First-round rookie Denzel Ward is set to miss his first NFL game.
Cleveland’s star cornerback, who missed practice all week, remains in the league’s concussion protocol and was declared out for Sunday’s game against the Panthers.
Alleviating some of the pain from Ward’s absence is the expected return of veteran cornerback Terrance Mitchell, who has missed the past eight games with a broken wrist. He was designated to return from injured reserve two weeks ago and will be eligible to play Sunday if the Browns add him back to the 53-man roster.
“He had a really good day today,” coach Gregg Williams said. “He was the topic of a lot of conversation for how well he played.”
Defensive back Phillip Gaines (knee), who filled in for Ward when he went down with the concussion last week against the Texans, is considered questionable. So, too, is defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, who is dealing with an injured bicep. Ogunjobi missed Wednesday’s practice but participated in Thursday’s and Friday’s.
“He is a tough dude now,” Williams said.
Center JC Tretter (ankle) is questionable for a seventh straight week. Rookie offensive lineman Austin Corbett (foot) will miss his second straight game.
BEREA, Ohio — New Browns cornerback Denzel Ward read a letter from his mom, Nicole, after he got drafted on Thursday night.
Friday afternoon she talked about a different letter she came across when she was going through a folder of items she kept from Ward’s younger years. It was from when Ward was around nine or 10 years old.
“In that letter he said that one day he was going to go to the NFL — he said the NFL or the NBA,” Nicole said following her son’s introductory press conference, “so it was in his heart at that young age.”
Lots of kids think like that when they’re nine or 10, of course. Nicole could tell early on that her son was different, though.
“He always just stood out from the crowd even at a young age when he played for the Nordonia Twinsburg Youth League,” she said, adding that his youth coaches would give them stat books and Denzel’s numbers were amazing compared to everyone else’s. That carried over to Nordonia High School, where he was a two-way star, good enough to earn his way to Ohio State.
“I’ll say in high school is when I really was really like ‘he’s special,'” Nicole said. “And then at Ohio State I think he just sort of confirmed everything we were thinking.”
The Browns are thinking that Ward could become a shutdown corner, something they have lacked and something defensive coordinator Gregg Williams craves.
Vice President of Player Personnel Alonzo Highsmith summed it up like this.
“One of the only corners, if you watched him play in college, that played true man on an island by himself. I mean, that’s pretty impressive in today’s college football because you don’t see it a lot. Most guys are playing quarters, they’re playing off, they’re playing against all these zone read teams so it’s kind of boring watching, you don’t see them do anything, but this guy lines up like an old-fashioned Los Angeles Raiders corner, I’ve got this man and that’s what he did.”
Oh, and this.
“He’s real fast,” Highsmith said.
Ward ran a 4.32 40-yard dash at the combine, tied for the fastest time among defensive backs. Nicole jokingly took credit for Denzel’s speed, citing her track experience in junior high. Her father also ran track and her uncle almost made the Olympics before getting injured.
“My husband gave him his athleticism,” Nicole said. “I gave him his speed.”
Nicole’s husband and Denzel’s father, Paul, died during a spin class in 2016. Paul was the principal at Carylwood Intermediate School in Bedford. There is a street named after him by the school. It was obviously a difficult time for Denzel and his older brother, PJ, who is now 25 and owns an in-home dog training business in Florida.
“My husband was very, very involved with our sons and their lives and they were just very, very close,” Nicole said. “I think we had a lot of conversations. For me, it was very tough for me and I knew I had to be an example.
“I remember my mother telling me that your children will tend to respond and react the way you respond and react, and so even though it was very tough for me, I felt like I had to stay strong and keep my head up so that they can see that this is a tough situation, but life still has to go on.”
Nicole said that, to her knowledge, Denzel never considered giving up football or on his dream of playing at the game’s highest level after his father’s passing.
“He could have given up,” she said. “He could have said ‘I’m coming back home’ or anything, but he didn’t. I felt he used that as motivation and inspiration to move forward and so I just wanted him to know that, in that letter, that I recognized that, and above all else, I will always remember that he never gave up and because of his work ethic.”
Nicole said she and Paul were excited about him playing in Columbus so they could get to his games. Now they’ll get to watch him play about a half-hour drive northwest of where he grew up. Ward’s high school coach, Jeff Fox, attended the draft with him in Dallas and the support from friends and family following the pick has been a little overwhelming.
“Yesterday, I was telling someone, I have 100 texts,” Nicole said, “and I wasn’t saying it like, ‘Oh, I’ve got 100 texts.’ I literally had 100 texts.”
Ward was asked if he was a Browns fan growing up.
“I watched more college football growing up,” he said.
And can you blame him? He’s celebrating his 21st birthday on Saturday and — I’ll do the math for you — that means he was born in 1997, so he hasn’t exactly been around for the team’s golden years.
“I am definitely a fan now,” Ward said. “Believe that.”