While Ward is a good man coverage cornerback, already checking all of the boxes that you ask for in that scheme, I would like to see him work on his feet off the snap. He’s flat-footed off the snap until the receiver makes a move which forces him to recover with his athleticism and recovery speed to keep up vertical. I would like to see more movement in his feet this preseason.
Teams are trying to take away man coverage with motions and stacked formations to allow free release off the LOS, which allows for receivers to get open quickly. This was especially true when you turn on the tape of Ward those last four games of the season. In fact, that’s how the New England Patriots broke Julian Edelman free in possibly the most important 3rd-and-10 play of the game in overtime.
Edelman motions inside which causes a quick collision with Ward and another receiver to allow Edelman to get the extra step on Ward and get the 15-yard completion. While Ward demonstrated great recovery speed and still made an attempt on the ball, Edelman still made the first down.
Outside of this play, Edelman only had one reception for five yards when lined up against Ward in the AFC Championship. Ward traveled quite a bit to the slot playing man coverage on Edelman when he was on the field. Most of Edelman’s receptions came against Daniel Sorensen.
Something I’m very interested to see in the preseason and early part of the regular season is how Ward looks in zone coverage. Sutton’s scheme relied heavily on man coverage while Spagnuolo’s scheme is thought to be a heavier dose of zone concepts. Most of Ward’s zone coverage came in Cover 3 dropping deep and pattern matching (man coverage inside his zone).
While Ward demonstrated the ability to plant his foot and attack downfield well multiple times in 2018, I want to see his anticipation improve. That will likely come by watching the film and getting more reps. Building up those instincts will be key for his success as he’s not used to reading the quarterback through the receiver.
Speaking of watching the film and building instincts, plays like this getting beat by double moves and biting too hard is something I want to see improve early this season. Ward was fortunate that this was incomplete in the end zone, even though the game was over at this point, but these kinds of plays are the difference between an excellent cornerback and an adequate one. Just a couple of plays can turn a great game into a bad one.
I’m optimistic about Ward’s future. However I’m not without concerns, especially with a scheme change. Cornerbacks are very dependent on schemes and are rarely consistent when it comes to playing at a high level outside of a few elite corners in the league.
Ward is a very good man coverage corner utilizing his speed, length, athleticism, and ball skills to take away receivers. Longer corners are not generally the quick, agile types, but Ward demonstrated enough ability there in 2018 that I’m not going to write him off before seeing him in a more zone-heavy scheme.