April 16, 2014

The Strong Safety

TJ Ward is a hard-hitting, pick-sixing, edge-maintaining, tough sonovagun. Like many of us, TJ Ward has stigmas, and he has supporters. TJ Ward has a bit of a reputation as a head-hunter, having fallen victim to many a personal foul penalties and, most recently, was on the antagonistic end of a hit that ended a big-market Pro Bowl tight end’s season. Ask others, especially those who haven’t watched a football game since 2011, and they may even tell you that TJ Ward has problems staying healthy. But ask any of his coaches or teammates, and they will tell you that TJ Ward is the consummate teammate; a guy who, despite only being a member of the Browns for a little more than three seasons, is more sick of the perennial losing than anyone. On March 14, barring any sort of interim agreement, TJ Ward will be a free agent.

The 38th-overall player taken in the 2010 NFL Draft, Ward’s name being called in connection to the Browns provided some initial head-scratching. It was this very year where Southern California’s Tayor Mays was entering the annual assignment. It was also this very year where Tennessee’s Eric Berry, a free safety, was a player of desire at the top end of the first round. Alas, when Berry went fifth, two spots ahead of the Cleveland Browns, the woebegone five-win franchise was forced to settle for Joe Haden, a player out of Florida who had recently put up 40-yard dash times that rivaled some defensive ends. When the second round was under way, this the first year that this very round kicked off the second day of the televised draft special, many fans were looking for a quarterback, a wide receiver or another free safety to boost the team’s defensive backfield. And despite his name being mentioned as a possibility earlier that very day, Ward, a player out of Oregon who had not previously graced many televisions on the east coast, was greeted with mixed emotions.

“He’s a super tough kid and makes a lot of plays in the run game,” said then Browns general maanger Tom Heckert. “We think he can cover—we worked him out and think he has good athletic ability.”

Ward would go on to start all 16 games as a rookie, intercepting two passes, recording a team-leading 123 tackles, and nearly decapitating fellow rookie Jordan Shipley, a player who, at the time, was a wide receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals.

The 2010 season would be the last time Ward would play all 16 games. He would suffer a sprained foot during the middle of the 2011 season, ultimately being placed on injured reserve with two weeks remaining. Suffering a bone bruise to his knee during a loss to Washington one season later, a game that was arguably his best of the season, Ward would go on to miss the final two regular season games of 2012. This season, Ward has not only suited up for and started all 13 games to date, he has excelled. No longer asked to play in a two-deep system under Dick Jauron, Ward has been utilized as a fifth linebacker, aiding against the run, but also tasked with covering any releasing tight ends. He is, once again, among the team leaders in tackles, second to only D’Qwell Jackson, the defensive team captain. He has intercepted two passes, returning one for a touchdown. Pro Football Focus, the highly regarded premium statistical database, lists Ward as the second-best safety (free or strong) in the entire NFL, ahead of Cleveland’s own Donte Whitner, the aforementioned Berry and Seattle Seahawks free safety Earl Thomas, a player selected 24 spots ahead of Ward in 2010. Ward’s work earned him the 2013 Ed Block Courage Award, an annual accolade given to a member of each of the 32 NFL teams who “exemplifies courage, compassion, commitment and community.” It’s worth noting that winners of this award are nominated by their respective teammates.

It’s also worth noting that it is these very teammates, specifically Haden, who has, during multiple instances within the last several weeks, gone to bat for his soon-to-be-free-agent teammate. Appearing on a local afternoon drive time radio show, Haden stated that not only does he want to stay in Cleveland during his entire career, but he wants Ward to be here with him. When the two players arrived, #DBSwag hashtags were everywhere; the two players were inseparable. But as the losses have accumulated, and the players have grown, the former has stopped. The men remain close, but the flash and flossing has considerably decreased. It has seemingly turned into a “strictly business” environment once only personified by the likes of former teammates Scott Fujita and Chris Gocong. As ownership teams and front offices have cycled through Berea, and potential contract extensions have gone unsigned, Ward has shifted his entire focus to the field, choosing to largely ignore any of the outside noise.

“They are going to see my best whether it’s Game 1, Game 16 or whatever,” Ward said of any potential distractions. “Whatever game it is, whoever I’m playing for, whenever I step on that field it’s 110 percent. That’s what you can expect from me.”

