Denzel Ward is one of the Cleveland Browns best defenders, but he needs to improve his tackling.
The Ohio State product was outstanding in coverage, and his speed in shrinking windows outside the numbers jumped out. For such a young player, his change of direction in staying hip-to-hip with wideouts outside the numbers and limiting throwing lanes for completions was impressive.
Ward made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, again, as he had 11 pass deflections and three interceptions. One could tell early on that Ward is a true number one coverage cornerback.
Last season, despite the Cleveland Browns as a whole struggling, Ward was one of the bright spots defensively.
He didn’t have nearly the season he had in 2018 in terms of game-to-game impact it seemed overall, but he was still very good.
Ward rarely is out of position in his primary matchups, and he has the speed to affect throws at times pealing off in zone to break on throws to the seam.
Moreover, Pro Football Focus’ Solomon Wilcots, as of through Week 17 of last season, had Ward as his 21st-ranked corner. That’s still pretty darn good, particularly after what was perceived to be Ward not nearly at his best in 2019.
Through that point in the season, according to Wilcots, Ward held “opposing quarterbacks to a 44.9 percent completion percentage when throwing into his coverage – the best mark among cornerbacks in 2019.”
From there, he would further highlight Ward’s coverage prowess.
"“In just two seasons, Ward has developed a poise reminiscent of more experienced players, as he allowed only one touchdown pass across 414 coverage snaps while his forced incompletion percentage of 18.8% currently ranks eighth at the position.Ward plays with a meticulous technique that allows him to wrestle the ball away from receivers with regularity.”"
Jarring the ball loose at the catch point is something that has been well-taught at Ohio State in recent years, and that’s no exception in Ward’s case, seemingly as Wilcots touched on.
Additionally, Nick Shook from NFL.com back in May had Ward at number seven on his list of top 10 coverage defensive backs, citing his share of Next Gen statistics that show Ward was much better than the narrative of him perhaps dropping off.
"“Ward lands here in large part due to the numbers he produced while facing the highest target rate among this group. There’s also his coverage success rate of 61 percent and his ballhawk rate of 14.3 percent, which are impressive on their own, but also come with Ward’s tight window rate of 28.6 percent. He’s blanketing receivers and doing so consistently, with his 77 targets accounting for nearly a quarter of his coverage snaps. Team’s seldom enjoyed success when they threw at Ward. His 2020 season should be even better, provided he can get through it healthier than his injury plagued 2019 campaign.”"
Needless to say, there are not many better cornerbacks in the coverage sense in the entire league than Ward. Wilcots’ and Shook’s cited metrics demonstrate even with how Ward was scrutinized at times last season.
For Ward to be even better for the Cleveland Browns, though, he’ll need to be more effective as a tackler.
Now, last season, Ward missed four games due to a hamstring injury, and that could’ve very well played into tackling woes.
However, Ward having a missed tackle rate of 21.4 percent in 2019 didn’t help the perception for him. As a rookie, when Ward missed three games due to concussions, he had a 15.9 percent missed tackle rate.
In 12 games active last season, Ward was again really effective in coverage.
In his third season with hopefully Myles Garrett, Olivier Vernon, Larry Ogunjobi and others getting pressure up front and fully around, Ward can be even better in coverage. Second-round pick Grant Delpit shouldn’t hurt, either.
Last season, there were too many instances after catches or when he was in clear position that Ward didn’t make tackles, though. He conceded 194 yards after the catch in 2019, and while that hamstring injury didn’t help in the first half of the year really, Ward needs to be more capable as a tackler.
If he can bring down receivers and/or not concede big runs after catches do happen, the Cleveland Browns defense would be in better shape. It’s not as if Ward isn’t a willing tackler; he will come up and hit.
Albeit at times, he’s been prone to try for big hits by leading with his shoulder as opposed to wrapping, even against bigger players, as DPD’s Dan Justik essentially mentioned before the 2019 season. With what Ward already can do in coverage, he doesn’t need to inflict big shots.
If Ward can trim down his missed tackle rate to maybe 12 or 13 percent or so, that’d help out the likes of Karl Joseph, Delpit and others.
Better tackling would make Ward, an already very good corner, into an even better one. He’s more than capable of doing so, too, he just needs to clean that up, including at times against running backs, and ideally stay healthy.
Look for Ward to keep making plays and hopefully, limit yards after the catch when completions do happen at times in his primary coverage. If Ward cleans up his tackling/is more sure there, he’ll be even better for the Browns moving forward.
He just needs to be self-aware in that way.