Undrafted RB Jonathan Ward joins Arizona Cardinals with chip on his shoulder, says 'odds are against me'
As the picks rolled across the ticker on the ESPN draft telecast, former Central Michigan running back Jonathan Ward began to embrace his fate. It was his dream to see his name pop up, the choice of an NFL team.
As the final picks of the draft were released, Ward did not find himself among them.
Despite the disappointment, Ward and his agent, Orlando Arnold, were prepared for the possibility. The two spent the entirety of the three-day NFL draft assessing team's interest, scheme and depth at the running back position to embrace the chance that Ward may not hear his name called.
In the end, Ward was the one doing the selecting. He decided to sign a priority free-agent contract with the Arizona Cardinals, placing him in minicamp among a slew of other rookies. He's hungry to prove that his abilities stack up with those who had an easier path in the draft.
"Yeah, it fueled a fire, but it’s something that I can’t control," Ward said. "Obviously, those guys, scouts felt like they had something I couldn’t offer. They liked those players better, so credit to those players and I’m happy that their dreams came true for them today by getting drafted."
A draft process unlike any other
Ward left Central Michigan after rushing for 1,108 yards and 15 touchdowns as a senior, both of which were career bests. He earned an invite to the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, where he saw his stock rise after a strong week of practice against quality competition.
However, following that week, the draft process began to get hazy.
The first of many curveballs thrown at Ward came when the NFL Scouting Combine invite list was announced, a list that did not include his name. Being snubbed made him eager to show scouts what they had missed out on, however, he would have to wait to do so until his pro day.
He'd never get that opportunity.
On March 12, eight days before the Chippewas' pro day was scheduled to be held, the Mid-American Conference canceled athletic competition for the remainder of the academic year and suspended practices due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. With those decisions came the cancellation of Ward's final chances to win over NFL scouts.
Looking back, Ward sees that situation as a key factor in NFL teams deciding to pass over him.
"Not having a pro day, not having a combine invite, it didn’t really get to show that I’m better than what they perceive me as to be due to whatever reason that is," Ward said. "Whether it’s being from a smaller conference, or I don’t really know. But, for whatever reason, it definitely did have an impact."
While Ward remains befuddled as to why he was passed over, he knew it was a possibility from the beginning. His phone began to buzz with NFL interest during the early stages of the seventh and final round. The teams calling had little interest in drafting him but were yearning to make a move for a undrafted free agent deal.
"I definitely thought I was a draft-eligible player and I definitely thought I was a top-255 player coming out," Ward said. "I wasn’t viewed like that in other people’s perspective so I can’t really complain about it."
At the conclusion of the draft, even more teams reached out to Ward. Nearly an hour after the conclusion of the draft, Ward agreed to a deal with the Cardinals.
"My agent did a great job of preparing me for this situation," he said. "Of course we wanted to get drafted, but we couldn't. Arizona ended up being the best fit, best situation."
'Got to make the best of my opportunity'
While there is frustration over not being drafted, Ward is at peace with the fact that he has been given an opportunity. He is the only Chippewa to have signed a deal with an NFL team.
"Just got to go down there and just perform to the best of my ability," Ward said. "If they like me enough, then they’ll keep me. If not, then I’m thankful for the opportunity."
Despite drawbacks such as struggles in pass protection and with fumbles, Ward will travel to Arizona with confidence. He's unsure whether or not he will break camp as part of the 53-man roster, but he is confident in one thing – his ability to compete with the best of the best.
"I feel like I have the talent to make a 53-man roster," Ward said. "The odds are against me, but it’s nothing new. I just got to go out and do what I do best. If it’s God’s will, it’ll work out."
The next time he carries the ball, he'll be doing so with a chip on his shoulder.