There have been murmurs from detractors saying that the Browns, despite sitting on a Pilot Flying J-sized truck full of salary cap space, simply wanted to see what they had in Ward. What could he do when put in the right place within a defense? Can he show that he isn’t a liability in pass coverage? Can he stay healthy? The statistics seemingly nullify any doubts. But the Browns will enter the 2014 season with even more salary cap space and plenty of draft picks to utilize in the event they wish to address needs at a more cost-effective rate. And while any real discussions will likely take place between Ward’s representation and the Browns Joe Banner-led front office, Ward can rest assured that Haden’s lobbying has continued well into the duration of another losing season, going as far as to say that while he won’t be pounding on any tables, he’ll do whatever he can to ensure his defensive backfield teammate stays in Cleveland.

“You’ve got to play your position — stay in your lane, man,” said Haden, a Pro Bowl-bound cornerback in regard to lobbying for his teammate and friend. “You get in other people’s lane, you might get ran off the road. So my whole thing is I’m going to do what I’ve got to do. If there’s anything I can do to keep T.J. here, I’d do anything in my power for sure.”

While Ward may not have had much of a name for himself coming out of college, this is, unless you’re named Matt Barkley, he has certainly made one for himself in Cleveland. It’s a name fans and opposing general managers will be hearing a lot of heading into this offseason. The Browns would be wise to render any outside discussions moot, but a business is a business. Banner is notorious for his free agent penny-pinching and Ward—just 26 years of age—was, after all, drafted by the general manager which he recently fired.

Hard hitter or hard bargainer, picking six or draft picks. In the end, we all have our stigmas. All we can do is work on shedding them and let the rest take care of itself.

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com Craig Lyndall

    Re-signing Ward and having him play like he’s playing this season would surely help to avoid any talk about trading a draft pick that became Shamarko Thomas.

  • Alex Ralston

    I know Banner typically lets guys walk, but with Haden & Ward the defense is building an identity, I feel it should be a priority to retain Ward.

  • mgbode

    i’ve said it elsewhere, but i’ll add it here too.

    safety has become one of the most difficult positions in the NFL to play given the offenses and rules that have come about. as such, there are precious few players who can play the position at a high level. we are so ridiculously lucky to have one of those players on our team. I do not fret over losing Ward this offseason because the franchise tag will be slapped across his paperwork if we cannot come to a deal earlier.

    the FO made a mistake letting him play out this year. he would have likely been cheaper to deal with this past July.

  • mgbode

    please note that Banner’s history includes age as a big determing factor in letting guys walk as well. Ward is only 26yo meaning that his next contract will barely take him past 30yo.

  • bossman09

    We need a good free safety more than we need ward. I think we could move Gipson to Strong (more nature for him) and get a more pass oriented free safety in the draft. The only job a free safety has is stopping the bog pass play and that’s Gipson’s weakness…
    I like Ward a lot, but he’s not worth paying a premium for.

  • dawgpounder

    plenty of lowlights where he goes for kill shot instead of wrapping up and bounces off/ flies by the guy on his way to the endzone

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com/ Scott @ WFNY

    Not signing him in July was a calculated risk, one that the Browns missed. Same could be said for Mack. We will see if they will pony up and admit their mistakes.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Just because I don’t think they need to create another hole to fill I say bring him back but personally I think his play is very overrated. It’s just that other then Haden no one else in that secondary stands out.

  • CB Everett

    Re: Comments such as “admit their mistakes,” and “letting X walk” or “letting X play through a contract, I think completely lack foundation. There are huge assumptions that are being made that don’t have support. As with Phil Dawson, the assumptions were the FO didn’t try to sign him, booted him out the door, didn’t want him, didn’t value him, etc etc. The other assumptions were that Dawson desperately wanted to be here long term, would sign for a fair value, etc. Do we definitively know any of these things?

    Do we know that the FO didn’t try to sign Mack and Ward? Or that Mack and Ward even want to be here long term? Maybe they think they can get more money on the open market. Maybe they’re sick of losing. Maybe they want to play in their hometwowns. Maybe they didn’t want to negotiate until the season was over (I believe Mack’s agent actually made that statement).

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com/ Scott @ WFNY

    I’d have to look, but I’m fairly certain that both players have stated that they were never even approached about an extension (I’m 100 percent certain Mack said such) and then both chose to wait until after the season as to not have any distractions mid-season. The team could have easily locked both players up in July if they wanted to. If the losing or city is an externality, it’s easily rectifiable with additional compensation, even if through incentives.

  • Steve_Not_Chad

    Who?

  • Ezzie Goldish

    Hard to say that when the Browns have only allowed three passes of 40+ this year (2nd in the NFL, and at least one of which was clearly on Haden) and 34 of 20+ (6th in the NFL).

  • Ezzie Goldish

    While it may have been a risk to let him go to FA, I’d be curious to see if they franchised him if they can’t agree on a deal while drafting a future replacement.

  • porckchop

    This is my exact problem with the “Its the front offices fault these guys aren’t signed” narrative. Have Mack and Ward publicly stated a dollar amount they would have signed for?
    The only reason for players to sign early would be out of fear of injury. If you believe in yourself why wouldn’t you go through till free agency, its the only way to truly know what you are worth. Worst case scenario for them is that one will be franchised and make top 5 salary.
    I get that Monday morning quarterbacking and endless speculation is part of fandom, but on this issue I have no idea how anyone can be taken seriously blaming Banner/FO, if they have never gotten direct info from Ward/Mack’s agents, or to Banner himself.
    The only way to have signed them both last summer would have been to give them money that would make them top 5 plus paid guys at their positions. Maybe that’s what they’ll get, maybe not, but its irresponsible and sets a bad precedent to give guys huge payouts because you fear the free agency process. What does that say to Gordon/Cameron? How do you possibly afford to field a team if you throw gobs at every starter just to avoid free agency?
    A lot of people are quick to point out that Banner let guys walk in Philly, the same people seem to forget that they kept winning after many of those guys left. Same for the Steelers and Pats.

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com/ Scott @ WFNY

    Very good point.

  • woofersus

    This is very true. Banner doesn’t like to tie money up in players who may decline in value as the cap hit increases. Offering contracts that you don’t intend to keep for the duration tends to result in dead money when those guys turn 33 and become a cap casualty. Because of that it’s much more cap efficient to let somebody walk at the end of a contract than to cut them when they cease to be worth their cap hit, even if they are still playing at a high level when that contract ends. This is the source of his “Dr. no” reputation. Avoiding dead money is the name of the game when managing a salary cap, and Banner is just more regimented and disciplined than most about it.

    I would assume potential contracts for Ward and Mack are unaffected by this issue, and will be decided solely on price vs. value.

  • porckchop

    Say that last sentence using Ward or Mack’s voice: “If I had signed in July I’d make less money than if I waited until free agency.”
    Now explain to me why either of them would have done it.

  • bossma09

    Easy to say it when we have lost multiple games in the 4th QTR because the other team has been able to stroll down the field and score – and they did it passing instead of running. Also, the roll of safety isn’t to cover someone 1:1 – it’s to support the guys in single coverage. We need a free safety because if our corners are not perfect, there is no one there to support them.

  • bossman09

    Philly let a lot of players over 30 walk. They kept their younger players.

  • mgbode

    Gipson as the starting SS? We would truly appreciate Ward if that happened (but it’d be too late).

    I do agree that we need a FS (and Gipson has been better than I expected, just not good enough to not attempt to upgrade).

  • Ezzie Goldish

    Right, the role of a safety is to provide deep coverage to eliminate those options and allow your CBs to not worry about that part of the field, letting them provide tighter man coverage short. Which is what he did well. Teams dinked and dunked to score on us late, no deep balls.

  • mgbode

    are you saying Joe Thomas was afraid of getting injured? (he signed an extension the summer before his FA)

  • mgbode

    yes, Mack said as much and it was intimated that the same was true of Ward through Banner’s comments (but it required some word parsing, so who knows for sure).

    regardless, as you mentioned, it was a risk and we lost as the number for Ward is now higher than in July. possibly for Mack (I think it’s about the same though).

  • tttIpro

    “If I had signed in July I’d make less money than if I waited until free agency.”

    That is easy to say now, but back in July, neither knew what kind of season they were going to have. The risk is on both sides when signing a contract before a free-agency year. What if either of them got hurt? Or played like Brandon Weeden? You could easily say “If I had signed in July I would have made more money!”

  • mgbode

    financial security, threat of the franchise tag (which means no bonus money), possibility of injury, not knowing if Horton will utilize your skills properly

    it’s a long list. risk mitigation is the easier answer.

  • mgbode

    Mack is 28yo, so there might be more determination on him. But, OL players in general age better, so the age portion affecting his number may be higher. I’m not sure.

  • Mike P

    You clearly don’t watch football.

  • Mike P

    I have said it before and I will say it again, this guy is tops in the league at his position. Yes, we need to get a better FS, because Ward’s skill set does not dictate like a FS. He is a SS. That is where he plays people. I think by going out and getting a better “cover” FS, it will only enhance Ward through the prime of his career.

    He is one of the most under rated defensive players in the NFL.

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com/ Scott @ WFNY

    Because it’s a sharing of risk. There is no guarantee that either player makes it through the season unscathed let alone play balls out as they have. There’s a reason NFL contracts are typically front-loaded with bonuses and such. There is risk/reward to either move; in this case, if the Browns balk due to increased cost, it’s hard to argue that this couldn’t have been mitigated. Same could be said for the inverse or if there was an injury. Values are fluid; it’s hardly a black-or-white discussion.

