Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller had the same reaction as a lot of draft analysts and Browns fans when general manager John Dorsey selected cornerback Denzel Ward over pass rusher Bradley Chubb with the No. 4 pick in April.
“I was super surprised,” Miller said this week on a conference call. “I thought for sure that the Browns were going to get him. I thought that Myles Garrett and Bradley Chubb were going to be a dynamic duo for years to come.
“But they took Ward and I went crazy when we picked Chubb.”
The obsession with the draft in Cleveland will drop to at least a preoccupation after the selection of quarterback Baker Mayfield, who’s led the Browns to three wins in the last four games as they keep their slim playoff hopes alive. But draft decisions will always be debated, especially a top-five pick, and the matchup with the Broncos on Saturday night in Denver has stirred the discussion of Chubb vs. Ward.
The choice for Dorsey was a bookend to Garrett at defensive end or a speedy shutdown cornerback who would allow coordinator Gregg Williams to play the press-man coverage he couldn’t during the winless 2017 season because of a lack of secondary talent. After discussions with Williams, Dorsey chose Ward out of Ohio State.
The Broncos held onto the fifth pick and pounced on Chubb, who had 25 sacks in his final three years at North Carolina State.
“Really liked him a lot,” said Williams, who’s 3-2 as interim coach and said the choice was difficult. “I would have loved to have been able to have him and Ward.
“I did not think that Chubb could play press coverage as well as Ward. That is what we needed at the time, and we still do.”
Ward won’t play against the Broncos, missing his second straight game with a concussion. He’s had a strong year, with three interceptions, 11 passes defensed, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and 48 tackles.
Chubb’s numbers jump off the page. After 1.5 sacks in the first five games, he had three against the Rams to start a flourish of 10.5 in the last eight games.
“He has the size to dominate his side of the line of scrimmage, as far as in the run game,” Broncos coach Vance Joseph said. “He has the movement and the explosion to be a great pass rusher. I have been really impressed with him as a person and as a player.”
With 12 sacks, Chubb (6-foot-4, 269 pounds) needs three to break Jevon Kearse’s NFL rookie record of 14.5 set in 1999 with Williams as his coordinator in Tennessee.
“I think it is important to him, because you only get one shot at it,” Miller said.
Chubb, who has two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and 47 tackles, benefits from having Miller on the other side, just as he would’ve with Garrett. Miller is second in the league with 13.5 sacks, Garrett tied for third with 12.5 and Chubb tied for sixth with 12.
Miller and Chubb lead the NFL for a duo.
“It’s hard to pick a guy,” left guard Joel Bitonio said. “If you have one guy you can key on, you can slide the protection that way, you can chip that side every time, but when they have guys on both sides, you don’t know where they’re going to go and sometimes they’ll move Chubb inside a little bit.
“It’s dangerous. We’ve got to be good this week.”
Miller has 97 regular-season sacks and been to six Pro Bowls in his eight-year career. He has at least a half-sack in eight straight games.
The Browns have allowed only one sack in the last four games, and lead the league with only three since Week 9. Improved play from right tackle Chris Hubbard and left tackle Greg Robinson has been critical, and they will be tested in primetime.
“I look at it as other great guys to go against and another great opportunity for us to showcase and play very well at a high level,” Hubbard said. “We have to do a great job. You want to get your hands on them quick and fast as much as possible and lean them toward the outside and not collapsing the pocket.”
Ward is at a disadvantage in the comparison with Chubb because cornerback stats are harder to come by and offenses can throw away from the good ones.
Ward got off to a great start with two interceptions in the opener against the Steelers and has faced a who’s who of receivers. He hasn’t always matched up with the opponent’s No. 1 — TJ Carrie drew the assignment of Julio Jones and DeAndre Hopkins — but stopping the physical wideouts will come as his career progresses.
Regardless of Chubb’s performance, the Browns are glad they have Ward.
“Denzel came in like a pro and he has treated the game like it is not too big for him and the lights are not too bright for him,” Carrie said. “He has excelled in this league. That is a player that you are going to see a lifelong time of great achievements here because of the way that he has been able to approach the game within this year.”
“You can just kind of put him on his island over there and let him do his thing — it is huge for a defense,” middle linebacker Joe Schobert said.
If Dorsey were convinced Chubb would have nearly a sack a game, it would’ve been nearly impossible to pass on him for anyone not named Mayfield. But the predraft evaluations didn’t all forecast Chubb as an NFL star.
The final part of the equation was the Browns had end Emmanuel Ogbah, the No. 32 pick in 2016. Garrett didn’t want Chubb because he believed in Ogbah.
“I stick by what I said,” Garrett said this week. But he did compliment Chubb. “He’s having a good season. They’re a dynamic duo. They go back and forth and you can’t account for one when both are eating at you.”
The evaluation of Chubb-Ward must be influenced by Ogbah’s performance. He missed two games early with a sprained ankle and has only three sacks in 11 starts, well behind the game’s other three starting edge rushers.
Williams said Ogbah was given the “hard hat” award this week for doing the dirty work that frees up others for the glory.
“He is doing a lot of things,” Williams said. “Have no reservations about how or where he can play.”
Joseph believes the picks will work out for both teams.
“Those guys in the top five, they are all going to be special players,” he said. “As I watch Denzel, he is a guy who can take his guy out of the game. That is worth a top-five pick in this climate of offensive football.
“When you watch him, he is a very mature guy. He makes plays on the ball. He does not get beat deep. That is the key with young corners. He is aggressive, but he can play over top of guys. He is also a physical, aggressive tackler. In my opinion, that is a home run pick for those guys to have him.”