Denzel Ward

Extension Candidate: Denzel Ward

The Browns returned to the playoffs in 2020 after a 17-year absence, and their top two picks of the 2018 draft — QB Baker Mayfield and CB Denzel Ward — played pivotal roles in the team’s success. Under the youthful leadership of general manager Andrew Berry and head coach Kevin Stefanski, Cleveland has the opportunity to be a competitive outfit for the foreseeable future.

But success in the draft and on the field generally leads to big-money extensions for a team’s homegrown talent, and the decision as to whether to authorize such extensions is not always a straightforward one. For instance, although Mayfield bounced back nicely from a disastrous 2019 campaign and posted a top-10 QBR of 72.2 last season, the Browns may make him prove himself again in 2021 before getting serious about extension talks.

Ward, meanwhile, has battled health issues since he entered the league. He has missed at least three games due to injury in each of his first three professional seasons — we’re not counting the games he missed last year due to COVID-19 — and when considering the price tag for top cornerbacks, even “minor” injuries become significant.

On the other hand, his performance between the lines has been everything the Browns could have hoped for when they made him the No. 4 overall pick in 2018. He earned Pro Bowl honors in his rookie season, and despite the missed time due to injury, he has tallied 40 passes defensed and seven interceptions — including one pick-six — in his young career.

Cleveland’s secondary as a whole was hit hard by injury (and the pandemic) last year. In addition to Ward’s ailments, rookie safety Grant Delpit and second-year CB Greedy Williams missed the entire season, and CB Kevin Johnson also missed time. That meant that DC Joe Woods was forced to run zone coverage schemes for the most part, and Ward’s skill-set is probably better-suited to man coverage.

Still, Ward finished as Pro Football Focus’ 23rd-best corner out of 121 qualifiers, and PFF gave him a strong coverage grade. The team added former Rams DBs John Johnson and Troy Hill in free agency this offseason, which should give Woods a little more flexibility and which should, in turn, have a positive trickle-down effect on Ward. But while Hill has experience playing on the boundaries, the Browns may prefer to deploy him in the slot, and it’s still unclear what the team has in Williams at this point. So other than Ward, there are no certainties in terms of outside-the-numbers CBs, and even if there were, it would be hard to imagine Berry & Co. letting a premium talent at a premium position get away.

Of course, a new contract will be costly. The $20MM average annual value that Jalen Ramsey recently pulled down from the Rams is the current pacesetter for the CB market, and while Ward might not be able to hit that number at this point, he certainly has an argument for at least an $18MM AAV. A five-year pact worth between $90MM-$95MM and around $40MM or so in full guarantees sounds about right if the two sides are to come to terms anytime soon.

For now, there have been no reports of extension talks. The Browns will certainly exercise Ward’s fifth-year option for 2022 — which checks in at a fully-guaranteed $13.294MM — and perhaps player and team will start to discuss a longer-term arrangement over the summer.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

NFL’s Fifth-Year Option Salaries For 2021

The NFL’s 2021 salary cap has been set at $182.5MM, marking the league’s first reduction in a decade. With that, the league has also ironed out the value of this year’s fifth-round option for 2018 first-round picks.

Here’s the full rundown, via NFL.com’s Tom Pelissero (on Twitter):

1. Baker Mayfield, Browns, QB — $18.858MM (playing time)

2. Saquon Barkley, Giants, RB — $7.217MM (1x Pro Bowl)

3. Sam Darnold, Jets, QB — $18.858MM (playing time)

4. Denzel Ward, Browns, CB — $13.294MM (1x Pro Bowl)

5. Bradley Chubb, Broncos, LB — $12.716MM (1x Pro Bowl)

6. Quenton Nelson, Colts, G — $13.754MM (2x Pro Bowl)

7. Josh Allen, Bills, QB — $23.106MM (1x Pro Bowl)

8. Roquan Smith, Bears, LB — $9.735MM (playing time)

9. Mike McGlinchey, 49ers, OT — $10.88MM (playing time)

10. Josh Rosen, Cardinals, QB*

11. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers, S (drafted by Dolphins) — $10.612MM (2x Pro Bowl)

