The Cleveland Browns have spent the offseason making splashes in the trade market, adding to their roster from the outside to keep pace in a stacked AFC. But soon, it’ll be time to take care of one of their own.
Cornerback Denzel Ward has played four seasons in the NFL, bookending his career with selections to the Pro Bowl in 2018 and 2021. The Browns exercised their fifth-year option on Ward’s rookie contract, meaning they will pay the former No. 4 overall pick just shy of $13.3 million in 2022. And the numbers are only expected to get bigger from there.
Alex Kay of Bleacher Report in a piece published Wednesday, April 13, suggested that Ward could go so far as to reset the market at the cornerback position with the extension he is expected to sign at some point within the next year.
If the 24-year-old continues developing along his current trajectory, he should have little issue signing a new deal worth upward of $20 million per season.
According to Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal, former NFL agent Joel Corry believes Ward’s floor is around the $19.4 million AAV (average annual value) that his Ohio State teammate Marshon Lattimore received at the start of the 2021 campaign.
Although Ward, a two-time Pro Bowler, has missed time each of the last four years with injury, he’s a major asset when he’s on the field. He’s never allowed a completion rate over 60.3 percent in a single season and has already racked up 10 interceptions in 52 games.
If Ward can stay healthy and put together another steady campaign in 2022, he’ll surely rake it in on his next contract.
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Ward Can Sign New Deal With Browns Sooner Than Later
While Kay suggested Ward might need another strong year to sign a near-historic contract extension in Cleveland, it might happen sooner than that.
Brad Spielberger of Pro Football Focus predicted in late December 2021 that Ward would sign a five-year worth $105 million ($21 million annually) with a total of $72.5 million guaranteed at some point this offseason.
The Browns have spent a hefty amount of money already, agreeing to pay QB Deshaun Watson, formerly of the Houston Texans, $230 million over the next five seasons and fully guaranteeing every dollar of that deal. They also traded with the Dallas Cowboys for wide receiver Amari Cooper, who is set to make $20 million per season for the next three years.
Ward is eligible to sign an extension now but any deal to which he agreed would not apply to the Browns’ salary cap until 2023. After creative cap maneuvering with Watson’s contract and the restructuring of Cooper’s upon his arrival in Cleveland, the Browns have nearly $20 million in space yet to spend in 2022. The team is actively pursuing a No. 2 wide receiver, potentially a reunion with Jarvis Landry, and has offered a two-year deal to defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
Ward Projected to Sign Second-Biggest CB Contract in NFL
If Ward does ink a deal in the neighborhood of $105 million, as Spielberger suggested, that would make him the second-highest paid cornerback in the NFL based on annual income.
According to Pro Football Network, Miami Dolphins defender Xavien Howard lays claim to the largest CB contract in the league with an AAV of $25.35 million. Los Angeles Rams corner Jalen Ramsey is second with an AAV of $20 million. The aforementioned Lattimore, of the New Orleans Saints, is third with an AAV of $19.52 million.
Spotrac projects Ward’s annual value at $18.7 million annually, though because of the way NFL contracts tend to escalate for players of a similar caliber Spielberger predicts he will do better than that figure.
Lattimore’s extension shortly before the 2021 season was great news for Ward, and not just because the two players were teammates at Ohio State in 2015 and 2016 before Lattimore was drafted No. 11 overall in 2017 and Ward subsequently went No. 4 overall in 2018.
Lattimore, like Ward, has had some issues with week-to-week consistency from both a health and performance perspective. However, the two young stars are the rare breed of outside cornerback who are true lockdown players, playing roughly 60% of their snaps in press coverage looks out wide. There are some abilities and skill sets that simply cannot be taught, and excelling as a man cover cornerback on the outside is one of them. For this reason, when a team finds such a player, it tends to pay top dollar at the position.