Our next draft profile would be a big time addition to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ secondary.
Full disclosure: for those that have followed me here or listened to me on podcasts knows my feelings on Ohio State football. For those that don’t, here’s the long and short of it – I despise them. I love nothing more in college football than watching them lose. That said, when we decided to feature a draft prospect each day that could end up a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, I volunteered to take Buckeye cornerback Denzel Ward. Why? Because I would be tougher on him than anyone else.
Plain and simple: this kid is good. That is, what little I got to see of him.
Denzel Ward’s College Career
Ward played three seasons for Ohio State, opting to declare for the draft after his Junior season. He would finish his collegiate career with 67 tackles, fifteen passes defensed, and two interceptions.
He was extremely effective in shutting down one side of the field, playing in press coverage most of the time. Quarterbacks would tend to avoid his half of the field and he didn’t venture away from the left side often. There were a few snaps I saw in the Ohio State-Penn State game that he lined up in the slot, but it wasn’t often that he moved off that left side.
The other issue I had was that he wasn’t on the field nearly enough. There would be stretches of five to seven plays where Ward was nowhere to be found, but if the opposition crossed the fifty Ward was out there the remainder of the drive. It was puzzling given how solid he played while on the field.
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He is absolutely outstanding in press-man coverage. Some will look at his interceptions or pass breakups and come away unimpressed. This is one of those situations where stats don’t even begin to tell the whole story. He was targeted four times against Oklahoma, allowing only one catch. That catch was also an incredible play on the sideline where the receiver barely tapped his toe down in bounds to get the completion. Other than that, he was lights out.
It was also telling that in the third quarter, Ward wasn’t on the field when Oklahoma reached their 40 yard line. In two plays, the Sooners were in the end zone. Ward’s spot was targeted on one of those two plays for a gain over 40 yards with Ward merely standing on the sidelines spectating. Once he was on the field, Mayfield didn’t even look to his side and instead threw a strike down the middle of the field for a score.
One other thing that really stood out was how good Ward was as a gunner on the punt team. He was consistently the first player down the field and was single-handedly responsible for quite a few fair catch calls by the opposing team.
Some will point to his size. Ward is 5’10” and under 200 pounds. With the Buccaneers already rostering two starting corners under six feet tall, it’s a little unnerving that in a division that has behemoth receivers like Julio Jones and Michael Thomas, the players responsible for stopping them have such a huge disadvantage from a size perspective.
The other thing to take into consideration was his playing time. Now, Greg Schaino runs an effective defense at Ohio State, but if Ward is as good as he appears on film, why the constant rotation? Also, with the lack of playing time, is he truly ready to take on a starting role in the NFL? Will he be able to physically handle that kind of work load on top of already having to play more games than he’s accustomed to?
Why The Tampa Bay Buccaneers Need Ward
Brent Grimes is (likely) entering his final season in the NFL. With Vernon Hargreaves being somewhat disappointing through two seasons, cornerback is a glaring need on this team. VH3 plays much better when pressing and established himself last season as a solid, reliable slot corner. That, however, still leaves a hole opposite Grimes. Ward is the best corner in this draft from a sheer athletic perspective but the height is a concern. It may not be a fair one, but it is one nonetheless.
The Buccaneers are going to have to draft a corner this year. They need someone to provide an impact and depth, so when the Bucs are on the clock, Ward might truly be the most talented player on the board – and at a position of need.
On top of that, the punt team struggled last season. Teaming Ward up with Josh Robinson could give the Buccaneers that top tier punt team again as Ward would fill the void left by Russell Shepard when he left for Carolina.
Will It Happen?
If Bradley Chubb and Quenton Nelson are off the board, the ideal scenario would be to trade back a few spots with one of the quarterback needy teams – Buffalo, Arizona, Miami – and still be able to snag secondary help in the form of Denzel Ward, Minkah Fitzpatrick, or Derwin James. If the Buccaneers are stuck at seven and can’t trade back, Ward would honestly be their best option if they go defense. That’s not to say Fitz or James aren’t good, or as good, but Ward is playing the more impactful position and if he can shut down receivers even close to the way he did in college, he’ll pay off for the next eight to ten years. Yes, the size would make me incredibly nervous, but Grimes plays bigger than his size and Ward showed flashes of that during his tenure with Ohio State.
Taking a corner for the second time in three years with a top eleven pick would be risky, but Jason Licht has shown no signs of not being willing to admit a mistake. Hargreaves appears to be better suited for the nickel corner – although I still believe he has the ability to improve and play outside – and the Buccaneers are not going to find another immediate impact starter on Ward’s level in the fourth round or later, which one would guess would be the case if they go offensive line/defensive line/safety in round one and running back in round two.
It’s going to be an interesting process that we’ll see beginning April 26, but as a card carrying Ohio State hater, I would not be the least bit upset if Denzel Ward is the next member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.