The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are going to have Vernon Hargreaves on their team for the start of their 2018 preparation, which includes training camp and the preseason. That, we know is true.
However, as we discussed on the previous page, there was a need for the Bucs to draft a cornerback before Hargreaves’ leaked video came out and that need still exists here after.
The Bucs went through the free agency period spending most of their cap space on the defensive trenches with Beau Allen, Vinny Curry, Mitch Unrein and then trading for Jason Pierre-Paul. As for the secondary, their big move was re-signing cornerback Brent Grimes to a one-year, $10 million dollar deal. If we project that Hargreaves is more suited to play as an inside cornerback, which may be the case, the Bucs are going to have to look at upgrading their second outside cornerback spot in the draft. That could happen as high as No. 7 overall, and in the most recent mock drafts, if the mock does have the Bucs taking a cornerback, it’s almost always the shutdown corner from The Ohio State University, Denzel Ward.
Here’s what NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein had to say about Ward in his scouting report.
“OSU cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs told reporters last spring that Ward was a “gifted player” and truly a “third starter” at cornerback, joining 2017 first-round picks Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley. Ward proved his coach correct, earning first-team All-American and all-conference accolades in 2017 with 37 tackles, two for loss, two interceptions, and 15 pass breakups (ranked in the top 10 in the nation). He earned honorable mention All-Big Ten notice from league media as a non-starter in 2016, playing 30 snaps a game on defense. Ward tied Lattimore for the team lead with nine pass breakups on the year (23 tackles), never giving up on a play and being quite physical despite his average size for the position. Ward got onto the field as a true freshman, making seven tackles, primarily on special teams. Ward was a first-team All-Ohio pick and Division II Co-Defensive Player of the Year as a high school senior (nine interceptions, 18 pass breakups). He also qualified for the state track meet as a long jumper and part of the 4×400 relay.”
Ward had pretty good stats during his time at Ohio State. Stats can be tricky for defensive backs, though. Where you certainly want takeaways and pass breakups, part of the job is to play such good coverage that you don’t throw the ball your way. So, what I actually think was most impressive about Ward was that a team as talented as Ohio State felt the need to get him on the field as a true freshman and sophomore. That, to me, is a signal of a good player — or at least one that has a lot of potential at a young age.
So, how does Ward look from a measurable and athletic standpoint?
Height and weight? Not great. Ward measured in at the Combine at just under 5-foot-11 and only 183 pounds, both of those numbers were in the 35 and 14 percentile* for cornerbacks in the NFL, respectively.
*Anytime you read a percentile number for players using Combine data, what that means is that the database takes the results of the measurement or athletic test you’re observing from every cornerback in the NFL and places the observed data where it fits. The higher the percentile the better, as there are less players in the league that exceed whatever number that is.
However, when it came to the athletic testing, Ward was stellar. His 40-yard dash time of 4.32 is in the 97th percentile, his vertical jump of 39 inches is in the 85th percentile, and his 11-foot, 3-inch broad jump puts him in the 98th percentile. That’s one heck of an athletic profile for a position that commands you be an athlete above the norm.
Now, let’s take all that – the praise, the accolades, the measurables and the testing – and see where we it might show up on film and determine whether or not this is a player the Bucs should be interested in at No. 7 overall.
HOLD ON NOW. I need another angle of that.
ARE Y’ALL SEEING THIS? I need one more replay.
OK, I lied. Give it to me one more time, but this time in slo-mo.
I had to start off showing you all that hit – at its many beautiful angles – because though he is small, a play like that encapsulates the mentality that Ward plays with.
Mentality is very important for cornerbacks. I’ve often said that cornerbacks, especially at the highest level, truly have to believe they’re the best player on the field or they’ve already lost the battle on the day. Ward’s assignments are tough. He’s asked to play man coverage in an aggressive style of defensive that often has their players blitzing the pocket and therefore leaving Ward without much help on the outside.
For a man of his size, Ward holds his own very well.
There’s an art to playing man coverage.
Think about it. If you’re a cornerback, you’re going up against a player who is most likely bigger than you, plus they know where the ball is going and when it’s arriving. Now it’s your job to figure that out, stay with them and not yield a catch. Knowing that, there is a physical element to playing cornerback, especially in the NFL, that has to exist with all types of corners, though some more than others.
With Ward being a cornerback that plays so close to the line of scrimmage, he knows he’s going to have to be physical, and like he showed in the play above, it’s all about being physical but not too much. You have to be able to disrupt a route and timing without drawing a flag. Little nuances like shoulder bumps and hand checks become an art form, and Ward is certainly an artist, in that regard.
As you can see in the clip above, Ward is asked every week to be physical yet not draw penalties, which is a tough gig, even beyond the talented receiver he’s going up against. The key is that he’s smart enough to get his head turned around when the contact happens.
The Indiana game gives us a pretty good look at who Ward really is as a prospect. In it, he was asked to guard Simmie Cobbs Jr. and Donavan Hale, both of whom are 6-foot-4 and over 220 pounds. With Ward being just 5-foot-10 and more importantly just 185 pounds, being physical with those guys was tough, but to start the game he still managed to give those big boys fits.
