In the final buildup to the draft, we’re taking our analysis of the draft’s prospects one step further. We’re making the case for and against 10 of the players and scenarios that are linked to the Browns, who hold the No. 1 and No. 4 picks.
The case for Ohio State defensive back Denzel Ward
1. He’s the best player at a position John Dorsey puts in high regard: When he was asked about the positions he values most, Cleveland’s general manager listed cornerback in his top five. His drafting track record includes a first-round selection at the position in 2015 (Marcus Peters) and his second pick in 2014 and 2016. It’s a near consensus among draft analysts that Ward, the Northeast Ohio native who garnered first-team All-American recognition in 2017, is this year’s top cornerback, and most view him as the only player at his position likely to be selected in the top 15. NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah ranks Ward, who boosted his stock at the NFL Combine with an impressive 40, as his fourth-best overall prospect because of his “quickness, toughness, ball skills and competitiveness.” A lockdown cornerback can make the entire defense better, and Ward projects as the likeliest to assume that role at the next level.
2. He’s been groomed by one of the best in what’s become a legitimate pipeline: All the Buckeyes seem to do these days is produce top-level cornerbacks. Last year’s representative, Marshon Lattimore, was arguably one of the NFL’s best at the position and won Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. Gareon Conley was also a first-round pick in last year’s draft, joining Bradley Roby (2014) and Eli Apple (2016) as first-round cornerbacks produced by Ohio State under the tutelage of Kerry Coombs. Because of this glut of talent, players like Ward, Conley and Lattimore had to bide their time and make the most of their starting experience when their time came. Ward transitioned from nickel cornerback to outside cornerback smoothly this past season, making him simply the latest elite player at the position to prove just how much of a well-oiled machine Coombs operated before recently departing for a position with the Tennessee Titans.
3. He fits a big area of need: Yes, the Browns loaded up at cornerback during the first few weeks of the new league year, signing four defensive backs who boast starting experience. The competition should be fierce throughout OTAs, and it would only get stronger with the addition of Ward. The Browns are looking for the best possible players to fill spots in an area that struggled to get offenses off the field and finished second-to-last in interceptions. The NFL is becoming more and more pass-oriented, forcing defenses to play as many as five or six defensive backs on a regular basis. Cleveland addressed cornerback more than any position on the roster during the first month of the league year, but it’s not yet in the position to look away from an elite player like Ward.
Could a Buckeye make sense for Cleveland in the 1st round?
The case against Ward
1. There are bigger needs after a busy offseason: Yes, we just made the case for adding another cornerback in the face of signing four free agents. As good as it would be to add Ward to the competition at the position, wouldn’t it behoove the Browns to use such a valuable pick on a more glaring need? Or on a player who is guaranteed to come right in and thrive as a rookie? All three of the cornerbacks Cleveland signed -- T.J. Carrie, E.J. Gaines, Terrance Mitchell -- were regular starters last season and boast NFL experience Ward simply won’t have in his first season. Jamar Taylor and Briean Boddy-Calhoun are back after playing the majority of the snaps at their respective spots. It might make more sense to add a lower-drafted player to this competition rather than one who’d come to Berea with the expectation to start right away.
2. ...And the Browns could very well find a lockdown CB in the 2nd round: There’s going to be a run on the second level of cornerbacks at some point during the first or second day of the draft. With the glut of talented players at the position, it seems like a foregone conclusion. The Browns, who hold the 33rd and 35th overall picks, could find themselves smack dab in the middle of it when the second round begins. That’s why it could make a lot of sense for the Browns to wait on cornerback until this point of the draft and hammer away at a different position that might not be as deep with the fourth overall selection. As we noted in our analysis of Alabama DB Minkah Fitzpatrick, it takes a special, special defensive back to be drafted in the top four. There’s a reason it hasn’t happened in 20 years. The depth at the position in this year’s class lends reasons toward why the streak could extend to 21 years.
3. There are nits to pick with Ward’s game: There’s a lot to like about Ward’s pro prospects -- we devoted a bunch of words at the top of the page to it -- but there are also some areas of concern that might provide pause when it comes to using the first or fourth overall pick in the draft on him. Ward stands at 5-foot-11 and 183 pounds in a league where a number of the cornerbacks are taller, longer and thicker. That frame, according to NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein, may have played a part in Ward’s relatively low number of interceptions (two). “Always around the throw, but lack of size and length shows up with ‘just misses’ in pass defense,” Zierlein writes. “Has issues disengaging from big blocking receivers. Big backs drag him for a ride in run support.” Of course, it wasn’t Ward’s fault playing behind future NFL stars at Ohio State, but the sample size is a little light compared to other corners projected for the first and second round.