Ward was one of the stars at the NFL Combine, but how high did his stock rise?
The Sports Quotient’s annual Draft Preview series returns! Over the course of the eight weeks leading up to the 2018 NFL Draft, we will take a look at the top NFL prospects at each position. This week, we dive into the defensive back position. Today we look at Denzel Ward from The Ohio State University.
In 2015 and 2016, Ward’s role was minimal in an Ohio State secondary that was loaded with talent. He was buried on the depth chart behind the likes of Eli Apple, Marshon Lattimore, and Gareon Conley. It wasn’t until 2017 that Ward became a full-time starter for Ohio State. He made the most of his opportunity, finishing the year with two interceptions along with 37 tackles and 15 pass defends. This was good enough to warrant being named first-team All-Big Ten and Consensus All-American, and now he’s a potential first-round pick.
Ward put his superb athleticism on display at the NFL Combine. He ran a 4.32 40-yard dash, had a 39” vertical, and did a solid 16 bench reps, which for a corner of his stature (5‘11” 183 pounds) is very impressive. Additionally, his 40-yard dash time was tied for the best at this year’s combine. He was expected to test well, but these results confirm to NFL teams his speed and athleticism.
PFF Draft (@PFF_College) March 9, 2018
As for Ward’s play on the field, it was excellent as well. He proved in 2017 that he can be one of the top cover corners in the country. He was targeted 57 times in 2017 but only allowed 20 completions, which was the fourth lowest percentage of targets completed against any corner in this year’s draft at 35.1%. Opposing quarterbacks had an abysmal 52.9 quarterback rating when targeting Ward’s man. His outstanding production in 2017 earned him the second highest rated corner grade according to Pro Football Focus.
Although Ward only had two interceptions in his career at Ohio State, he still was rated top-five by Pro Football Focus’s playmaker index. This measures the total amount of times a defender gets his hands on the ball (whether it’s an interception or pass defended) based on the number of targets they had. Ward got his hands on the ball 24.6 percent of the time he was targeted, which is an outstanding number.
The main concern with Ward is his ability to cover the big-bodied receivers at the next level. He has a slight frame at 5‘11”, 183 pounds; however, as a number one corner, he would be asked to cover 6‘3” and above receivers regularly. The big size difference suggests that he might struggle to do so, especially if he doesn’t put on some weight. Lance Zierlein, who did the scouting report for Ward for NFL.com, went into further depth about this potential issue.
He feels small in coverage at times. Lacks play strength to jam and disrupt. Appears to avoid route contact so he doesn’t upset coverage balance. Physical receivers can body him around at the top of the route… Has issues disengaging from big blocking receivers. Big backs drag him for a ride in run support.
Zierlein details how Ward’s frame could be an issue in the run game as well, as he struggles he get off of blocks. This isn’t an issue that Ward is going to be able to answer in any pre-draft meeting or workout. This is something a team is going to have to be comfortable with when they decide to draft him because he won’t be able to prove his doubters wrong until the start of next season.
Behind Minkah Fitzpatrick, Ward will most likely be the second defensive back off the board come late April. His unique athleticism and play-making in coverage out-weigh the concerns about his frame. After testing so well at the NFL Combine, it won’t be a surprise if his value continues to rise as he conducts visits with teams. He has already locked himself into being a top-15 pick and should be able to make an impact the second he steps into the building for whatever team is lucky enough to draft him.
There are many teams that will be desperate to get a player of Ward’s caliber. His ability to play man and zone coverage makes him a fit in almost every scheme, so he could really go to any team that wants an upgrade at corner. Right now, the most likely landing spots are the Chicago Bears, San Francisco 49ers, and Green Bay Packers, who all have a need for a number one cover corner.
Edited by Jeremy Losak.
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