Editor’s note: Eric Crocker is a former AFL/NFL cornerback who now specializes in the defensive back position. This is part of a series in which he’ll be providing a unique perspective on DB options for the 49ers.
Denzel Ward – JR, Ohio State
Ht/wt: 5-foot-10, 191 lbs.
2017: 37 tackles, 2 for a loss, 2 INT, 15 PBU
After hiring Robert Saleh in 2017 as defensive coordinator, the 49ers have gone with the “Seattle scheme.” More often than not, the defensive system has long athletic corners, kind of like Kevin Toliver and Siran Neal, two sleeper prospects I previously wrote about. The 49ers suited up several cornerbacks last season who had one thing in common: they were all 6-foot-2 and up. From rookie third-round draft pick Ahkello Witherspoon (6-foot-3), to mid-season practice squad pick Greg Mabin (6-foot-2).
It was a theme and didn’t always work out for the best. Ideally you would like to have big, tall and fast players, but sometimes there are players that are worth breaking that mold for.
Let’s talk about one coming out of this year's draft, Denzel Ward.
Over the last couple weeks, several draft gurus have mocked the long-armed All-American cornerback from Ohio State to the 49ers. While a few inches shorter than you'd like, what he lacks in height, Ward more than makes up for with great instincts, scrappiness and athleticism. He’s naturally quick-footed with fluid hips. And with his makeup, Ward fits any scheme and plays all of them at an elite level.
Cover 1 film:
Ward possesses elite man-to-man skills. Despite being smaller, his feet and natural athleticism give him the ability to easily shadow receivers. He is very versatile but looks most comfortable playing press coverage. He has shown the ability to guard any type of receiver no matter their size, and he’s done so from the slot and outside corner.
Ward does a great job of reading down receivers. Back shoulder throws are big in the NFL, and on multiple occasions against Indiana, he demonstrated the ability to play through 6-foot-4, 210-pound receiver Donavan Hale and break up the comeback without getting a penalty.
Indiana also tried moving the big-bodied receiver into the slot versus the smaller Ward. That ended with Ward collecting his first interception of the season.
Against Nebraska, he showed great eye discipline. The receiver did a "half step," a technique to get the defensive back to stop his feet. Ward transitioned quickly but was still in a trail position. Instead of looking back, which would create an even bigger gap between him and the receiver, he played through the hands and was able to break up the pass.
Wisconsin tried to line up the big 6-foot-5 tight end Troy Fumagalli off tackle. Most would think in a matchup against a much smaller Ward that would be a mismatch. But Ward shows he plays much bigger than his size and high points the ball, grabbing an interception.
Ward's aggressiveness was on display no matter what film I watched.
Cover 2 film:
When playing Cover 2, the cornerback has a few responsibilities.
The main responsibility are the flats. There are various ways to line up and play this coverage, but typically the corner is around five yards off of the furthest outside receiver and outside shade, looking through the outside receiver to see if anyone can threaten the flats. The cornerback has the option to “sink” under the No. 1 receiver to help out the deep half safety and can peel off at any time if the flats are threatened.
Here Ward shows off his great instincts and physicality, destroying the Maryland receiver. Small frame, but packs a mean punch.
Here against Nebraska there was nobody to threaten his flats, so he was able to “sink” underneath the outside receiver. The quarterback tried to make a tight-window throw but was unsuccessful. Ward was able to play the window and tip the pass right into the deep half safety’s hands.
Cover 3 film:
Typically, people think that in Cover 3 the cornerbacks' only responsibility is the “deep third,” which is partly true. If you have a good zone cornerback he’s able to read his keys that put him in position to make big plays. The 49ers play a lot of press bail single high safety Cover 3.
The beater in Cover 3 typically is the post wheel concept, especially if the slot defender doesn’t go with the wheel.
Here you will see Ward press bail out covering the post — but because of his great knowledge of the system, he not only made a play on the wheel, he once again showed how physical he can be. This time it was against 6-foot-6 tight end Mark Andrews out of Oklahoma.
Against Michigan from more of a press bail, he read 2 to 1. You split the two receivers so if they throw to the receiver running up the seam you can make a play on the ball. Although the ball zipped right past Ward's outstretched hand, his eyes and understanding of the defense forced the quarterback to make a perfect pass. Anything less and this is an interception.
Fit with 49ers:
Ward has All-American credentials and is sure to run fast at the combine. He's got great instincts and fluid hips. The film consistently shows he plays much bigger than his size, and he fits any scheme. But he’s most comfortable in press coverage, which is what the 49ers do most. If the 49ers want to draft a shutdown corner with a Marshon Lattimore type skillset, Ward will be their guy in the first round.
Media courtesy Jack Westerheide