Denzel Ward is coming home … not that he ever really left.
The former Ohio State star cornerback and Northeast Ohio native was selected No. 4 overall by the Browns on Thursday night in the 2018 NFL Draft, joining a reshaped Cleveland team trying to make last year's winless season feel like a distant memory.
And Ward, the Nordonia High School standout, is ready to take on that challenge.
"This has been my childhood dream just to get to the NFL draft," Ward said on a conference call. "To be drafted by the Cleveland Browns and be able to go back to my hometown and play there, it's just a blessing. I'm just so excited to get there and get to work."
Once a skinny, three-star recruit from Macedonia (which sits about 30 minutes south of downtown Cleveland), Ward emerged as one of the Buckeyes' best defensive players in his first season as a full-time starter. After smaller roles in his first two years in Columbus, Ward earned All-American honors with 17 pass breakups and two interceptions.
Ward, whose tantalizing speed, ball skills and instincts made him one of the draft's top prospects, is expected to give Cleveland a much-needed playmaker at cornerback.
"He's one of those unique and gifted players that he is, as you know with Ohio State it is zero, press-man coverage," general manager John Dorsey said. "I talked to some coaches here earlier this week and they were telling me certain things about him; great kid, loves the game of football, exceptionally fast with the change of directions, incredible ball skills."
"You're talking about one of the best pure corners in this draft, in our opinion," head coach Hue Jackson added.
Ward joins Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, whom the Browns selected with the first overall pick. The two faced off against each other this past September, as Mayfield's Sooners upset Ohio State in Columbus. Mayfield, who carved up the Buckeyes' defense, praised Ward and said he's looking forward to teaming up with his former foe.
"He's an unbelievable player," he said, "to be able to move forward with him and be part of that draft class with a great player from a great program, I'm looking forward to it."
Ward has also earned high marks off the field. At the combine, he raised money in memory of his father, Paul, who died of cardiac arrest two springs ago. Through his 39-inch vertical jump (one of the best marks at the combine), Ward raised more than $6,300 toward the Paul G. Ward Scholarship Fund, which benefits high school seniors.
Ward visited the Browns' facility earlier this month as part of the team's annual local pro day, designed for players who either grew up in the area or attended college locally. Ward, who had already turned heads at the combine and at his on-campus Pro Day, met with Jackson, Dorsey and the coaching staff.
It was clear, the Browns said, that Ward fit in their plans.
"He's a really good man. I mean I think his family has done a really great job with him. I think Ohio State has done a really great job with him," Jackson said. "I think he has a burning desire to be one of the better corners in this league."
"Before we were coming down here, (defensive coordinator) Gregg Williams, he kind of pulled me into his office and said, 'Come here. Look at this text here, I'm getting all of these texts from the Ohio State football coaches,'" Dorsey said. "They say that this guy's a really great teammate.' That's pretty cool."
As Ward and Cleveland's new-look roster hope to turn the franchise around following two unpleasant seasons, he said he's up to the task.
"I look forward to that challenge," he said. "I look forward to any challenge people place on me."