As if the team’s secondary hasn’t been banged up enough in 2020, the latest unfortunate Cleveland Browns news involves star cornerback Denzel Ward missing three or more games due to a calf strain.
Ward was the No. 4 overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft and has mostly lived up to that label when he’s been healthy. This latest injury setback, however, means the 23-year-old will not make it through a 16-game season for the third consecutive year.
Cleveland Browns news: Denzel Ward’s injury challenges team’s depth
The Browns announced the news through their official website, while ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported the calf strain is expected to sideline Ward for a few weeks. This is merely the latest development to snakebite the Browns defense. They’re not particularly stacked in the defensive backfield, and Ward is clearly the best pure cover corner Cleveland has. Already without second-year stalwart Greedy Williams, rookie second-round pick Grant Delpit went down with a torn Achilles in training camp, and he’s a versatile defensive back the team has missed all year.
It may seem like the 7-3 Browns are in the clear and squarely in playoff contention thanks to the presence of Defensive Player of the Year candidate Myles Garrett, and the fact that the team has only given up 13.3 points per game over the past three. Alas, all three of those contests were played in Cleveland in horrendous weather, which masked some of the issues and obvious personnel shortcomings on the defensive side of the ball.
Whenever the Browns have played a legitimate offense in decent weather, they’ve been exposed, with the only real exception being one half of solid football against the Colts in a 32-23 Week 5 victory. Who will replace Ward? Well, it should be some combination of Terrance Mitchell, Tavierre Thomas and Kevin Johnson.
Denzel Ward stats & potential return timeline
Through 35 career games, The Warden already has seven interceptions and a pick-six to his credit, along with 135 combined tackles, two forced fumbles and a whopping 37 passes defensed. Among the top-tier cornerbacks in the sport, Ward is perhaps challenged more often than most, and frequently answers the bell. His coverage grade is in the NFL’s top 10 at Pro Football Focus.
So bearing in mind the potential timeline of a few games that Ward will reportedly be out for, this is how the Browns’ schedule shakes out the rest of the way:
- Week 12: at Jacksonville
- Week 13: at Tennessee
- Week 14: vs. Baltimore
- Week 15: at NY Giants
- Week 16: at NY Jets
- Week 17: vs. Pittsburgh
Cleveland should have little trouble with the Jaguars this coming Sunday, but if they do, talk about a red flag. But the bigger concern is really the next two contests after that, when the Browns have to take on two exceptional rushing attacks in the Titans and Ravens who also have dynamic quarterbacks that can beat teams down the field or with their legs.
Ward almost takes away half of the field by himself, so if he’s out of action, it opens up the passing game for Ryan Tannehill and reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson that much more.
Also worth noting: five of Cleveland’s seven wins this year have come against the historically bad NFC East division and the Cincinnati Bengals. This suggests when they face up against quality competition, the results won’t be pretty. Not having Ward in the fold for these upcoming fixtures against playoff contenders doesn’t exactly bode well.
Now for the silver lining so Browns fans don’t get too triggered by this seemingly gloomy outlook and pessimistic spin on their healthy overall record: the Giants and Jets are bad. The latter team is winless, in fact. Plus, the Steelers are far enough ahead in the AFC North that they could rest their starters in Week 17 if the No. 1 seed is locked up.
In other words, by the time Ward is back, he should be able to ensure Cleveland comes out on top in its winnable last few games to secure one of the three AFC Wild Card playoff spots.