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com/ Scott @ WFNY

    Or this.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Oy vey!

  • CB Everett

    I totally agree that those are the logical hypothetical pros for signing, but there are cons…particularly more so in Ward’s case. Let’s be honest here–he was “so so” the first couple of years, but certainly no world beater. There were a lot of questions about him (health, his ability in coverage). Hindsight is beautiful indeed, but it is very likely that he didn’t want to sign at a discount and was betting on having a big season to up his value. He did so–so good for him. His risk paid off. But that doesn’t prove that Banner didn’t try to sign him or that it was foolish to not have signed him for more money back in July. Because if anyone here knew that Ward would be a top 3 safety in the league prior to the season start, they should be in Berea now calling the shots!

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Nice comment makes total sense. I’m sure glad you watch football as opposed to me who doesn’t. You and your buddy Steve should get together.

  • Mike P

    Ok. Ill climb down the hole for you.
    Why is his play over rated?

  • Mike P

    Hmm. Stated in the article above, because I guess you do not like to READ, “Pro Football Focus, the highly regarded premium statistical database,
    lists Ward as the second-best safety (free or strong) in the entire NFL…”

  • mgbode

    I said it was a mistake, not foolish. I thought so in July as well. We don’t know for sure w/ Ward, but we do know with Mack (since he told us) and it seemed evident that they did the same with Ward (let him play and evaluate).

    and is top5 SS enough to get into the war-room? that’s what he was last season even with a cast on his thumb. I have been a very vocal Ward supporter afterall :)

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    You said he was tops in the league at his position then pull a quotation that says he’s the second best safety in the league yet I’m the one who cannot read.

    Listen as I’ve repeatedly said you can find just about any stat to back up a point in any sport. The simple fact is TJ Ward is not better then Eric Berry and he’s certainly not better then Earl Thomas. I don’t even think he’s better then Whitner but what do I know I don’t watch football unlike yourself Vince Lombardi Jr.

    Earl Thomas could very well be in the running for defensive player of the year. A topic which was discussed on Fox’s pregame last weekend in which Michael Strahan chose Earl Thomas as his defensive player of the year. Oh wait I didn’t see that because I don’t watch football.

    Have a nice day!

  • CB Everett

    The only reports I saw were thing like this: Browns contract-year C Alex Mack wouldn’t specify if he’s open to an extension during the season. Mack is looking to “limit distractions,” but declined to confirm a report by CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora that he’ll play out his rookie deal without a new contract. “I’m letting [my agent] handle that. I’m worried about football,” Mack said. “I like it here. Like my coaches. I’m happy as a Brown.” Anyway, it’s moot. I like both players and hope they sign long term. Otherwise, let’s tag away.

    Also, I’m going to start a grass roots campaign to get you in the war room! And I don’t mean like the way they treated Chuck Klosterman last year–:)

  • mgbode

    Thanks! I’ll even take the Klosterman treatment (but, I’d then pull a Grimsley in the lead-up to selections).

  • CB Everett

    haha uptick for the awesome Grimsley reference. You can point to your bicep after that one.

  • Mike P

    I’m assuming you won’t answer sine you’ve ended with have a nice day. I enjoy your childish down votes and now I know why nobody but myself and “Steve” comment to you.
    The same Earl Thomas who got juked out of his shoes by 30 year old Frank Gore to seal the 49ers victory last week? You don’t think Earl Thomas benefits by playing on the best D in football?
    Michale Strahan is now the end all on football awards being passed out?
    Typically, major awards go to the guys who are also on the best team. I think that’s a pretty safe bet.
    Eric Weddell has been the best safety in football for 3 years now and gets absolutely 0 recognition because he plays on a bad team. That’s the way it is.
    Earl Thomas and Eric Berry are both very good. But not the best in the league.
    And for Defensive MVP? The Panthers are much worse without Luke Kuechly. He deserves it.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO!

  • Mike P

    Oy Vey!

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Have a nice day!

  • Mike P

    So, no reply to me at all except No’s, Have a nice day, and down votes? Thought so. Keep on trolling big guy. Nice to have a conversation with a grown man who lives in his mom’s basement. Erev Tov!

  • Kildawg

    I would think that Ray Horton, and by extension Chud as well, would lobby to keep Ward with this defense. Especially since he can dish out big hits.

  • Kildawg

    PolamaWHO? We have Boss Ward! Hopefully re-signed to a fair deal that is also easy on the cap to please all parties involved.

  • woofersus

    Yeah, I’m sure it’s more complex than having a hard cutoff when they make the decision. A 28 year old offensive lineman is a lot different than a 28 year old running back.