Browns, Cleveland Browns Film Room, NFL Draft

Browns Film Room: CB Denzel Ward’s strengths

Andrew Lind, Eleven Warriors


With the fourth pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, the Cleveland Browns selected cornerback Denzel Ward of Ohio State. The Browns surprised many by taking the Buckeye corner over the top edge rusher in the draft, Bradley Chubb. But, the talent is definitely there with Ward. He was my No. 1 cornerback in the class and the No. 4 overall prospect in the draft. Cleveland was in need of a true shutdown cornerback in their secondary, so taking Ward made a lot of sense.

So, what are the Browns getting in their newest corner? Well over the next few days I will look at the film to answer that question. Up first, we take a look at the strengths of Denzel Ward.

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Footwork/Mirror Skills/Technique

This is what separates Ward from every other cornerback in the draft class. Ward has elite footwork and technique, making him excellent at mirroring receivers. He has extremely quick feet, but also efficient feet where he does not waste a step. He is able to stay in his crouch while backpedaling and can stay in that mode for quite awhile. All of these skills allow him to follow receivers all over the field and in any direction. Let’s examine some examples of these traits.

The first play is against Iowa last season. The receiver is running an inside slant and begins his route with a step to outside, faking an outside route. The receiver then shoots inside beginning his slant route. While the receiver did this, Ward stayed patient and did not get happy feet when the receiver faked the move. He was in a position to move inside at the same time as the receiver because he stayed low, patient in his feet and square to receiver throughout the process. Ward easily glides with the receiver, while keeping his eye on the backfield. He shuts down the slant route from being a possible option to throw to.

In the second play, Ward is matched up on the right sideline with a Michigan receiver who is designed to run a short in route. The situation is key here as the Wolverines were faced with a 3rd-and-7 play. Ward came off the snap defending the sideline because he knew Michigan needed seven yards for a first down. But, he did not open up all the way toward the sideline, which would have allowed an easy move inside for the receiver. When the receiver cut inside, Ward was still in position to shuffle his feet inside to stay right with the receiver. The pass was completed, but Ward immediately made the tackle to stop the receiver short of the first down. He was ready for all the possible moves on the play and knew what the offense needed to get the first down.

The final play comes against Indiana. The receiver in this play is running a stick route right at the first down line. Ward is ready for it. He backs up in his backpedal for a couple yards and then opens to the sideline to defend the receiver. He is able to run right with the receiver all the way down the route. He uses his arms to keep contact with the receiver and to not allow the receiver to push off of him to make the catch. He is in a good position to stop at a sudden notice and deflect the pass away for an incompletion. It was a pretty simple play for the talented receiver.


Ward is an exceptional athlete. At the NFL Scouting Combine, he tested off the charts. He ran a 4.32-second 40-yard dash, jumped 39 inches in the vertical and leaped 136 inches in the broad jump. Those results were either the best or second best mark amongst the corners at the event. In high school, he was a track star at Nordonia. He can match any receiver’s athletic ability. Here are some plays where you can see his athleticism in his game.

In the first play against Michigan, Ward is covering a receiver who is designed to run a crossing route. The receiver cuts across the field and is aided by another crossing route from the opposite direction. That route helps separate Ward from the receiver. But, this is where Ward’s athleticism comes into play. Thinking the receiver has space, the quarterback fires the pass to the receiver after he clears the middle of the field. However, Ward explodes to the receiver and immediately tackles the receiver after the ball arrives, causing an incompletion. Ward’s recovery speed cannot be taught.

The second play comes against Iowa. The Iowa receiver is running a streak route down the left sideline. After a few steps off the line, the receiver fakes a step inside before shooting up the sideline on the streak route. This move actually got Ward out of whack and turning all the way around to try and find the receiver. Nevertheless, Ward was fluid enough and fast enough to easily stay with the receiver who seemed to be running with all of his energy. Ward never lost ground on the receiver. He actually looked like he was just gliding down the field rather than using all of the energy like the receiver was doing. Ward was just faster than the receiver.

The last play is another example of Ward being able to recover using his athleticism. Ward is covering a Nebraska receiver who is designed to run a streak route down the right sideline. But, the receiver throws in a wrench and does a nice stutter step early on in the route. This gets Ward to slow down, helping the receiver gain separation from the Buckeye corner. The quarterback fires the pass and gets it to the receiver in stride. Ward, though, is able to recover and speed up to the receiver to swat the ball away from the receiver. He need not allow the receiver to gain anymore separation after the move and was able to catch up with him at the end of the play.

Reading the receiver/Intelligence

Ward is a smart player, who can read the play and react quickly to what is happening. He is really good at reading the receiver he is covering and figuring out what his route plan is, sometimes running the route better than the receiver. His intelligence will help him be able to play in zone coverage in the NFL if needed. Here are some plays that show off these traits.