12. Vita Vea, Buccaneers, DT — $7.638MM

13. Daron Payne, Washington, DT — $8.529MM (playing time)

14. Marcus Davenport, Saints, DE — $9.553MM

15. Kolton Miller, Raiders, OT — $10.88MM (playing time)

16. Tremaine Edmunds, Bills, LB — $12.716MM (1x Pro Bowl)

17. Derwin James, Chargers, S — $9.052MM (1x Pro Bowl)

18. Jaire Alexander, Packers, CB — $13.294MM (1x Pro Bowl)

19. Leighton Vander Esch, Cowboys, LB — $9.145MM

20. Frank Ragnow, Lions, C — $12.657MM (1x Pro Bowl)

21. Billy Price, Bengals, C — $10.413MM

22. Rashaan Evans, Titans, LB — $9.735MM (playing time)

23. Isaiah Wynn, Patriots, OT — $10.413MM

24. D.J. Moore, Panthers, WR — $11.116MM (playing time)

25. Hayden Hurst, Falcons, TE (Drafted by Ravens) — $5.428MM

26. Calvin Ridley, Falcons, WR — $11.116MM (playing time)

27. Rashaad Penny, Seahawks, RB — $4.523MM

28., Steelers, S Terrell Edmunds — $6.753MM (playing time)

29. Taven Bryan, Jaguars, DT — $7.638MM

30. Mike Hughes, Vikings, CB — $12.643MM

31. Sony Michel, Patriots, RB — $4.523MM

32. Lamar Jackson, Ravens, QB — $23.106MM (1x Pro Bowl)

* Rosen was released from his original contract and, therefore, is not option-eligible 

As a refresher, the fifth-year option year is now fully guaranteed. In the past, it was guaranteed for injury only. The values are also dependent on certain performance metrics:

  • Two-time Pro Bowlers (excluding alternate Pro Bowlers) will earn the same as their position’s franchise tag.
  • One-time Pro Bowlers will earn the equivalent of the transition tag.
  • Players who achieve any of the following will get the average of the 3rd-20th highest salaries at their position:
    • 75%+ snaps in two of their first three seasons
    • 75%+ average across all three seasons
    • 50%+ in each of first three seasons
  • Players who do not hit any of those benchmarks will get the average of the 3rd-25th top salaries at their position.

Minor NFL Transactions: 1/13/21

Today’s minor transactions:

Arizona Cardinals

Atlanta Falcons

  • Activated off reserve/COVID-19 list: C Alex Mack

Cleveland Browns

Houston Texans

Browns Activate Denzel Ward, Kevin Johnson From Reserve/COVID-19 List

The Browns will have more of their regulars in uniform Sunday in Kansas City than they did in Pittsburgh last week. They activated cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson off their reserve/COVID-19 list Wednesday.

Both players missed the past two games after testing positive for the coronavirus. NFL protocols would have permitted Ward to return last week, but he did not clear the necessary hurdles to return. The Browns beat the Steelers anyway, though Pittsburgh’s wide receivers enjoyed big days in Week 17 and in the teams’ opening-round matchup. The Chiefs are quite talented at this position as well.

An offseason addition, Johnson has operated as a part-time starter for the Browns. Ward has been the team’s No. 1 corner essentially since arriving in Cleveland in 2018. The Browns hope to have Joel Bitonio and wideout KhaDarel Hodge against the Chiefs as well.

Browns offensive line coach Bill Callahan also returned to practice Wednesday. The veteran NFL staffer experienced COVID symptoms, according to Mary Kay Cabot of cleveland.com, who adds Kevin Stefanski has encountered symptoms as well. However, Stefanski is expected to coach against the Chiefs. Wideouts coach Chad O’Shea was also symptomatic, per Cabot, but he is also back at practice. Assistant O-line coach Scott Peters, tight ends coach Drew Petzing and DBs coach Jeff Howard remain out due to COVID.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Denzel Ward To Miss Wild-Card Game

The Browns’ uphill battle in their first playoff game in 18 years became steeper Saturday. The team announced it will be without top cornerback Denzel Ward in Pittsburgh.

Ward will remain on the Browns’ reserve/COVID-19 list. So will fellow starting cornerback Kevin Johnson, who also tested positive last week. Both missing last week limited a Browns secondary in a game when Mason Rudolph threw for 315 yards and two touchdowns.

Based on his timeline, coronavirus protocols would have allowed Ward to suit up against the Steelers. But this would have required Ward being asymptomatic and passing the necessary tests. The third-year corner has not hit the necessary checkpoints, which will leave the Browns shorthanded Sunday night. The NFL found some COVID-19 spread within the Browns but did not move to postpone the AFC North playoff matchup.

