Minnesota Vikings: Jay Ward has an NFL skillset that requires further development
When the Minnesota Vikings hired Brian Flores as their defensive coordinator, he was expected to have a heavy say in how the team approached the off-season.
Not only is Flores a former head coach, but the former Miami Dolphins headman reportedly rejected head coaching offers to become the Vikings defensive coordinator.
In free agency, the Vikings signed cornerback Byron Murphy Jr., an inside-out defensive back who offers positional flexibility in Flores’ defense, to a two-year contract. Murphy was ultimately one of two marquee free-agent signings for the Vikings, joining edge rusher Marcus Davenport.
During the 2023 NFL Draft, the Vikings continued to stock Flores’ armory, drafting three defensive players with their six selections.
USC cornerback Mekhi Blackmon was the team’s third-round selection and should give the Vikings another versatile cornerback for Flores’ scheme.
After trading down in the fourth round, the Vikings continued to stockpile Flores’ secondary, selecting LSU defensive back Jay Ward with the 134th pick.
Ward was considered a “reach” by the NFL Draft media, coming in as the 179th prospect on Pro Football Network’s Consensus Big Board.
While teams don’t follow consensus big boards when making their selections, the Vikings obviously saw something that prompted them to make him the pick ahead of some other talented defensive backs.
A deeper dive into Ward’s film explains why Flores likely signed off on the pick, but his incomplete skillset paints a murky picture of his ability to impact the Vikings’ defense in his first season.
What is a 'Brian Flores' defensive back?
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If you followed any of my writing during the 2023 NFL Draft, you’ve likely heard me allude to someone being a “Brian Flores defensive back.”
In the simplest sense, this is any defensive back with traits that fit Flores’ unique defense. As a result, Flores likely “banged the table” for these prospects during meetings and signed off on their acquisitions during the off-season.
Although Flores is a linebacker by trade, defensive backs were a focal point in Miami between him and defensive coordinator Josh Boyer.
While Flores and Boyer’s hunt for defensive backs did not always pan out (it’s hard to forget the first-round selection used on Noah Igbinoghene), the Dolphins did see their fair share of success stories, including safeties Jevon and Brandon Jones and undrafted cornerback Nik Needham, who started 22 games under Flores.
Ultimately, any defensive back offering positional versatility likely fits the mold Flores looks for. Coming from the Bill Belichick tree, Flores often has five or more defensive backs on the field at once and asks these players (especially the safeties) to play different roles.
The Vikings’ off-season acquisitions followed a similar trend.
Byron Murphy Jr. and Mekhi Blackmon are cornerbacks who can play in the slot and on the boundary and could find themselves moving between the two depending on matchups.
Ward’s flexibility, though, is similar to Eric Rowe’s, who played under Flores in New England and Miami. Ward began his college career as a cornerback but moved to safety due to a log jam at the cornerback position on LSU’s depth chart.
Last season, Ward’s role saw him move back to cornerback, playing as the Tigers’ nickel cornerback all season. Although this role limited the number of snaps Ward saw, it allowed the physical cornerback to move closer to the line of scrimmage, where he could impact slot wide receivers and tight ends.
This flexibility likely interested Flores because of the aggressive nature of his defense. By running a lot of cover 0 blitzes, Flores places a lot of responsibility on his defensive backs’ shoulders, asking them to get physical at the line of scrimmage to allow the blitz to get home. That responsibility also falls on the safeties, who cover tight ends in man coverage if they are not blitzing.
What is Ward's full-time role?
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Jay Ward was LSU’s Swiss Army Knife, playing all over the field depending on matchups.
Against Mississippi State, Ward lined up as a deep safety in LSU’s three-safety set that was likely designed to stop the air raid offense they were tasked with. This kept the play in front of Ward, allowing him to release downfield when he saw plays develop. This game was Ward’s most productive, finishing with 11 tackles, including 1.5 for a loss and an interception to seal the win.
A few weeks later, Ward served as more of a box defender against Florida and athletic quarterback Anthony Richardson. Lining up in the box allowed Ward to take away crossers while keeping him close to Richardson to mitigate any rushing attempts.
Then, when LSU played against Ole Miss, Ward was the nickel cornerback, attaching himself to the slot wide receiver. This alignment took Ward off the field on some snaps but allowed him to use his physicality closer to the line of scrimmage.
Although Ward’s best game came as a deep safety, it’s just not a natural fit for how he plays. Ward should be closer to the line of scrimmage, where his short-area quickness and athleticism become a gift and not a hindrance. Likewise, keeping Ward closer to the action allows him to use his physicality to disrupt plays as they begin.
While box defender could be in the cards, Ward would need to bulk up to play against the offensive linemen and tight ends that he would see in this scenario. It’s not impossible, but it’s hardly his best fit, especially with his quick trigger.
