Without fail, it seems like Ohio State will pump out a new batch of fearsome defensive backs every draft cycle. In 2016, cornerback Eli Apple and safety Vonn Bell were both selected in the first two rounds, with the former being a top-ten pick. Although Apple has struggled to adjust to the mental nuances of the NFL for the New York Giants, Bell, with his mix of instincts, speed, and fearlessness has been a lynchpin for the New Orleans Saints. He has played in every game of the past two seasons, most recently eliminating the Carolina Panthers in this past weekend’s Wild Card game on a devastating safety blitz.
As impressive as a class of Apple and Bell was, the real Buckeye treasures would arrive the following year. A projected top-ten pick, safety Malik Hooker fell all the way to the Indianapolis Colts at pick 15 due to nagging injury issues. Although he would eventually lose his rookie season to an ACL tear, in his limited sample size, Hooker displayed rare center field potential. With advanced vision and an innate ability to lurk and find the ball, Hooker accounted for three interceptions, putting him fourth among rookies. Besides Hooker, there was also Oakland Raiders cornerback Gareon Conley. Though he also missed most of the season with a leg injury, Conley is still a talented corner with fluid hips and an ability to play both outside and in the slot.
The cream of the crop, however, was cornerback Marshon Lattimore. Although he fell to the Saints at pick 11, Lattimore was also a projected top pick. As such, expectations were sky high from the start, and Lattimore passed his test with flying colors. Coming out of college, Lattimore’s top trait was his striking ability to play the ball, advanced far beyond his single season of starting experience. On film, Lattimore was so instinctive that it sometimes seemed like he would do a “mind-meld” with receivers, staying a step ahead of them in their own routes.
For instance, against Oklahoma, Lattimore blanketed his man to the top of a post route, glanced back at the quarterback, and continued to trail the receiver after he had made his break. Then, as the ball was thrown, Lattimore anticipated where his man and the ball would be, accelerated through an efficient angle towards the ball, and came down with his first of two interceptions on the day.
For the Saints, Lattimore showed a similar ability to seemingly read receivers’ minds. Late in the second half against the Atlanta Falcons, for example, Lattimore foresaw a slant route from wide receiver Julio Jones, laid a debilitating press that forced Jones into stagnation, turned his eyes back to quarterback Matt Ryan as Jones tried to break, and came back to the ball for an enormous, momentum-stealing interception. Instincts like Lattimore’s are few and far between, especially for Ohio State cornerbacks, who tend to come into the NFL extremely raw in terms of locating the ball (e.g. Eli Apple).
With that said, though, they are far from his only strength. He is also renowned for his size, length, physicality, and hip fluidity transitioning out of his backpedal. Although he is not a perfect cornerback–he can be somewhat of a long strider, which can cause him to be burned off the line–with a rookie-high five interceptions, Lattimore has already safely established himself as a top-five cornerback in the NFL, and should only continue to grow.
So, does the upcoming 2018 NFL Draft feature another transcendent Buckeye that will terrorize the league from Day 1 like Lattimore?
Probably not. Players like Lattimore, with his combination of speed, size, length, well-developed tackling ability, fluidity, filthy ball skills, and pro-readiness are once-in-a-decade type prospects. However, this year still features a solid consolation prize, and a potential franchise-changing talent in his own right: cornerback Denzel Ward.
While Lattimore plays cornerback like a regal clipper on the high seas (smooth, graceful, and powerful), Ward is like a speedboat: smaller, but devastatingly quick, coordinated, and dangerous. The first thing to note about Ward is his athletic profile. A four-star recruit in spite of his relatively pedestrian stature and length (5’10, per Ohio State’s website), Ward could go down as one of the fastest players in Ohio State history, having been timed running a 4.23 40-yard dash. While it should be noted that this measurement was made in-house, Ohio State does not have a track record of fabricating or exaggerating athletic testing, and the speed is extremely evident on film, so it is more than likely that Ward runs around a 4.3 in Indianapolis.
