The first shocker of the 2018 NFL Draft came when the Cleveland Browns took Baker Mayfield over the field at no. 1 overall. But the second surprise of the night, also courtesy of Cleveland, may have even been even more of a stunner, considering who was still on the board at no.4.
"With the fourth pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, the Cleveland Browns select, Denzel Ward, cornerback, Ohio State!"
What?! Not Bradley Chubb, the defensive end from N.C. State who was the favorite overall player of more than a few front office decision-makers heading into the draft?
Nope. Instead, the Browns opted for the sub-5-foot-11, 183-pound Ward, a smaller corner who played much bigger than his listed size at Ohio State. Despite being known for his physicality and a couple highlight-reel hits in college, many analysts criticized the move heavily following the draft.
Chubb was higher on my board, but with two strong defensive ends already in place, I believed Cleveland made the right call to acquire the best corner in the draft. Time will tell whether the Browns were correct or not, but one week into his NFL career and Ward is doing his best to make general manager John Dorsey look smart.
Everyone will look at the box score, see Ward's two picks and get excited, but his game went beyond that impressive stat line. We'll start with Ward's first interception however, as he made an excellent read on a scrambling Ben Roethlisberger to come off his man and making a diving play on the ball.
Ward's other interception was a lucky deflection off the hands of Steelers tight end Jesse James, on a day where the Browns dropped a couple picks (and still came up with three), Ward was a clear playmaker. Even when he wasn't thrown at, the rookie was a blanket in coverage, showing excellent patience and technique in press to turn and run with receivers without getting manipulated out of position.
Ward is an exceptional athlete with smooth hips and easy acceleration. He can play off coverage and still make plays at the line of scrimmage because of his quick recognition and fearless aggression coming downhill. He was a force as a run defender and in the short passing game on Sunday afternoon.
One of the things that impressed me the most about Ward was his ability to stay focused late in reps and not lose track of his man. A lot of young corners can get caught watching the ball in scramble drill situations, or trying to guess where the quarterback will go with the rock. Ward read Roethlisberger's eyes for his first interception of the game on a scramble drill, and on the play below he blankets Justin Hunter for an extended rep.
Ward's movement skills are top-notch, but I was most impressed with his technique, body control and ability to use his hands in the route tree to subtly stay in phase with the receiver. Cornerbacks who can hand fight without drawing a flag are rare, and Ward just has an excellent feel for how physical he can be within the receiver's pattern.
Yes, Ward did surrender a touchdown to Antonio Brown on one of the few plays the two were matched up, but I actually thought it was still a pretty good rep from the rookie corner. He read the receiver's eyes, put his arm through the pocket at the catch point and just couldn't get the ball free. That's why Brown is the best in the game.
The only gripe I would have about Ward's performance isn't really reflective of him, just of the situations he was put in. The former Buckeye didn't square off with Brown much, and rarely faced up with JuJu Smith-Schuster either. Many of his reps were zone coverage or in man against Justin Hunter, so it is fair to say he'll be tested more heavily later on this season.
But for what he was asked to do, Ward was truly excellent. His first start went as well as Cleveland could have hoped, as Ward showed off an all-around skill set and attention to detail that suggests he's ready to shoulder a heavy workload this season. Did I mention he played every single snap?
If the Browns truly found a shutdown corner to go with that front seven, their defense is going to be one of the most talented groups in the NFL. Now, of course, they just need defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to get out of their way, but that's another story for another day.