In the months leading up to the 2018 NFL Draft, Ohio State’s Denzel Ward was widely considered the best cornerback in the pool. Cornerback also happens to be one of the most coveted positions in the NFL.
So why was it such a surprise — drawing a harmonized “Whoa!” from the NFL Network’s TV panel of experts — when Ward was the first defensive back chosen in Thursday’s first round?
Probably because in a vast majority of mock drafts, the first defensive back to come off the board was a safety: Either Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick, or Florida State’s Derwin James. That Ward went No. 4 overall to the Cleveland Browns was also a surprise, as many prognosticators had the Browns taking NC State pass-rusher Bradley Chubb in that spot.
As a pessimistic Browns fan (there are many of us), the selections of Ward at No. 4 and quarterback Baker Mayfield at No. 1 gave me bad flashbacks to 2014, when Cleveland came out of the first round with cornerback Justin Gilbert and quarterback Johnny Manziel. The athletically impressive CB and the small-ish polarizing QB. Neither of them lasted more than two seasons with the Browns.
But when your team went 0-16 last season and 1-15 the season before that, just getting guys who want to wear that uniform is a plus. Ward is an Ohio native who played for the Buckeyes, so presumably he’s happy about where he’s headed to begin his pro career. And his college resume, highlight film and workout numbers are undeniably attractive.
As a junior last season, Ward made 37 tackles, 15 pass breakups and two interceptions. He was first team All-Big Ten and a consensus All-American. He ran a 4.32-second 40-yard dash and recorded a 39-inch vertical leap. Measuring 5-foot-11 and 183 pounds, he is a smaller corner but as quick as anyone on the field.
It should also be noted that this past season’s NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year is an Ohio State cornerback, Marshon Lattimore of the New Orleans Saints. Lattimore was the No. 11 draft pick in 2017, the first of three Buckeyes DBs to go in the first round (Malik Hooker of the Colts, Gareon Conley of the Raiders). In 2016, Ohio State Eli Apple went to the Giants in the first round.
Ward was the first defensive player taken in this year’s draft, and the first of six defensive backs who went in the first round:
4. Cleveland Browns — Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State
11. Miami Dolphins — Minkah Fitzpatrick, S, Alabama
Winner of the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s best defensive back and the Chuck Bednarik Award as the nation’s top defensive player. Early in the draft process he was widely projected as a potential top-5 pick and the first defensive back to be chosen. He projects as a multi-positional threat in the pros who can play safety or corner or maybe even that hybrid safety/linebacker position. He’s a sure tackler and aggressive playmaker who always seemed to be around the ball for the Crimson Tide.
17. Los Angeles Chargers — Derwin James, S, Florida State
Another one who can play several positions on defense. The Browns might have taken him with that No. 4 pick if they hadn’t already taken a similar player, Jabrill Peppers, with a first-round pick last year. James is big (6-3, 211) and hits hard, and is viewed as a guy who will become a leader in the locker room and on the field.
18. Green Bay Packers — Jaire Alexander, CB, Louisville
He might be more impressive as a kicker returner than as a cornerback, but he was still a really good cornerback for the Cardinals. A lot was made about Alexander’s lack of size (5-11, 192) but he plays aggressive and doesn’t back down from bigger receivers.
28. Pittsburgh Steelers — Terrell Edmunds, S, Virginia Tech
Terrell’s younger brother, linebacker, Tremaine was picked No. 16 by the Buffalo Bills. That makes them the first siblings to be chosen in the first round of the NFL Draft. (Their older brother Trey plays running back for the Saints.) Terrell is a big safety at 6-2, 220 pounds that can hit like a linebacker but also covers well.
30. Minnesota Vikings — Mike Hughes, CB, Central Florida
The book on Hughes is that he’s physical in coverage, but he’s not a good tackler. He’ll be joining one of the league’s best secondaries that features All-Pro safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Xavier Rhodes, so perhaps he’ll learn how to better bring down his man from them. Hughes started his college career at North Carolina, but ran into some legal trouble and wound up at Central Florida following a JUCO stint.
The draft continues with the second and third round on Friday.