However, Ward is not just an athlete playing cornerback–his speed truly does make an impact. In the run game, Ward is not a natural wrap-up tackler the way that Lattimore is, and does not have the frame to confront larger running backs head on; however, he is extremely tenacious, and can sniff out a run to the edge like a missile. Due to the immense straight-line velocity that he generates, Ward is somewhat of an “all-or-nothing” tackler: he can either miss hilariously in the open field, or lay a bone-crunching, highlight-reel hit with his shoulder. The speed is also evident in coverage, as, when Ward leaves too much cushion on a hitch route, he is still frequently able to recover and either stab at the ball or make a hasty tackle.
Athleticism aside, Ward’s marquee trait is his footwork. Two years ago, tackle Laremy Tunsil had teams salivating over his swift, subtle steps off the line. Ward is much of the same: when playing press-man coverage, his feet are light and fast, significantly quicker than Lattimore’s, allowing him to keep his hips square, stop on a dime, and make a break to either side. This has made Ward a suffocating slot corner, especially against out-breaking routes.
At the beginning of Ohio State’s game against Iowa, for example, Ward backpedaled patiently out of his slot position, stopped on a dime as his man cut, and broke to close on the flat route. This combination of fluid footwork and closing speed is further evident when Ward goes over the middle. While drag routes are traditionally difficult for young corners to cover, as players can be caught out of position by the crowd in the middle of the field, Ward moves compactly and efficiently enough to stay out of trouble, and even if he does lose position momentarily, he has the recovery speed to seek out his man and limit damage.
With that said, Ward’s footwork is not entirely flawless. Although he stays square in his backpedal, changes direction on a dime, and knows how to run with his eyes to the QB in bail technique and zone coverage, Ward can be bizarrely slow getting off the line. He tends to occasionally take an awkward, elongated first step–almost as if he is leaping, which could allow quicker receivers like Antonio Brown and Julian Edelman to victimize him at the next level. However, considering how reserved the rest of his backpedal is, with Ward consistently staying square to his man and allowing the receiver to commit to a direction first, and considering how quickly Ward changes direction, this slow start is almost always nullified. So, while this is a concern, it is only a minor issue.
Ultimately, what will determine Ward’s success in the NFL will be the growth of his instincts. Early in the season, Ward seemed to only have a vague idea of how to play the ball: he would thrust his arms through receivers’ outstretched hands, breaking up passes, but he would rarely actually turn back around to see the ball. Towards the end of the year, however, Ward began to learn. He became more physical in jamming receivers during his backpedal, and especially at the top of the route, which allowed him to see the quarterback’s eyes before his man would.
Additionally, Ward became more instinctive in anticipating where receivers would go while in zone coverage. Early against Michigan, Ward was put in a deep corner zone, but recognized that the tight end would be open up the seam, and anticipated that the quarterback would throw his way. So, he undercut the route beautifully, but was unfortunately a touch too early, leading to a long reception. Plays like these show significant improvement and tantalizing upside in Ward’s “feel” for the game, but also suggest that he has strides to make before he realizes his superstar potential, something that his uninspiring interception total (2) and tendency to fall victim to pick plays serve as testaments to.
Ward may not have Lattimore’s length, but he has speed to burn and similar fluidity in his transition from his backpedal. Furthermore, with patient feet to stay square to receivers in his backpedal, quickness in his direction changes, visibly growing instincts, and a willingness to hit hard, if he is able to continue to groom his ball skills, wrap-up technique, and first step, in the words of Michael Jordan, “the ceiling is the roof” for Denzel Ward.
Though he looks small, he can establish a presence on the outside, excel in the slot, drop back into deep zones and creep the QB, or even shoot a gap and stop a running back dead in his tracks. By drafting Denzel Ward, teams may not get a polished prospect like Lattimore, but they would get someone who, with proper development, can revolutionize a secondary. With the versatility to not just play but dominate all over the defensive backfield, Ward is a legitimate franchise player, and well worth a top-ten pick.