Using Ward as a nickel cornerback would remove him from the game in two tight-end personnel groupings, but it’s the best use of his skill set and would maximize the talent he already brings.
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Turning on Ward’s film is a constant reminder that he used to play cornerback.
While his zone coverage needs work, Ward is already gifted in man coverage and knows when to use his physicality to disrupt plays before they develop.
Against Mississippi State, Ward also showcased his quickness to force a pass breakup. When Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers begins his throw, the wide receiver is open initially, and Ward is roughly three yards away from the intended target.
However, Ward breaks quickly and forces a pass breakup. This is a testament to Ward’s athleticism, which he showcased during the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine, running a 1.53-second 10-yard split on his 40-yard dash. This burst allows Ward to break on plays as they develop. While his play recognition skills are not fully refined, Ward can likely get away with some things due to his quickness.
Ward's physicality is a gift and a curse
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Ward plays with a sense of physicality that opponents fear.
On the field, he won’t take any nonsense from opposing players and is quick to throw his body into plays as they develop in front of him. This physicality makes him an asset in press-man coverage, where Ward uses his lengthy frame and physicality to disrupt wide receivers at the release point.
However, Ward needs to find ways to hone in on his physicality before it becomes a problem.
Ward had plenty of reps last season where his physicality got him in trouble. Penalties were all too common for Ward, drawing seven penalties during the 2022 season.
The problem isn’t necessarily the penalties; it’s more the fact that they’re different calls. It’s not just defensive pass interferences or illegal contacts; it’s a mixture of multiple penalties, all of which kept LSU on the field longer than necessary.
Against Florida, Ward’s trouble came toward the sideline. With the play already dead, Ward throws the ball carrier to the turf, creating an unsportsmanlike conduct call.
Although LSU had built a comfortable lead in the Florida game, these penalties can be a backbreaker for the defense. Ultimately, unsportsmanlike penalties like this are unnecessary and cost the team a free first down in all cases.
If this trend continues in the NFL, Ward’s time on defense could be short-lived. However, the good news is these penalties can be cleaned up in time. If Ward can learn how to use his physicality, these issues can quickly become a gift to the Vikings’ defense.
Pass rushing upside
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Flores likes defensive backs who can send pressure, and Ward fits the mold of a blitzing safety in certain situations.
Although the results were not always there, Ward showcased a knack for finding ways to disrupt plays in the backfield. This skill set likely stems from Ward’s combination of quickness and physicality.
Ward doesn’t just need to get sacks to disrupt plays, though. On this blitz against Mississippi State, Ward gets in the throwing line of quarterback Will Rogers, forcing him to hesitate before dumping it off to the running back.
This hesitation allows the LSU safety to trigger downfield and make an easy tackle on the running back. These plays can be just as beneficial as sacks for the defense.
If Flores wants to ask Ward to blitz in his cover 0 looks, Ward will likely be able to impact the game at certain times. He’ll need to work on the finishing aspect, but the process shows a fun part of his game.
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It’s not hard to see the vision that Brian Flores and the Vikings likely have for Jay Ward.
Ward’s versatility can add an extra element to the defense that didn’t exist last season. If last year’s defense was sluggish, the additions of Byron Murphy, Mekhi Blackmon, and Ward could be the energy drink that the team needs.
However, it seems unfair to expect Ward to be an immediate contributor to the defense.
Not only was he a late fourth-round pick, but Ward doesn’t enter with a high floor on defense. The ceiling might be higher, but Ward needs a lot of coaching from Flores and defensive backs coach Daronte Jones to recognize his gifts.
Ultimately, Ward is a major work in progress. His man coverage is good, but his physicality will hold him back in the NFL if it’s not cleaned up. Ward got away with some things in college that likely won’t fly against the faster and stronger wide receivers that the league has.
That point brings up another point of contention: was Ward the best use of the Vikings’ first pick on Day 3?
Ward’s future is likely at nickel cornerback, but the Vikings gave Byron Murphy, another slot cornerback, a two-year contract. While Murphy could find himself playing on the boundary, it isn’t the best use of his skill set. Murphy is a slot cornerback with positional flexibility, but playing inside should help him disrupt the game, similarly to his time with the Arizona Cardinals.
If that’s the case, then picking a player with a different role in the secondary could have been a better decision value-wise. There were boundary cornerbacks and prototypical safeties available that could have seen clearer pathways to playing compared to Ward.
To be clear, none of this is a slight on Ward’s talent. It’s more a question of Flores’ vision for his defensive backs. There’s a lot of versatility in the room, but there comes a point where the versatility becomes more of a negative than it does a positive, and the Vikings could be quickly approaching that reality.
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