Leading up to the 2017 college football season, the CFB Film Room Scouting Dept. is putting together a summer scouting series. We’re focusing on the top draft-eligible prospects entering the 2017 season and will be reviewing their strengths and weaknesses from an NFL scouting perspective. Our latest report features Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward.
Rarely has a cornerback with zero career starts commanded the preseason hype than what Ohio State’s Denzel Ward is garnering. The junior defensive back was a key contributor last season in a secondary that saw 75 percent of its starters get drafted in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Ward still managed to play 468 snaps, turning opportunity into production en route to Honorable Mention All-Big 10 honors by the media.
Denzel made the most of his playing time in 2016 where he tallied 17 tackles and tied for the team lead with seven pass break-ups. More impressive were his stats in coverage, where he was targeted 42 times, allowing only 15 receptions. Ward proved to be consistent and reliable at a critical position during the 2016 campaign. Below, we take a deeper look at the traits that make Denzel Ward a top prospect entering the 2017 season, and project how his skill set will translate to the NFL.
The single most important trait for a defensive back is the ability to play man-to-man, allowing the defensive coordinator to be more creative with coverages and blitzes.
Ward is very good in this aspect as he has a smooth, controlled back pedal and shows effortless transitions by utilizing efficient footwork and flipping his hips.
The Buckeye cornerback has elite speed, allowing him to close the gaps when separation by the wide receiver occurs. Denzel plays disciplined and consistently keeps his eyes locked on his man instead of watching the backfield.
Ward is asked to play a fair amount of Cover 3 and Cover 4 within the Ohio State defensive scheme. At the snap, Ward immediately positions himself in a way where he can key the ball through the receiver.
He relies on strong anticipation and instincts to break on the ball and utilizes his speed to maximize his range. Ward displays good awareness and mental processing within his zone to come off his assignment in order to make a play on the ball. He is susceptible to inward breaking routes in zone coverage, largely due to his angle of retreat, but again, he can often recover due to his elite speed and reaction skills to contest the pass.
Straight line speed is one thing, but acceleration out of a break is where cornerbacks make their money—and this is an area where Ward excels.
Ward is able to transition out of a backpedal and immediately attack the receiver to make a play on the ball. In the clip below, notice the efficiency within his footwork as he plants and drives towards the ball.
As mentioned previously, Ward tied for the team lead in 2016 with seven Pass Break-ups. Denzel’s success in this area is attributed to his body control and hand-eye coordination to track the ball in flight, as well as his ability to high point the ball with superb timing and athleticism.
Ward was targeted 17 times in contested catch situations last season and allowed only 2 receptions.
Perhaps the most impressive stat is the fact that Ward committed zero pass-interference penalties in these situations, which further illustrates his ability to play the ball efficiently. When playing with his back to the ball, Ward also displays patience and timing to play the ball as it enters the pocket of the receiver.
Playing outside, and behind active linebackers, Ward is not asked to be a key run-stopper in the overall defensive scheme of the Buckeyes. However, Ward shows solid ability to diagnose the run and takes appropriate angles while showing good patience in pursuit.
When tasked with the responsibility as a contain defender, Ward shows solid ability to hold position along the line of scrimmage. When attacking outside runs, Ward will need to improve upon his aggressiveness attacking blockers, as well as shedding blocks as he embarks on the 2017 season.
Denzel Ward is a top tier defensive back prospect who displays all of the important traits worthy of a high draft choice. He provides elite speed and ball skills to be an immediate upgrade to any secondary, and offers good overall ability to be productive in zone or man coverage schemes.
What remains to be seen is whether Ward can operate as CB1 for the Buckeyes on a consistent basis as he faces an increase in both playing time and responsibilities in 2017. The fast-rising junior will need to improve upon his aggressiveness in run-support to further solidify himself as a Day 1 draft choice and cement himself among the nation’s elite.