Denzel Ward: Is 2020 a Bounce Back Season?

Denzel Ward burst on the NFL scene in 2018 after being drafted with the fourth overall pick out of Ohio State.

Ward was incredible in his rookie season with 83.6 coverage grade from Pro Football Focus along with five interceptions. Pro Football Reference had Ward targeted 90 times in 2018 with a quarterback completion rate of 51.1%. He gave up five touchdowns on the year, and quarterbacks had a 72.8 rating when targeting Ward. Everything about the 2018 season painted Denzel Ward as a rising star. He even blocked a field goal against the Ravens that helped preserve a lead and eventually a win. The only questions heading into 2019 revolved around durability/ability in the run game.

Stepping up to stop the run is where Ward struggled most in his rookie campaign, not for lack of effort. Ward absolutely showed a willingness to stop the run and had five tackles for loss on the season. There are two significant issues that limited Ward defending the run. First, he is not a big corner at 5’11” 190 pounds with more length than bulk, which will allow bigger backs to plow through Ward’s tackles. His size will always be an issue against the run, but as long as Ward brings sound fundamentals to the field, he can avoid giving up big plays.

The second issue Ward had was bad tackling technique. He had a tendency to throw himself at ball carriers with his head involved way too much. This bad technique caught up to Ward in the form of a concussion that cost him three games. Ward will likely never be a great run stopper but his tackling needed improvement to avoid further injury.

Denzel Ward
Cleveland Browns cornerback Denzel Ward (21) reacts during an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, Oct. 7, 2018, in Cleveland. The Browns won 12-9. (AP Photo/David Richard)

Did Denzel Ward Regress in 2019?

Did Ward regress in 2019? That is a tough question because the numbers initially do show regression, but it might not be Ward who regressed. At first glance, you see a player that had a lower coverage grade in year two, according to PFF. Pro Football Reference showed an increase in missed tackle rate from 15.9% to 21.4%. Ward also had fewer tackles for loss, and fewer turnovers caused. While not a stat, it just felt like Ward did not impact the game as he did as a rookie. Upon a closer look in some ways, Ward was actually better in 2019.

Coverage

Ward was targeted 69 times in season two, and 11 passes defended, the same number as his rookie season. In 21 fewer targets, Ward still came away with two interceptions taking one for a touchdown. Ward also became an even bigger menace for quarterbacks throwing his way. PFR shows a completion rate of 48.2% and a 62.2 quarterback rating for passes thrown his way. After giving up five touchdowns in his rookie season, Ward only gave up one in 2019. So, even with a lower coverage grade, Ward improved a lot of the numbers you want to see for a strong cover corner. Ward’s run defense on the other hand went a bit in the wrong direction.

Run Defense

As stated above, Ward jumped to a missed tackle rate of 21.4%. Ward had only two more missed tackles than the year before but played in nearly 100 fewer snaps. Even with his frame working against him, Ward will need to do a better job of slowing the run game down on his side of the field. The excellent sign from last season was no concussions took place and hopefully no more will. The other side of that coin is that Ward needs to find a way to get guys on the ground. Hopefully, new coordinator Joe Woods van help with getting him there, along with the rest of the Browns defense.

Is 2020 a Bounce back Season for Ward?

The simple answer to this question is no. While Ward struggled a bit early in 2020 by the end of the season, the deep dive shows a player that was better in crucial parts of the game. Browns’ fans should not be looking at 2020 as a bounce-back for Ward but a possible jump off into superstardom. If he can improve his run defense to at least NFL average and continue to shut down his side of the field, Ward will move into the upper-echelon of NFL cornerbacks. If Ward can stay healthy, you can expect another strong season from the talented cornerback. Keeping Ward and his counterpart Greedy Williams healthy could lead to an incredible corner duo for years to come in Cleveland.


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