The 2018 NFL Draft Prospect series breaks down draft-eligible players, highlighting their college production as well as their NFL potential. Daily fantasy players should know about NFL rookies before they’ve played a down of professional football because they are among the most misvalued assets in all of DFS. People who know NFL rookies have a significant DFS edge. The draft will be held at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX, from April 26-28.
This piece is on Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward, who has declared early for the draft. For the total list of all players leaving school early, see our underclassmen tracker.
Junior | 5’10″ and 191 Pounds | Projection: Round 1
Combine numbers: 40-yard: 4.32 sec | bench reps: 16 | 3-cone: DNP | 20-yard shuttle: DNP | vertical: 39 in | broad: 136 in
The Buckeyes landed three cornerbacks in the first round of the draft over the past two seasons, and Ward is fully expected to join that group come April. While he doesn’t possess the size of some of his ex-teammates, he more than makes up for it with a reported 4.23 (!!!) second 40-yard dash. The fastest player on one of the best defenses in the country will have to prove he’s capable of performing without the nation’s finest defensive line, but it’d be shocking if the NFL waits long to draft the Buckeyes’ latest freakishly talented defensive back.
Ward’s speed made him a weapon as a true freshman on the kickoff team, but he didn’t fully crack the defensive rotation until 2016. He promptly tied Marshon Lattimore with a team-high nine pass deflections and was the team’s only corner not to allow a touchdown or commit a pass interference penalty. Overall, Ward allowed just over a 32 percent completion rate over the past two seasons, earning Pro Football Focus’ No. 3 grade among all cornerbacks in 2017.
As Urban Meyer once said, “The NFL never comes and says, ‘We want a zone corner,’ . . . so that’s why our guys when they wake up, they go play man (coverage) and they go to sleep playing man.” This philosophy has helped the Buckeyes challenge LSU as the nation’s official #DBU. Ward is unique in his ability to hit like a safety, but it’s his stickiness in man coverage that makes him one of the draft’s most-coveted defensive backs.
Ward’s somewhat slight frame did result in a few losses on 50/50 balls, and he’s certainly more experienced working on the outside than in the slot. Still, his footwork has continuously been lauded by draft pundits, and nobody questions his ball skills or willingness to tackle. Even if Ward is drafted by a team already equipped with several competent corners, his unique blend of physicality and speed will demand snaps on special teams as well as pass-first situations.
Some evaluators question Ward’s decision to sit out the Buckeyes’ Rose Bowl matchup against Southern California, but Ward’s on-field tape doesn’t reveal him to be a selfish player. Rather, Ward stands out as a corner with a safety’s mentality, which could give teams extra incentive to draft perhaps the most polished pure-cover corner in the draft. Potential first-round corners Joshua Jackson and Minkah Fitzpatrick may offer more size and upside, but nobody in the draft is more used to playing — and dominating — in man coverage for 60 minutes than Ward. Whether his future employer chooses to utilize Ward in shadow coverage is unknown, but he offers the physical skills to make an immediate impact wherever he lands.
In our most recent mock draft, we have Ward going to the Packers at No. 14.
Photo credit: Trevor Ruszkowski – USA TODAY Sports