BEREA: Denzel Ward received the early birthday gift he hoped for when the Nordonia High School graduate became a first-round pick in the NFL Draft on Thursday night, and landing with his hometown Browns proved to be a bonus.

A cornerback from Ohio State, Ward was picked fourth overall by the Browns two days before he’ll turn 21 and about 20 minutes after Cleveland took Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield at No. 1.

“It’s amazing. It’s a blessing,” Ward said during a conference call. “It’s been my childhood dream just to get here to the NFL Draft, and to be drafted by the Browns and be able to go back home to my hometown and play there, it’s just a blessing, and I’m just so excited to get there and get to work.”

The New York Giants picked Penn State running back Saquon Barkley at No. 2 overall, and the New York Jets chose Southern California quarterback Sam Darnold at No. 3.

New Browns General Manager John Dorsey said he talked to other teams about trading down from No. 4, but he ultimately stayed and scooped up Ward with North Carolina State defensive end Bradley Chubb and Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick available, too. Then the Denver Broncos picked Chubb at No. 5.

Ward’s experience playing zero, press-man coverage at Ohio State and his speed appealed to the Browns, Dorsey said.

“[He’s] a great kid, loves the game of football, exceptionally fast with the change of direction, incredible ball skills,” Dorsey said of Ward, who last month tied with two other players for the best time in the 40-yard dash (4.32 seconds) at the NFL Scouting Combine.

“[Ward is] one of those very unique and gifted players.”

The Browns signed cornerbacks T.J. Carrie, E.J. Gaines and Terrance Mitchell last month. They have shopped cornerback Jamar Taylor, a starter and captain last season, a league source said.

Ward visited the Browns during their local pro day April 9 and left feeling like he might get a shot to play in his backyard.

“Just what the coaches were telling me, they sounded like they had a lot of faith in me, and they were leaning toward drafting me,” said Ward, the first Buckeye to be drafted by the Browns since they took wide receiver Brian Robiskie in the second round in 2009. “It’s exciting. It’s an honor to be drafted at the pick I was picked at.”

Ward realizes high expectations will be tied to his draft status.

“I’m very confident in my ability, and I look forward to that pressure,” he said. “Being at Ohio State, there was pressure all the time there. Everybody was on edge there. It’s kind of nothing new having the pressure on me, and I look forward to taking on that challenge.”

Ohio State is now the first program since the common draft era began in 1967 to have five defensive backs selected in the opening round during a three-year span.

The ex-Buckeyes on the list are Ward and fellow cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore (No. 11 overall in 2017, New Orleans Saints), Gareon Conley (No. 24 in 2017, Oakland Raiders) and Eli Apple (No. 10 in 2016, New York Giants) and free safety Malik Hooker (No. 15 in 2017, Indianapolis Colts).

Ward, 5-foot-10⅞ and 183 pounds, became a full-time starter for the Buckeyes last season as a junior and had 37 tackles and 17 pass breakups, including two interceptions, earning consensus All-America and first-team all-Big Ten honors.

Ward is the first player from Nordonia to be drafted in the first round. In 2006, the Seattle Sea­hawks picked Nordonia graduate Rob Sims, an offensive lineman from Ohio State, in the fourth round.

Three other Nordonia graduates went undrafted but had NFL careers: linebacker Jason Trusnik (10 seasons), offensive lineman Kevin Kowalski (two seasons) and cornerback Jordan Mabin (practice squads).

Trusnik played for the Browns during the 2009-10 seasons.

Browns coach Hue Jackson said he isn’t worried about Ward being distracted by playing so close to home, and those who know him agree.

“Because he’s such a great kid, I know he can handle any situation,” Nordonia coach Jeff Fox recently told the Beacon Journal/Ohio.com during a phone interview. “He’s always been a young man that’s focused on working hard each and every day and is a true competitor. So I think he’d be a great addition in his hometown.”

Ward is well aware the Browns have gone 1-15 and 0-16 the past two seasons, but he’s undaunted by it.

“They’re definitely trusting in me to kind of help [in] turning the system around, and look forward to it,” he said. “I look forward to that challenge.”

Nate Ulrich can be reached at nulrich@thebeaconjournal.com. Read the Browns blog at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/abj.sports.