Cleveland Browns youngster Denzel Ward, the No. 4 pick in last April’s draft, earned honors as the NFL’s top rookie for Week 1.
Ward, 21, showed every reason why the Browns drafted him with so highly, playing reliably in both run and pass defense. He became the fourth-youngest player to record two interceptions in a game and finished with six total tackles.
The award had some pretty strong competition, with No. 2 pick Saquon Barkley—106 yards rushing and one rushing touchdown—and No. 4 pick Sam Darnold—198 passing yards and two touchdowns—both finishing with strong debuts. Vikings Cornerback Mike Hughes and Broncos running back Phillip Lindsay were also in the running of the NFL.com voting poll.
“It was nice to see [Ward] make plays, and it was also a big smile to my face of how comfortable he felt playing in the game,” defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said Friday. “He has some things he has to continue to improve.”
Despite the remarkable debut, the rookie allowed a back-shoulder touchdown to Antonio Brown. Yep, that guy. Although Ward played it nearly perfectly, Ben Roethlisberger was able to thread the needle, putting the ball inches—maybe millimeters—out of Ward’s reach as he reacted to the play.
“We call that play – I am glad you said that – an earned play. That play was highly earned,” Williams said of the picture-perfect touchdown. “He was as good as you can almost be.
“Just a small percentage point that he is usually able to separate the ball at the very end of the play.”
In his first game, Ward balled out, and he came microscopically close to thwarting an excellent play between savvy veterans. Williams acknowledged them “earning” that score, and then said he hasn’t lost trust in his young corner and will continue to put him in those positions.
There’s something to Ward’s reserved-but-confident demeanor. From the jump he has shown up saying very little while letting his play speak for itself.
Those people are quickly becoming believers.
The newer but just as deadly Drew Brees and Michael Thomas combo are up next, so we’ll see what the rookie has for an encore this Sunday in the dome.