OSU’s Ward leading Browns passing defense to be one of NFL’s best

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“DBU”. That has been the nickname coined for Ohio State’s success rate at turning out elite defensive backs in the National Football League over the last five years. The Buckeyes have churned out players such as Marshon Lattimore, Malik Hooker, Gareon Conley, Eli Apple, Vonn Bell, Doran Grant, and Bradley Roby to name a few. The most recent star defensive back may be the best of them all, and his name is Denzel Ward — and he so happens to be a member of the Cleveland Browns.

A native of Macedonia, Ohio, Ward played for Nordonia High School, exactly 26 miles south of FirstEnergy Stadium. Ward was an All-State athlete in football, as well as track and field. He committed to the Ohio State University, electing to walk in the footsteps of those great defensive backs before him.

As a freshman at OSU, Ward played in five games (primarily on special teams). His sophomore year, he was groomed behind Lattimore and Conley, playing in 10 games, recording 12 tackles and nine pass breakups. With the microscope on Lattimore and Hooker in the 2017 NFL Draft, Conley and Ward began to become magnified.

Lattimore slid to 11th overall and became NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, Hooker fell to 15th because of medical concerns and went on to have a solid rookie season before tearing his ACL, and Conley fell to 24th overall because of an off-field incident while in Cleveland in early 2017.

With three Buckeye defensive backs being drafted in the top 25 picks in the 2017 NFL Draft, it was time for Ward to shine in his junior season as a Buckeye. Ward did just that, starting in all 11 regular season games recording 27 tackles, 15 pass breakups, and two interceptions. After his third season as a Buckeye, Ward elected to enter the 2018 NFL Draft.

Immediately in 2018, Ward was regarded as one of the best players in the NFL Draft and the best defensive player in the draft. His draft selection confirmed that thought, as Ward was drafted fourth overall by the Cleveland Browns. He was just one of three defensive players drafted in the Top 10 picks, with Bradley Chubb (5) and Roquan Smith (9) being the other two talents.

Looking back at 2017 when former Browns Executive Vice President of football operations Sashi Brown released Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden, it was obvious Cleveland would be desperate to replace Haden. There was most definitely an argument to be made that Chubb was undoubtedly the guy the Browns should have drafted at fourth overall, pairing him up alongside Myles Garrett. General Manager John Dorsey is the last person to base his selections off other people’s opinions, and he did just that by drafting Ward fourth overall.

Through five games this season, these are Ward’s stats so far: 3 interceptions, 6 passes defended, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, 25 tackles, a tackle for loss, and a blocked field goal. Not bad for a rookie cornerback that has received the honors of defending Antonio Brown, Michael Thomas, Quincy Enunwa, Amari Cooper, and Michael Crabtree in his first five games.

Ward has received two Rookie of the Week nominations, has won Defensive Rookie of the Week once, was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week, and is tied for the league lead in interceptions. To say it has been an impressive start for the rookie cornerback would be an understatement.

According to Pro Football Focus, Ward has received an overall grade of 78.9 and a coverage grade of 83.1. Through five games, Ward has only surrendered .92 yards per coverage snap, the sixth best in the NFL among cornerbacks that have played in 200 or more coverage snaps. In addition, Ward has only allowed a passer rating of 52.7 while in pass coverage, the best among defensive backs in the NFL (that have 200 or more coverage snaps).

Ward’s PFF grade of 78.9 is 14th best among cornerbacks in the NFL and fifth best among all rookie players. His coverage grade of 83.1 is 7th best, better than Patrick Peterson, Jalen Ramsey, Richard Sherman, among others.

When the Browns drafted Ward at fourth overall, they knew he would be good; it is easy to doubt they thought he would be THIS good. Ward has led a secondary that is third in the NFL in interceptions and second in the NFL in passes defended. To continue, Cleveland has allowed an opposing quarterback passer rating of 58.6 percent which is second best in the NFL and an opposing quarterback rating of 74.2 overall … also second best in the NFL. There is no doubt that as the top defensive back, Ward has a great amount to do with the Browns’ impressive pass defense.

Starting this week, the Browns have a full slate ahead of with talented passing offenses. The Chargers have the second most passing touchdowns in the NFL (13), the sixth-best completion percentage (70.1), and the 13th best passing yards per game (290). Cleveland will also see Jamies Winston/Mike Evans, Ben Roethlisberger/Antonio Brown, Patrick Mahomes II/Tyreek Hill and Matt Ryan/Julio Jones all before the bye week.

Ward has been impressive through his first five challenges. At this pace, he is a Pro Bowl lock and flashing All-Pro potential. The next five weeks will show how elite Ward exactly is.