However, the Browns will have some players back for their Steelers tilt. The team activated safety Ronnie Harrison, linebacker Malcolm Smith and tight end Harrison Bryant from its virus list. Harrison tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday, but the NFL deemed it a false positive, Mary Kay Cabot of cleveland.com reports. Browns corner Terrance Mitchell was held out of practice Friday after testing positive, per Cabot, but that has also since been deemed a false positive.

The returns of Harrison, Smith and Bryant leave Ward, Johnson, Joel Bitonio and KhaDarel Hodge on Cleveland’s COVID list. Several coaches, however, will miss the game. Kevin Stefanski, offensive line coach Bill Callahan, assistant O-line coach Scott Peters, tight ends coach Drew Petzing and DBs coach Jeff Howard are out Sunday night. After coaching the Browns’ wide receivers last week, first-year Cleveland assistant Callie Brownson will coach tight ends this week, Aditi Kinkhabwala of NFL.com tweets.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

NFL Finds COVID-19 Spread Within Browns

Jan. 8: There is finally some good news to report on the Browns’ COVID-19 situation. Adam Schefter of ESPN.com tweets that the only new positive test today was assistant offensive line coach Scott Peters, who had already been identified as a high risk close contact. Hopefully, this means that the spread has been contained.

The wildcard game against the Steelers remains scheduled for Sunday night.

Jan. 7: The Browns learned Thursday they will be without another starter against the Steelers. Ronnie Harrison tested positive for COVID-19, the Browns announced. The team will have another starting safety — Andrew Sendejo — back for its playoff opener, but the NFL has determined some coronavirus spread has occurred within the Browns.

NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills said “there was some spread from one individual to another,” via NFL.com’s Tom Pelissero (on Twitter). Previously, the league deemed the Browns’ virus issue as having resulted from a spread within the Cleveland-area community.

Despite the Browns being down head coach Kevin Stefanski, Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio and others, the game remains on schedule for Sunday night, Pelissero tweets. However, contact tracing is ongoing and intra-team spreads have triggered postponements this season.

The Steelers saw multiple games — against the Titans and Ravens — postponed because of COVID-19 spreading within those teams’ facilities. The NFL could face a decision soon. It is not out of the question the AFC North matchup is postponed, per the Washington Post’s Mark Maske, but a “bigger bump” in spread would need to happen (Twitter link).

Even in the event of a postponement of a day or two, the Browns would not have Stefanski or Bitonio back due to their positive tests occurring earlier this week. Cleveland also has key contributors Denzel Ward, Kevin Johnson, KhaDarel Hodge, Malcolm Smith and Harrison Bryant on its reserve/COVID-19 list. Ward could be activated in time for Sunday’s game but only if he has not encountered symptoms.

The Browns also placed linebacker Montrel Meander on the practice squad reserve/COVID-19 list but moved linebacker B.J. Goodson back onto their active roster after his stay on the COVID list. Harrison just returned to action, playing in Week 17 after missing several late-season games due to a shoulder injury.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Latest On Browns’ COVID-19 Situation

The Browns’ COVID-19 situation will keep at least four players out of their crucial Week 17 game. Linebacker Malcolm Smith and tight end Harrison Bryant are the players who tested positive for the coronavirus, sources tell NFL.com’s Tom Pelissero (on Twitter). They’ll be held out of Sunday’s tilt against the Steelers, along with linebacker B.J. Goodson and safety Andrew Sendejo

[POLL: Which AFC Contender Will Miss Playoffs?]

Although the team reopened its facility after a contact tracing effort Wednesday, the Browns closed it again Thursday. They will, however, have their top four receivers back this week. Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and KhaDarel Hodge are off the team’s reserve/COVID-19 list. So is linebacker Jacob Phillips. The Steelers-Browns rematch remains on schedule for 1pm ET Sunday.

Denzel Ward, however, is the latest Browns player to run into COVID trouble. The Browns’ No. 1 cornerback tested positive for the coronavirus and is out Sunday, Mary Kay Cabot of cleveland.com reports (on Twitter). He is out for Sunday’s game and would be a long shot to play in the Browns’ playoff opener, should they qualify.

The Browns are playing to snap the NFL’s longest active playoff drought. If they win, they’re in. If they lose, they’ll need the Colts to do the same, but that would hinge on a quality performance from the lowly Jaguars. If the Browns lose and the Colts win, they’ll need a Titans loss, plus wins from the Ravens and Dolphins to sneak into the postseason.

