Denzel Ward has never played on a Browns defense loaded with the type of veteran talent and emerging prospects currently in Cleveland.
Ever since he was drafted fourth overall in 2018, Ward has been heralded as one of the top players on the defense. Now, he has several other proven and promising talents in the secondary with him — namely John Johnson III at safety and Troy Hill and first-round rookie Greg Newsome II at cornerback. Ward, who is still just 24 and growing as a player, is a top leader of the group, one who could benefit most from the influx of talent and possibly build his best season yet in the NFL.
But Ward isn't getting ahead of himself. He knows nothing has been guaranteed for the Browns as they begin preparations for the first 17-game regular season in league history. He believes the defense has the pieces in place to be great, but they still have to prove it.
"It's about guys doing their job," he said Wednesday. "That's really what we try to go out and do every time we go out and step on the field. If we do that, everything else will take care of itself."
Check out exclusive photos from Wednesday's practice at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus
The defense, however, hasn't been able to complete many practices with all of their top players on the field. That's partly because the Browns have opted to exude caution and give players ample recovery time — and, for their most experienced veterans, extra rest days — whenever minor injuries have occurred. Top players from every position group have missed some amount of practice time, but the Browns believe the unit is ready to dive into the regular season.
Ward, who missed time in training camp with soreness but returned to practice last week, believes the group will be ready, too. With so many seasoned veterans at every position, a full training camp workload simply isn't always needed to get players up to speed and ready for the grinds of gameday.
"We take advantage of all the opportunities we get out here," Ward said, "so I think we'll be ready come game time."
The journey starts Sept. 12 against the Kansas City Chiefs, an opponent who might pose the hardest challenge to the defense all season. The Browns started to take a deep-dive into the Chiefs tape this week, but everyone knows how tall the challenge will be — quarterback Patrick Mahomes has led the Chiefs to two consecutive Super Bowl appearances, while TE Travis Kelce and WR Tyreek Hill are among the best players at their positions.
Ward will likely face plenty of snaps against Hill, the speedy six-year veteran who caught 15 touchdowns last season.
"He's a great player, and there's a lot of great players in this league," Ward said, "but you just have to have confidence in your own game and what you're capable of."
Having several top-tier players around Ward will only grow his confidence even higher. His job is much easier when two destructive players in Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney are attacking the quarterback every passing play. Johnson has excelled at keeping the deep third clear of big passes, while Newsome, Hill and returning CB Greedy Williams provide stable depth and offer the Browns some intriguing options in dime and nickel packages.
The look of the defense matches what Executive Vice President and GM Andrew Berry envisioned as he entered Year 2 in Cleveland.
Ward was a cornerstone piece of the project, and after three seasons of proving himself as one of the top corners in the league, he's eager to see how he can help the defense live up to its lofty, playoff-caliber goals.
"I have a lot of confidence in my game and the rest of this team," Ward said. "I think we'll all do a good job of taking care of what we have to do on gameday."