When you sign up to play man coverage, you know you’re going to be blind to the ball for most of the game. What I mean by that is that in man coverage, you’re often playing with you back to the ball, unannounced to when the quarterback is loading up and releasing the throw. Being instinctive to when the ball is being thrown your way when you have your back to the ball is often something you can’t teach, and it’s probably my favorite attribute of Ward’s.
There’s a lot that goes into playing with your back to the ball. You have to first be athletic enough to keep up with the receiver. You then have to be able to read a wide receiver’s eyes, and then you have to again be subtly physical as the ball comes in and then very physical when the ball reaches the catch point. Ward does all these things so well, and that’s such an important part of playing close, man coverage.
Though he is a physical cornerback who plays mostly in man coverage, Ward doesn’t do a lot of press coverage work. Due to his size, he knows that engaging with his hands at the line of scrimmage would actually put the offense at an advantage because of the physics that are involved with his lower weight – BREAKING NEWS: big guys beat up on small guys.
So instead, Ward relies on his elite athleticism we saw at the NFL Scouting Combine while still in close coverage. Ward not only has quick feet, but is natural when backpedalling and most importantly knows how to stay balanced. As a close-coverage cornerback who doesn’t get physical at the snap, you’re often backpedalling and not knowing where you’re about to break on a route.
That’s where balance is key.
The clip above is a pretty good example of Ward’s balance. Look at him in the slot.
He’s not bracing himself for initial contact, so he’s naturally backing up. As the receiver tries to eat the space between he and Ward, Ward stays in control enough to break when the wide receiver broke and therefore stayed close enough with his man to not yield an attempt at him. This is a compliment for a cornerback.
Ward leans on his athleticism in man coverage more than his physicality. He plays to his strengths well, but his weaknesses still exist, and unfortunately for him, he may already be near his ceiling because of them.
I told you the Indiana game gave us a good look at the good and bad of Ward, and the clip above brings us into the bad.
As much as I or anyone else can praise Ward for the good he does (which is a lot) there is always the “but” that comes at the end.
“Denzel Ward is such a strong-willed, technical, athletic corner, but…”
But, he’s 5-foot-10, and he’ll always be 5-foot-10. He has 31-inch arms, and he’ll always have 31-inch arms. Because of this, he’ll always be susceptible to bigger targets, and in the NFL, they’re all big. He could get big-boyed the way 5-foot-10 cornerback Vernon Hargreaves has during the first two years of his Bucs career.
I’ve seen this kind of thing too many times in the NFL; there are really good cornerbacks who will just always have to give up catches like this. Now, I’m not saying that Ward isn’t worth a first-round pick. I think he has the technique and athleticism to warrant that, but is he a Top 10 pick? I’m not all in on that because of the risk that could come with him from week-to-week.
I saw a few times in Ward’s tape, but more noticeably in the Indiana game, that once Ward started giving up a few big catches over the top that he began to get more physical, more grabby and more handsy during the route, likely due to frustration or having to adjust to the height he doesn’t have, which is understandable. This yielded some flags and showed the frustration in Ward’s game when the rest of it is just so dang good.
It’s players like Ward that make you appreciate how rare players like Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson and Marshon Lattimore are. These are guys who not only do what Ward can do from a technical and athleticism standpoint, but also do even more with their length, too. Those are the guys who you can look at and know you’re getting a shutdown, No. 1 cornerback any week in the NFL, or at least have a chance to with them on your team. With Ward, I think you’re getting a real good corner, but at the same time you’ll still be searching for one that is bigger who can play opposite him.
I’m also not sure how well Ward fits in Tampa Bay. Now, could that be part of the problem in Tampa Bay? Yes, it could be. The Bucs under defensive coordinator Mike Smith have not really played as aggressive as Ward’s style calls for, and if you’re not drafting him to play man coverage, that’s even more of a waste to what he does best. And do the Bucs want to have a starting secondary that features three 5-foot-10 cornerbacks in nickel defense? Tht’s a really small secondary in today’s NFL.
So, is Ward worth the No. 7 overall pick? I think Ward will likely be the best overall option at cornerback in this class, but at No. 7, for the Buccaneers, I think it’s too rich, especially knowing that there’s a chance North Carolina State defensive end Bradley Chubb, Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson or Florida State strong safety Derwin James could be there, as well as a possible quarterback left on the board to sweeten the pot for a trade down. And why would the Bucs want to pass on better players like Chubb or Nelson – and perhaps James – to select Ward?
Ward’s skill set could make him a really good draft selection for a certain team, but unless it’s in a trade down, I would wonder if the Bucs would be stretching Ward’s value over another player on the board just to fill a need.
Trevor Sikkema is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat reporter and NFL Draft analyst for PewterReport.com. Sikkema, an alumnus of the University of Florida, has covered both college and professional football for much of his career. As a native of the Sunshine State, when he's not buried in social media, Sikkema can be found out and active, attempting to be the best athlete he never was. Sikkema can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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