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Browns top cornerback Denzel Ward still in concussion protocol; status for opener vs Bengals unclear

BEREA, Ohio (AP) — The Browns could be missing a top defensive player when they open against one of the NFL's most potent offenses.

Two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Denzel Ward remained in concussion protocol and missed practice Monday, putting his availability for Sunday's season opener against quarterback Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals in question.

Ward has been sidelined since suffering a head injury — the fourth reported concussion of his NFL career — in Cleveland's exhibition game at Kansas City on Aug. 25.

Coach Kevin Stefanski said the 26-year-old Ward is still undergoing daily evaluation. He wouldn't speculate about Ward's status for Week 1 against Burrow and his talented trio of wide receivers: Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd.

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“Denzel’s in the protocol, so we just got to work through that and see how it goes,” Stefanski said following a one-hour workout. “We know what type of challenge this is. It’s a huge challenge. They’re got great players, really good coaches. We know what you’re getting into.”

The No. 4 overall pick in 2018 from Ohio State, Ward has had success against the Bengals, getting three interceptions and returning two for touchdowns in eight games.

Safety Rodney McLeod hinted that Ward could be back in time for the opener, the first of four home games in five weeks for Cleveland.

“We’re encouraged that he will be available for us,” McLeod said. "So we’re allowing Denzel to take the time necessary, the doctors to do their job and hoping that he’s there when we need him. When he’s on the field, he’s a weapon for us, somebody who we need come Sunday in order for us to have great success.

“But if he’s not, it’s next man up. We hold everybody to the same standard and expect the same results.”

If Ward can't play, second-year cornerback Martin Emerson Jr. would likely start alongside Greg Newsome II. It's also possible new coordinator Jim Schwartz will try more three-safety looks with McLeod, Grant Delpit and Juan Thornhill.

Of course, there's no guarantee Burrow will play either.

Cincinnati's star QB just returned to practice last week after missing a month with a calf strain suffered early in training camp. Bengals coach Zac Taylor has been encouraged by Burrow's progress, but has remained vague about him facing the Browns.

McLeod is confident Burrow will be on the field.

"I expect Joe to be exactly who we think he is, be that elite quarterback, be that leader for them and still go out there and run the offense efficiently,” McLeod. “So regardless of how many snaps he’s got, I know he’ll be fully prepared for week one, and that’s how we’re approaching it.”

The Browns and Bengals split their two meetings last season when Cincinnati won the AFC North.

McLeod is new to the division after spending last season with Indianapolis and the previous six in Philadelphia. However, he's very familiar with Cincinnati's offense and one of the league's best groups of receivers.

“They all do something very different, but all dynamic,” McLeod said. “When you look at Tee Higgins, he’s a guy that can sky and get the ball. A lot of those 50-50 balls. Burrow likes him in that situation and he has the ability to just outreach a lot of defenders.

“Then a guy like Ja’Marr Chase, he can do it all really. What can’t he do? And then Boyd is very good in the slot just underneath taking command of the middle of the field. So we got our hands full. Everywhere you look it’s a weapon and you have to bring your A-game.”

NOTES: Newly acquired kicker Dustin Hopkins was excused from practice. Stefanski said Hopkins wasn't ill and that he expects him to return Tuesday. The Browns acquired Hopkins last week in a trade from the Los Angeles Chargers.

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl