Denzel Ward – Cornerback
School: Ohio State University
Weight: 191 pounds
Denzel Ward NFL Draft Profile
With Ohio State’s recent production of first-round cornerbacks like Gareon Conley and 2017 Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore, it’s no surprise they have another player being touted as the best corner in this year’s draft in Denzel Ward. Ward was tied for sixth in the nation with 15 pass breakups along with 37 tackles, including two for a loss, and two interceptions. His efforts were enough to earn first-team All-American and All-Conference honors.
One of his biggest attributes is his experience on the field as he grew into a starter during his three years playing for the Buckeyes. While not playing much at corner as a freshman, Ward earned an honorable All-Big Ten nod after playing 30 snaps a game as a sophomore. His athleticism, fluidity with his feet and hips have helped him produce some enormously impressive stats. Perhaps most notably, his 32 percent completion rate when the quarterback throws towards him over the past two years.
While his lack of physicality does cost him at times, Ward’s positives greatly outweigh his negatives and his status as one of the best corners in this year’s draft is well earned. Ward will likely be a top-10 pick and while it may take some time for him to develop into a full-time starter in the NFL, his potential is well worth the time.
Being able to cover a receiver is obviously the most important thing a corner can do but it sounds simpler than it is. To properly cover a receiver requires fluid movement with a corner’s hips to change directions with routes, footwork to stay within step of the receiver and this is without a doubt Ward’s best attribute.
His ability to stick to receivers is second to none in the draft. Particularly his ability to stay close on shallow routes like slants and crosses makes him especially valuable in today’s league that depends on such routes. Despite his small stature, Ward can stay on receivers at any level of the field which is why he had some so many pass breakups this past season.
Ward tied for first at the combine in the 40-yard dash clocking in at 4.32 seconds. While Ohio State didn’t utilize that speed as a returner, he showed it off through his burst when covering receivers running deep routes. Ward’s ability to turn and keep up with the fastest receivers the Buckeyes faced throughout the 2017 season will undoubtedly carry over to the NFL.
Ward’s athleticism matches his ability to mirror receivers to allow him to be the best deep coverage corner in this year’s draft. Paired with his fluidity with his hips and feet, Ward essentially shuts down any chance of a receiver beating him deep. That creates a matchup nightmare for teams that rely heavily on speedsters getting a break or two in a game for a big gain or touchdown.
One of the more underrated skills of a cornerback is the ability to read where the ball is going. One play in particular shows Ward’s ability to read the quarterback and understand where the play is going. Against Michigan in 2017, Ward had an option coverage that required him to either cover the deep receiver or follow the inside man and he chose correctly to the inside route and nearly missed a pass breakup.
Ward clearly has the knowledge of offensive schemes, showing his dedication to the film room, and his ability to utilize said knowledge to interrupt passing plays. His on-field intelligence is constantly on display. Coupled with his athleticism, he has the potential to disrupt any pass even if it’s not his initial responsibility because he can recognize coverage duties that quickly.
Without a doubt, Ward’s biggest concern is his physicality. This extends to both press coverage and run support. Ohio State runs a soft press system that doesn’t require its corners to be overly aggressive at the line, largely thanks to their talented front seven. Ward was hardly ever asked to press a receiver at the line so his ability to do so is in question.
This same concern extends to his play against the run. While Ward isn’t necessarily a liability against the run, he’s not an asset in that area either. He tends to hang back and jumps in after the defensive line makes the play. This is concerning when teams run to the outside and it is up to Ward to make the tackle to determine the difference between two yards or six. He will have to up his intensity to truly be an all-around corner.
One of the biggest universal problems in his game is Ward’s size. He lacks the physicality that is required to prove himself as a top corner on par with the likes of Lattimore and Conley. Ward shies away from contact and that’s not what NFL teams look for in a potential top corner. He simply cannot put up with the biggest receivers in the NFL and that is what will limit his ability to defend a number one receiver against most NFL teams.
Ward will have to add some bulk to legitimize his press ability and truly contest with the best receivers at the pro level. He can keep up with receivers’ speed but his ability to contest deep passes against number one threats is largely in question. This will likely be one of the key missing aspects of his game that will hold him back.
Ward has some legitimate concerns regarding his ability to defend against the run and cover bigger receivers. While this might limit his viability as a top cornerback in the NFL, there is little doubt he is the best corner in this year’s draft. He will benefit greatly from transitioning slowly into the game as a nickel but his ability as a cover corner will limit that growth period.
He still has the ability to make an immediate impact in the league. He should prove himself as a good deep coverage corner who has the potential to develop into something better. Whichever team drafts Ward will likely put up with growing pains but in a year or two, there is little doubt he can develop into one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL given his coverage abilities and his speed to complement it.
NFL Player Comparison
Teams With Need At Cornerback
Cleveland Browns, New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers, Chicago Bears, Oakland Raiders