Summary: Ohio State has been a factory of NFL talent, and that has especially been the case under Urban Meyer. During the 2016 season, the Buckeyes had a standout NFL secondary with three first-round talents at cornerback and one at free safety Malik Hooker. Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley were the starting corners on the outside, with Denzel Ward serving as the nickel corner. That trio of first-rounders was excellent, and Ward totaled 23 tackles with nice passes broken up in 2016.
With Lattimore and Conley moving on to the NFL, Ward became Ohio State's No. 1 cornerback and had an excellent junior season. Ward totaled 37 tackles with 15 passes broken up and two interceptions in 2017. In the 2017 season opener against Indiana, Ward notched an interception, four tackles and five passes broken up. He also was beaten for a touchdown and some other receptions by big Indiana receiver Simmie Cobbs Jr. Ward had problems with Cobbs' size, but was good at preventing separation. After that game, Ward was very good and consistent throughout the season at locking down receivers and keeping them from getting open. He put on a clinic in the Big Ten Championship game with an excellent performance in what was his final collegiate game.
For the NFL, Ward is man-cover corner. He is very fast with quick feet, loose hips, and easy acceleration. With his skill set, Ward is superb at running the route with receivers to prevent separation. He is adept at playing off-man coverage and running with fast wideouts downfield. Ward is reliable to handle the speed receivers in one-on-one coverage without getting safety help over the top. He transitions well in routes and will sit on routes to challenge receivers. Ward also has good ball skills with impressive timing on his contact and the hands to be an interception threat.
The one issue for Ward is size. He lacks the height to take on tall receivers and also doesn't have a big frame to handle strength. Big wideouts give Ward problems as they box him out and make catches over him. Ward can't do anything about his height, but he should gain more muscle to battle NFL wide receivers. It would be wise of Ward's NFL team to protect him from matchups on big receivers who can use their size to gain position and make receptions over Ward even though he is not allowing separation.
With Ward's size issues, he might be the kind of receiver who lines up on the outside in base sets but moves to the slot in nickel situations. He is a matchup cornerback who would be a good fit to follow the speed receiver no matter where they line up.
Some team sources have Ward as their top-rated cornerback for the 2018 NFL Draft and think he is one of the top defensive prospects available. Other teams like Josh Jackson and Mike Hughes more. Still, Ward has graded out as a first-rounder and should be safe to be a Thursday night selection. Early in his rookie contract, he could turn into a quality starter on his way to a good NFL career with Pro Bowl potential.
Player Comparison: Joe Haden. Ward's skill set reminds me of Haden (5-11, 195). Both are smaller for No. 1 corners but have the ability to run the route and prevent separation. Big receivers can be problematic for both cornerbacks. Haden was a top-10 pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, and Ward could go in the top-20 of the 2018 NFL Draft.
NFL Matches: Cleveland, Chicago, Oakland, Los Angeles Chargers, Dallas, Buffalo, Minnesota, Cincinnati, New England and Philadelphia
There are a lot of teams that could be a fit for Ward in the 2018 NFL Draft. In the top 10, the Browns have to upgrade their cornerback talent, and Ward could be in play to be a No. 1 corner for them with the fourth-overall pick. Ward would be a good scheme fit for the Bears. Oakland lost out on free agent cornerback Trumaine Johnson, so the Raiders could consider reuniting Ward with Gareon Conley.
Of the teams picking in the teens, there are a few potential fits for Ward. The Chargers could use a cornerback to go with Casey Hayward. Jason Verrett is nearing the end of his contract and has had durability issues. If the size isn't too big of an issue, the Seahawks could have Ward in contention for their first-rounder after cutting Richard Sherman. Dallas could use more cornerback talent, and Ward could make sense for them to be their No. 1 corner to go with Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis.
In the 20s, there are a number of teams that could target Ward. Buffalo could consider Ward as the team has to find a replacement for Ronald Darby. The Vikings have to consider a replacement for Terrance Newman, and the Bengals could use a replacement for Adam Jones. Ward could interest both Minnesota and Cincinnati.
The Patriots could consider taking Ward. Malcolm Butler left via free agency, while Stephon Gilmore was disappointing in his first year in New England. Ward's cover skills could make him a fit for New England's defense, but the Patriots would probably have to trade up for him. The Super Bowl champs could also consider Ward. Philadelphia may not sign Ronald Darby to a long-term contract, and Ward could be a potential replacement for him.