In the first play against Michigan, the Wolverines are faced with a 3rd-and-8 play. Ward is called to play in bail technique with his body open to the field. He comes off the line and immediately turns his hips open to the field. This allowed him to read the quarterback’s eyes and see that the quarterback was focused on throwing to the tight end in the right slot. So, Ward leaves the receiver on the right sideline to try and undercut the throw to the tight end. The quarterback, though, throws a perfect pass to just get it over Ward’s reach for a completion. But, the play showed Ward’s intelligence to quickly read the play and make a move to stop it.

The second play is against Iowa. Ward is up against a receiver on the right sideline, who is called to run a stick route to the first down marker. Ward is all over this route from the start. He immediately opens his hips to the sideline and the receiver. He knows the route will have to be a longer route because Iowa was faced with a 3rd-and-8 situation, so he was not afraid of the quick inside route. Ward then sees the receiver slowing down and turning his head around, so he does the same. When the ball is fired to the receiver, Ward is in position to get around the receiver and knock the pass away for an incompletion. Ward was aware of the situation and was able to read the receiver to make the stop.

The final play is against Oklahoma from 2016. Ward uses the bail position to cover this play. He comes off the line and immediately opens his hips to the field. The receiver he was covering was running a streak route on the right sideline. But, he is able to read the offense from his bail position to see the play developing. He sees the tight end running a sort of a wheel route underneath his receiver. So, Ward falls off the receiver and closes down on the tight end, who got open when he turned upfield on the wheel route. When the pass arrives to the tight end, Ward is immediately there to hit and knock the ball loose for an incompletion. His quick read allowed him to make the play.

Contesting Passes

Ward is also strong at contesting passes. He may not be the biggest corner, but he does well at getting to the catch point to either pick it off or deflect it for an incompletion. His athleticism and mirror skills allow him to get in the right position to make a play on the ball. He does not need to get up to the catch point to deflect the pass away. He can smartly wait for the receiver to bring it down to then make a play on the ball to deflect it away. These three plays show how well he is able to contest passes.

The first play comes against Indiana. Ward is facing a receiver in a jump situation. The quarterback throws the pass in a 50/50 situation. The receiver goes up and brings the pass in with one hand. But, Ward then does his work. He swats the ball when the ball is in the hand of the receiver around his shoulders. The receiver holds on still, but Ward does another swat attempt when the receiver has the ball in both hands at his waist. This one does just enough to not allow the receiver to keep ahold of the ball when he hits the ground.

In the second play against Indiana, Ward is faced off against a receiver in the right slot, who is running a streak route. The quarterback once again tries to throw a jump ball to the receiver, thinking the receiver’s size advantage would make this play successful. The quarterback throws the ball and the receiver turns around catches it above his head. Ward, though, leaps at the same time and reaches the catch point. Ward is able to punch the ball out of the receiver’s hands for an incompletion.

The final play comes against Michigan State. Ward is covering the tight end on the right end of the line. The tight end comes off the line and runs a ten-yard in route. Ward stays right behind the tight end throughout the route, almost baiting the throw. When the quarterback fires the pass to the tight end, Ward is able to undercut the tight end and dive at the right time to knock the pass down for an incompletion. The play showed his athleticism and good timing coming in big for him in contesting passes.

Aggressiveness/Willingness to tackle/Physicality

The last asset in Ward’s tool belt is his aggressiveness, physicality, and willingness to tackle. Ward is not the biggest corner on the field, but he is willing to put his body out there to help in run defense or to make a stop on pass defense. He pairs this up with an aggressive manner, quickly reacting to plays and not letting the play come to him. Here are some examples of his aggressive play, physicality, and willingness to tackle.

In the first play against Maryland, Ward is covering the receiver on the right sideline. But, he sees the play coming and ditches his man to close on the receiver who is running a short out route. He shows his aggressive play by not hesitating and leaving his man to get the underneath receiver. When the pass is caught by the underneath receiver, Ward is already there to make the big hit on the receiver and knock the ball loose. The play is called targeting, but the hit was made with the shoulder to the receiver’s chest. It was not a penalty and it showed the aggressiveness and physicality of Ward.

The second play comes against Michigan. Ward is lined up against the tight end on the left end of the line. The play is a quarterback keeper around the left end. When the quarterback comes around the edge, Ward is able to get free from the tight end and close on the quarterback. He makes a sound tackle to stop the quarterback before the first down. Ward was willing to make the tackle and showed the physicality to actually make the stop.

The final play is also against Michigan. Ward is lined up on the right end of the line as the last defender on the right edge. Michigan calls a run play to the right. The runner is unable to enter the lane he was supposed to go into, so he bounces to the outside where only Ward is standing in his way. Ward comes up to the line and is able to push the runner out of bounds for no gain. He was not afraid to be the last line of defense there and showed his aggressiveness to not let the runner around the corner.