It’s been an offseason of extensions thus far for the Cleveland Browns, as Nick Chubb agreed to terms, contract negotiations with Baker Mayfield are underway, and now, according to a recent report, corner Denzel Ward has made his way into general manager Andrew Berry’s office for a potential long-term deal.
Whether Ward is deserving of a long-term deal isn’t the question, but the details of how a deal could shape up and how it would affect Cleveland’s ability to lock up the talent around Ward and Mayfield could present a hitch in Berry’s matrix.
The No. 4 overall selection in the 2018 NFL Draft, Ward has enjoyed both highs and lows thus far into his three seasons as a pro. He has failed to appear in more than 13 games in any campaign, leaving much to be desired in the 11 total games he’s missed in the regular season as the team’s No. 1 corner. And with two years left on his current deal, finding leeway to strike a deal with interior presence Wyatt Teller and safety Ronnie Harrison is a more pressing need with free agency looming following the 2021 season.
When available, Ward has proven to be one of the league’s top man-to-man cover corners within a defense expected to represent one of the NFL’s best with the additions of Jadeveon Clowney, John Johnson, Troy Hill, and Greg Newsome II. A Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate in his first year out of Ohio State, Ward capped off his outstanding debut campaign with a Pro Bowl selection, providing the Browns a lockdown presence on the perimeter. While Ward’s numbers haven’t been anything to highlight, as a corner, it’s a simple formula; less attention equals increased respect and Ward has earned opposing quarterbacks’ attention.
With seven career interceptions entering the fall, Ward’s numbers will likely increase with the presence of Greedy Williams, Hill, and Newsome roaming the third level. Offenses have to attack somewhere, and Ward could prove to be a massive recipient of increased targets, warranted or not, with ballhawks aplenty within Kevin Stefanski’s defensive group.
Logistically, an extension for Ward is a puzzle without many clean edges when attempting to skeleton a potential deal for both sides to agree to. As you would expect, a long-term extension would result in Ward eyeing compensation similar to the top corners in football, but would it make sense?
Comparing Ward to the likes of Jalen Ramsey, Jaire Alexander, Xavien Howard, and Stephon Gilmore, well, wouldn’t be fair. And comparingly, while Ward has every fundamental tool to become one of the league’s elite, the issues regarding his longevity could present massive hiccups when finalizing financial structure.
However, in making a case for a deal, 27 corners in football currently are set to earn more than Ward in 2021 (excluding guarantees). At 24 years old with an uncapped ceiling, you won’t find the 5-foot-11 corner far below any of the prior mentioned perimeter stalwarts on any list you find. With improvements made in the last couple of seasons in his open-field tackling, patience in zone, and punch in the run, corner isn’t the spot to get cheap for a roster expected to make waves in the AFC North.
A quick glance around the league will unveil the contracts of Jeff Okudah, Marcus Peters, and Darius Slay, all of whom are set to earn an average of $31M in guaranteed money throughout the duration of their contracts. For Berry, the mark could represent the floor of negotiations as you’d be far-fetched to find anyone disagreeing that Ward represents a step down the ladder from any of the three aforementioned corners. Within a league predicated on scoring points, and in abundance, the necessity of athletes on the perimeter has become a need for each and every defense in football.
For Ward, whether Berry waits to lock him up later in the year, or next, Ward’s availability within Cleveland’s secondary could represent the Browns’ best ability moving forward into future seasons where expectations have reached an all-time high.
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