Denzel Ward hopes to follow buddy Marshon Lattimore's blueprint

To say that Marshon Lattimore and Denzel Ward have a unique relationship might be a bit of an understatement.

"That’s my son right there," Lattimore said recently. "That’s my boy."

No paternity tests needed, mind you. Lattimore is 22, Ward is 21. The two simply have a bond that goes back to The Ohio State University, where Ward, Lattimore and Gareon Conley formed a cornerback hydra that resulted in all being taken in the first round of the NFL draft -- Lattimore by New Orleans and Conley by the Raiders a year ago, Ward fourth overall by the Browns in April.

That the Buckeyes had three first-round picks in the same backfield speaks to each player’s ability but also to the system the Buckeyes use defensively. Ohio State is one of the few programs in the country that ask their corners to play press-man coverage, a skill that is required in the NFL.

"Coach Coombs told me when he recruited me, he wanted to coach first-round draft picks and win championships," Ward said of secondary coach Kerry Coombs. "That sold me right there."

With this group, competition bred friendship.

"We were with each other every day," Lattimore said. "Same position. Like me, Gareon, Denzel and Damon Arnette. And we were in battle together. So when you’re battling with somebody, you’re gonna get close to them no matter what. So just me being with him, and me looking at him like my little brother, it just became natural."

The Browns made Ward a semi-surprising fourth overall pick in the hopes he can do for Cleveland what his friend and mentor did for the Saints. Lattimore’s impact on New Orleans after being taken 11th overall was significant.

With Lattimore starting as a rookie, New Orleans improved in every pass-defense category, from 4,380 passing yards given up in 2016 to 3,597 in 2017, from 27 touchdown passes to 22, from nine interceptions to 20.

According to ProFootballFocus.com, Lattimore was the fourth-ranked corner in the league and the 29th-best player. He allowed opposing quarterbacks a 45.3 passer rating when throwing his way, best among all rookies.

Lattimore wound up in the Pro Bowl and the winner of the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Award. Last week, he talked about becoming "a legend."

It may be oversimplifying to say one player made that much of a difference, but when it comes to a cover corner, the impact can be significant. Think Richard Sherman at his best with Seattle. Think the impact of Jalen Ramsey, who ranked third in the NFL at his postion and was a key reason Jacksonville made the AFC Championship Game. The cover corner not only takes away the opposing team's best player, he frees defensive coordinators to provide extra help elsewhere.

In a seven-game stretch early in the season with Lattimore playing and learning, the Saints gave up 149.2 yards passing per game. Lattimore missed the next two games, and the Saints gave up more than 300 yards passing in both games.

This would seem to be a clear cause and effect.

And it's one of the reasons the Browns went with Ward at the fourth spot instead of pass-rusher Bradley Chubb. The Browns feel they have two talented pass-rushers in Myles Garrett and Emmanuel Ogbah; they do not have a cover corner like Ward.

"I like the ability of him being able to play in this defense where we need shutdown corners, because [defensive coordinator] Gregg [Williams] really wants more shutdown corners," general manager John Dorsey said on draft night. "[Ward] has the speed. He has the athleticism. He has the quickness. He has the ball skills."

"Man, he’s just fast," Lattimore said. "Fast, quick and can jump. So he has all the tools that you need -- he’s just 5-10. But other than that, he’s tough. You’ve seen he can tackle. Come up and hit you. He can jump, he can mirror any receiver. He’s special."

For Lattimore to say Ward is fast says something, because Lattimore ran a 4.36 40-yard dash at the combine.

"No, he ain’t faster [than me]," Lattimore quipped before coming clean. "Yeah, he’s faster; I ain’t gonna lie. He ran, what was it, 4.31?"

Actually, a 4.32.

"If we raced, though, it’d be a different story," Lattimore said.

Last season the Browns' lack of speed at corner was noticeable. That forced Williams to play far more zone than he likes. The 28 touchdown passes the team gave up tied for sixth most in the league.

In 2016 at Ohio State, Lattimore and Conley were starting, but the Buckeyes played so many spread offenses they started using more nickel, and midway through the season Ward and Lattimore would start outside, with Conley moving inside.

"You could tell from his first year to his second year how much better he got," Lattimore said.

When the Buckeyes played more traditional coverages, Conley and Lattimore would start.

"We all were very confident in the way we played, and we weren’t selfish," Ward said. "We had a three-man rotation the whole time we were there. I feel most guys could be selfish and not appreciate that, but I think we all appreciated it. We knew we were all good and able to play."

The Browns believed Ward was the best press-man corner in the draft, and the second best wasn't that close. Though Ward admits Lattimore is thicker, he is physically very comparable to Lattimore, who is 6-foot and 192 pounds. Ward is 5-11 and 190.

Ward will be penciled in immediately as a starter. He’s already started to show his skills in the OTA practices open to the media. Last week he faced Josh Gordon in a goal-line drill and went high to challenge a throw to Gordon -- much to the delight of his teammates.

If things go according to plan, Ward will be assigned the other team's best receiver. The Browns' schedule means that Ward will twice face Antonio Brown (Pittsburgh) and A.J. Green (Cincinnati), and also will be lined up opposite Julio Jones (Atlanta), Michael Thomas (New Orleans), DeAndre Hopkins (Houston), Keenan Allen (Chargers) and Mike Evans (Tampa Bay). That is nine games against receivers that Pro Football Focus ranked in the top 15 in the league in 2017.

"It is the NFL," Ward said. "The talent is going to be there. You just have to come ready to play."

"I have that faith in him," Lattimore said. "One hundred percent."