On the plus side, the Steelers indicated they will rest Ben Roethlisberger this weekend. Plus, they’ll be without top defenders Devin Bush and Bud Dupree, who limited the Browns to just six points in their October meeting. As it stands, Football Outsiders gives the Browns a 44% chance to hold at the No. 6 seed and a 20% chance to make it as the No. 7 seed.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Browns’ Denzel Ward To Miss Time

Browns cornerback Denzel Ward will likely miss multiple weeks with a calf strain, sources tell NFL.com’s Mike Garafolo (on Twitter). Ward suffered the injury sometime during Sunday’s win over the Eagles, one of his best individual performances of the year. 

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Denzel is a warrior,’’ teammate B.J. Goodson said (via Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com). “I get excited when he makes plays. I didn’t sense any type of injury from him. I guess we will just see how that goes and hope for the best.”

Frankly, it was hard for anyone to tell. Ward broke up four passes, pressured Wentz into a pick six, and intercepted him late in the game to ice the win. Ward, who was on the field for every snap, now leads the NFL with 15 passes defensed.

At minimum, Ward will be out for this week’s game against the Jaguars — ditto for teammate Myles Garrett, who will remain on the COVID-19/Reserve list. Beyond that, his status is murky for key games against the Titans and Ravens.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Latest On Redskins, Trent Williams

The NFL trade deadline is just a few hours away, and one of the biggest name players on the block is Redskins tackle Trent Williams. Williams hasn’t played or practiced this season as he continues to hold out due to his unhappiness with Washington’s management, and the ‘Skins just recently became open to trading him.

Washington got the trade ball rolling very late in the process, and it could end up ruining their chances of getting a deal done. The Redskins haven’t budged off their asking price of a first-round pick, according to John Keim of ESPN.com. Williams is 31 with a somewhat significant injury history, so it’s unclear if anyone will meet that asking price. Additionally, we have another report that suggests Washington’s front office isn’t taking a realistic approach here.

The Redskins “aren’t just asking for draft picks,” and are “big-game hunting” while asking for players like Browns cornerback Denzel Ward in a potential trade, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network (Twitter link). As Rapsheet points out, that’s a “non-starter.” Cleveland just drafted Ward fourth overall last year, and he’s shown a ton of promise.

The Browns have been the team most heavily linked to Williams for a while now, as they continue to search for offensive tackle help. They’re still in the mix but the Browns have expressed concern about including a first-round pick due to a potential Williams injury, tweets Josina Anderson of ESPN.com.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Extra Points: Ramsey, Badet, Browns

Jalen Ramsey caused a stir yet again Sunday, even though he wasn’t playing. Ramsey missed the Jaguars’ loss to the Panthers with his back issue, but he surprisingly popped up in Houston with Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson. Watson posted a photo to Instagram of the two of them with their mutual agent David Mulugheta, which sparked an uproar online. Ramsey, of course, is still demanding a trade out of Jacksonville.

Despite some wishful thinking of Texans fans, Ramsey and Mulugheta weren’t in town to facilitate a trade to his AFC South rival. Instead, the Jaguars cornerback was in Houston to get his back checked out by a specialist, a source told Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle (Twitter link). Ramsey just recently revealed that he’s been dealing with back issues for the last couple of seasons, and it’s unclear how long this latest flare-up will sideline him. Stay tuned for the next edition of Ramsey-watch.

Here’s more from around the league as Week 6 winds down:

  • Former Vikings receiver Jeff Badet could be back in the league soon. Badet has workouts scheduled for this week with the Packers and Browns, according to Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press (Twitter link). Tomasson notes that he suffered a finger injury during the preseason with Minnesota, and said in a separate tweet that his finger is now fully healed. Badet spent last year on the Vikings’ practice squad, and he was coveted this offseason. To keep him from signing with the Jets, the Vikings gave Badet a $75K bonus on his reserve/futures contract. He’s a 2018 UDFA from Oklahoma.
  • Speaking of the Browns, they’ll again be shorthanded in their Week 5 Monday Night Football game against the 49ers. Starting cornerbacks Greedy Williams and Denzel Ward are both unlikely to play, Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.com hears (Twitter link). The Browns’ secondary is still really banged up even as their safeties have gotten healthier, as both young cornerbacks are dealing with hamstring injuries. It’s unfortunate for Cleveland, as they’ll be facing a well-rested San Francisco team coming off their bye in this pivotal game.
  • In case you missed it, general managers across the league are expecting a very active trade deadline.