Denzel Ward is a player who might be best known to some for a play that produced a classic addition to Gus Johnson’s long, long list of laugh-out-loud memorable moments in the broadcast booth:
That’s a memorable play, and a memorable call. It’s also a fitting advert for the man responsible for the call. As for the man responsible for the play? You could hardly come up with a less fitting advert for what he’s all about and why he will be a first-round pick.
RAF Big Board ranking: #11
Here’s where it becomes clear. Denzel Ward is not a man who is built to thump you into oblivion after the catch. He is a man who is built to ensure that every cut, every burst of speed, every sneaky stutter-step will be mirrored and matched so that you don’t get the chance to make the catch in the first place.
Nobody at any position topped his 40-yard dash. His broad jump was one of the longest ever seen. He also put up a top-quality number in the vertical jump. Sadly, he didn’t run the shuttles, meaning we can only speculate on whether his times would have been ridiculous or merely very good.
He ain’t heavy, though. But brother, he’s gonna be a weight on you when he’s in coverage.
Height: 5′ 11″
40-Yard Dash: 4.32 seconds
Bench press: 16 reps
Vertical jump: 39 inches
Broad jump: 136 inches
If you’re a quarterback and you see Ward in man coverage at the snap, you should probably look elsewhere to find an open target. If you’re a receiver and you’ve got Ward in man coverage, he will more than likely stalk you like a horror movie monster, with little chance of escape from his lethal leg speed and fabulous footwork.
He’s got some playmaking skills, too. His 15 pass breakups ranked in the top ten in college football last year, and he managed nine in 2016 despite being a part-time player behind two players who would be first-round draft picks after that season (including future NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore). In fact, those nine breakups tied Lattimore for the team lead that year.
If you’re using a high pick on a potential shutdown corner – and Ward is a potential shutdown corner – there’s a fair chance you want to use him to shadow the opponent’s top receiver. Unfortunately, some of those receivers are several inches taller and tens of pounds heavier than Ward. Those guys can get open against him with force at the line, or perhaps at the top of the route (if you can escape an offensive pass interference flag).
Indiana’s 6’3″, 220-pound receiver Simmie Cobbs – who ran a 4.64 40 at the Combine and is more likely to go undrafted than be a top-100 pick – was targeted relentlessly in Ward’s coverage to gain much of his huge 11-149-1 stat line in that game, including the TD on a back-shoulder fade where Ward simply didn’t turn his head around. In fact, for much of that game Ward didn’t look draftable, much less the best corner in this draft class.
That height can also stand in the way of him making a play. That was evident early in Ohio State’s late-season clash with Michigan, where Ward showed impressive recovery burst to catch up to a ball thrown into a gap in the Buckeyes’ zone coverage… only for it to fly inches past his outstretched hand and into the gloves of a grateful tight end.
Most evaluations have the potential to get hideously complicated. Turn on the Indiana tape and you’re looking at someone your divisional rivals want you to draft. Turn on some of his other tape and you’re looking at a stud. Good players have bad games too, whether it’s the NFL or the NCAA.
If you can trust Ward’s durability – he’s only been a full-time player for a year, and one of his obvious comparable players is IR magnet Jason Verrett – there’s a lot to like about what he can offer. He’s an elite athlete at possibly the most athleticism-driven position in the sport, and has been impressive against quality college competition (fewer than one-third of the passes thrown into his coverage were completed).
I like him best in man coverage where he can be tasked with shadowing one man around the field, denying them the oxygen of separation. It’s possible to imagine him following in the footsteps of Lattimore – whose Combine athletic profile was eerily similar to Ward’s – and becoming a feared shutdown corner. I just don’t know if I can go all-in on that possibility. He might end up playing like he did against Indiana, getting barbecued by big receivers. If that’s what a team gets for a potentially high first-round selection? That will hurt their feelings.
Draft prediction: Somewhere between picks 6-14. I can’t see him going before the CB-desperate Colts, and I can’t see him getting past the CB-desperate Packers.