a chance to post official workout numbers and has a reputation as someone who lacks elite athletic ability, which may have been part of the reason why he went undrafted.
Some sources record his 40-yard dash time as 4.55 but that may be an estimate. He was a good long jumper in high school.
Ward isn’t just a conventional back. He’s also shown some ability to produce if he lines up outside or in the slot. In fact, some scouting reports suggest NFL teams might be interesting in looking at him as a receiver.
Ward was a productive back in college and although his junior year was tough, he averaged over 5.5 yards per carry in each of his other three seasons.
Despite his reputation as someone who lacks elite speed, he did have six games in college where he broke a run of 40 yards or more and he shows some acceleration and an ability to run away from defensive backs on some of his film.
In 27 carries at the NFL level, both in regular and preseason action, Ward hasn’t had a single carry for more than eight yards. However, he has generated seven first downs.
You wouldn’t consider Ward a power runner, as he doesn’t break many tackles and can be inconsistent with how he finishes his runs. However, he did hit the hole hard on this play.
Ward isn’t a flashy runner, although he has the ability to slip a tackle at the second level or down the field. He has a direct style and can make quick cuts and changes of directions.
He has shown an ability to handle a big workload as he had several games with more than 20 carries in college, including three with 25 or more in his final season.
One concern is ball security. Ward had eight total fumbles in his final season and also had a fumbled handoff exchange at the NFL level. Prior to his senior year, he only had three fumbles in his first three seasons.
Ward had over half of his 28 rushing touchdowns in his college career during his senior year and showed his ability to convert in short yardage situations with two one-yard touchdowns in a preseason game against the Bengals this year.
Much like most of the backs the Jets have brought in recently, Ward offers more than just a dump-off or screen pass option in the passing game. He has some basic route running skills and caught several passes down the field or in tight coverage in his college career.
So far in his NFL career, most of his production has come on short passes and he obviously has the ability to make yards after the catch.
His hands improved over the course of his college career, as he had seven drops in his first two seasons, but then only four in the next two. He doesn’t have any drops in NFL regular or preseason action and went viral with this incredible catch on a fake punt.
Ward had plenty of experience of staying in to pass protect in college, where he only gave up one sack that was probably more down to a mental error than bad technique.
He’s only had a few chances to do this at the NFL level and his lack of size might be something that holds him back in this area.
Ward can be a good contributor on special teams. He was a valuable asset in kick coverage with 13 tackles and a forced fumble over the course of his time with the Cardinals.
On this kickoff, Ward made a great play to blow up the return with a big hit inside the 10-yard line, although he did injure himself in the process.
Ward got a chance to return a few kicks in preseason action and impressed on a 48-yard return. In college, he had limited return game experience as he averaged 23 yards on six kickoffs and returned five punts for 16 yards.
He had three penalties on special teams in NFL regular season action - one false start and two for holding.
Ward employs a direct style and showcases some impressive vision to find running lanes and hit them at speed.
If there’s a criticism, it’s that he is perhaps not all that creative as a runner, but he does a good job of following his blockers
Ward is considered to be a fun character and showed good toughness and resilience to bounce back from his tough junior year. He was a team captain in college.
One sign of his level of confidence was prior to his team’s game against Kentucky where he told the media he’d never heard of Benny Snell. Unfortunately, he only backed that up by rushing for 36 yards.
Ward has been banged up a lot throughout his college and pro career, although he has often displayed toughness by playing through some of these injuries. Most recently, he went onto injured reserve with a hamstring injury in week five.
Previous injuries have included concussions, a couple of shoulder injuries and a knee injury. As noted, he missed multiple games in his junior year.
Ward looks like a player who has the kind of skill-set the Jets look for in their running backs, so even though it happened at a time when Michael Carter is injured and the Jets might need short term cover, he has probably been signed more with an eye on potentially bringing him to camp next year.
He played with current Jet Tyler Conklin with the Chippewas and practice squad member Chris Streveler with the Cardinals.
Ward contributed well during his time with the Cardinals so he’s no slouch, even though he hasn’t had many chances to showcase his running ability at this level yet.
He’ll be someone they look to get familiar with over the next several weeks and if he performs well, they’ll almost certainly sign him to a futures deal at the end of the season.
Whether he’ll get a chance to contribute this year probably depends on whether there are any further injuries, but this could still be an interesting player to get a longer look at next summer.