Why you should care
Ohio born and bred, Denzel Ward brings hope to Cleveland and represents the NFL’s speed-focused future.
With a thunderous clap, the huddle breaks and No. 84 in black and gold saunters over to the right side of the offensive formation. Cleveland rookie cornerback Denzel Ward sees Pittsburgh receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster in the slot to the left and James Washington on the boundary.
It’s easy to imagine how the Sept. 9 matchup will play out. Ward eyes up Antonio Brown, the toughest cover in the league with feet so light they would make Hermes jealous and hands that Elmer’s Glue may one day study. It’s man coverage, which means the fourth overall pick from Ohio State has Brown one-on-one. And a broken wrist as a sophomore may just be the reason Ward, who grew up a short drive from the Browns’ stadium, has a chance to hold his own against the alienlike athletes in the NFL.
“When I fractured my wrist, it just kind of came natural because I was feeling uncomfortable getting my hands on [receivers],” Ward says. “I couldn’t really move it and I had it casted. It forced me to move my feet and mirror receivers.”
Ward lands in the 98.8th percentile of NFL cornerback athletes based on Sparq score, a measure that accounts for how fast a player moves relative to his height and weight.
Ward improved his technique, footwork and agility. A 4.32-second 40-yard dash and 39-inch vertical leap at the NFL combine quelled concerns about his size at just a shade under 5-foot-11 and 183 pounds. “I’m taller than that,” Ward insists. “I’m 5-11, 6 feet.”
But in the modern NFL, it may not matter. Consider the finest wideouts in the league: Brown stands just 5-10, and the New York Giants’ Odell Beckham Jr. is 5-11. Across the league, a shift in scheme and approach means athleticism is valued over size — a reversal from the days when strength and power reigned supreme. “Where the game is transitioning to, it’s a speed game,” explains linebacker Roquan Smith, the Chicago Bears’ first-round pick this year. “It’s like, who can get here the quickest? It’s all about matchups. It’s about finding the best athletes that can match up.”
Ward lands in the 98.8th percentile of NFL cornerback athletes based on Sparq score, a measure that accounts for how fast a player moves relative to his height and weight. Despite not being the archetypal size for an NFL cornerback, Ward possesses more than the requisite athletic talent.
That wasn’t always the case. When Ward was growing up, a coach told the rail-thin youngster he would never be able to play college ball. “It’s all about taking those things and finding a way for it to motivate you,” Ward says. A strong but not elite prospect out of Nordonia High School, Ward landed with powerhouse Ohio State — where he had to battle for playing time with future first-round-pick corners Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley.
Ward focused on getting faster and more agile. He’d been going to speed camps since he was in middle school, preparing for the moment when he could prove his size was not a hindrance to being an elite player. “You can realize real fast you may not be as good as you thought you were going against Mike Thomas and all those guys at Ohio State,” he says of the former Buckeye wide receiver now tearing it up in New Orleans. “And you just have to realize, OK, don’t let that bring you down, just know that you have to get to work.” Ward’s teams won 35 games over three years in Columbus, including the Big Ten title in 2017 — when Ward snagged a crucial interception against Wisconsin. He also helped contain now teammate Baker Mayfield when Mayfield was quarterbacking Oklahoma in a 2016 Buckeye win.
Longtime NFL star and current NFL Network analyst Willie McGinest figures Ward’s swagger outweighs anything the measuring tape or scale says. “He exudes confidence. You can tell when he walked across the stage [at the draft] he believes in himself,” McGinest says. “And there’s nothing more motivating to a player or an athlete than when somebody tells them they can’t do something. When they tell them they’re too small, or what they’ll never be. Kids like [Ward], they always persevere; they find a way.”
Now that Ward, a top-five pick from a blue-blooded college program, can’t really be considered an underdog, McGinest says the motivation must come from the bull’s-eye on his back. Ward surely took note when several draft analysts said the Browns should have taken defensive end Bradley Chubb instead of him. “You have to perform at a certain level on a consistent basis,” McGinest says. “And if you don’t, the critics and the naysayers are quick to say, ‘Hey, he’s not what we thought he was. He’s a bust.’”
Ward’s hometown is familiar with the term. The Browns didn’t win a game last season, and are riding decades of futility. Since re-forming as an expansion franchise in 2000, the Browns have gone to the playoffs precisely once and finished with a winning record twice. Their recent history is littered with busts, starting with No. 1 overall draft pick Courtney Brown in 2000. One imagines aspiring stars breaking 40-yard-dash records in their sprint away from the franchise with a long-term lease on the AFC North cellar.
But for Ward, this is home. He’s excited to play in the NFL 17 miles from where he played high school football. He already started a foundation in his late father’s name to give scholarships to underserved kids in the community. Paul Ward Jr., a principal in the Bedford School District, died in 2016 at age 46 of cardiac arrest during a spin class. At the Opening in Dallas, where he was coaching high school football players from around the country, Denzel Ward spoke at length about how his parents instilled in him a passion for serving his community. He won’t measure whether or not he was a bust based solely on his playing career, but rather by his broader impact.
“I play with a chip on my shoulder not just because people say I may not be good enough, or I may not be able to do something. It’s more about the goals I place on myself,” he says. Having been a college All-American and a top-five pick, at some point soon Ward will force the conversation to stop being about what he isn’t, what he can’t do and what he won’t do in the future.
He’ll get his first shot in Week 1 when Antonio Brown and the Steelers come to Cleveland.