The offseason is often when the small-school prospects really begin to be noticed and slowly rise up the draft boards.
Northern Illinois safety Jimmie Ward has already seen his stock boost significantly since his final collegiate game ended. After being projected as a late Day 3 pick at the end of the year, a great showing at the Senior Bowl and deeper film study now has him being projected to go in the first round.
The 5-11, 191-pound ball of fire displays great coverage skills and the ability to come down close to the line of scrimmage and stick with bigger receivers. He's physical and wraps-up ball-carriers well enough they he could be a solid strong safety, but he also has the field awareness and overall speed to get from sideline-to-sideline and play free safety.
That kind of versatility makes him an ideal fit for the Bengals, who are lacking depth at both safety spots, and can also play nickle cornerback.
He was first-team All-MAC as a junior and a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe award as a senior, leading the Huskies in tackles both seasons. He led NIU this year in not only tackles (95) but also interceptions (7) and passes defended (14).
In 2012, Ward led the team in tackles last season, totaling 104 in 13 games. He added 11 pass breakups and a forced fumble to go along with three interceptions.
Ward made an immediate impact as a freshman at NIU, playing in all 14 games and blocking three punt. That actually may help his stock since rookies are expected to contribute significantly on special teams.
He finished his college career as a three time All-MAC performer (first-team twice) while grabbing 11 interceptions, four forced fumbles, and notching over 300 tackles while only missing one game in four years.
Though he played in the MAC, Ward played well against elite competition in the few opportunities he got, including the 2013 Orange Bowl vs. Florida State:
Ward could come in and immediately fill the role of Chris Crocker as an enforcer at safety who plays like a LB at times, except Ward has better coverage skills and could eventually overtake George Iloka for his starting safety spot.
He could even be groomed to replace Reggie Nelson, who has two years left on his deal and will be 32 when his contract expires. He could even significant playing time at corner, depending on Leon Hall's recovery from another torn Achilles, not to mention Adam Jones and Terence Newman will probably miss at least game each with various injuries.
Just watching Ward's snaps at cornerback at NIU, you'd think he was capable of playing their full-time at the NFL level:
As a rookie, Ward will at least be the first safety off the bench while also coming in occasionally as nickle corner. He'll also be a great contributor on special teams.
Of all the players who could be on the board at pick No. 24, Ward may very well be the one who makes the biggest impact as a rookie.