T.J. Ward is exactly the kind of player the Browns should be looking to keep in Cleveland.
With the franchise having once again undergone major changes at the top, Ward is a homegrown talent (drafted in the second round of 2010) who has started 30 of 32 games the last two seasons and earned a Pro Bowl nod in 2013.
The Browns have the franchise tag in their back pocket, but with new decision-makers leading the charge, the possibility exists that Ward hits the open market.
Considering the team in Philadelphia is in dire need of safety help, we went to the All-22 to get a better idea of what Ward brings to the table.
Ward’s name has been grouped with Jairus Byrd quite a bit in these parts since the season ended. They are the two top free agent safeties, and both played their college ball at Oregon. Ward was with the Ducks from 2005 to 2009 and played for head coach Chip Kelly as a senior.
But the thing about safeties is they come in different shapes, sizes and skill sets. Byrd and Ward are two of the better ones in the game, but their styles couldn’t be any more different.
We covered Byrd last week. The Bills’ safety is a true ballhawk who patrols the deep middle of the field and is a master at creating turnovers. That’s not Ward’s game at all.
Instead, his greatest strength is playing in the box and consistently making stops against the run. According to Pro Football Focus, Ward played in the box 65.7 percent of the time on run plays in 2013. That was the seventh-highest percentage in the league among safeties.
Here’s an example of Ward at his best. First take a look at where he’s lined up.
Because he’s so good against the run, at times it felt like the Browns had another linebacker on the field.
On this handoff to Reggie Bush, Ward’s teammates do an excellent job of occupying blockers, allowing him to attack freely.
Ward is really good at diagnosing run plays and getting to the ball-carrier. You can see he’s on the move and headed towards Bush before the ball is even in the running back’s gut.
And the most important part is finishing. If Ward doesn’t make a play here, Bush can cut it back. But that doesn’t happen. Instead, it’s a 1-yard loss.
Ward had 112 tackles last season, third-most among safeties. His nine tackles for loss (per STATS, Inc.) were tops on the team and second among safeties behind only Kansas City’s Eric Berry.
At 5-10, 200 pounds, Ward is not the biggest safety in the league. But his strength shows on the field, and he plays bigger than he is.
Here’s another play from that Lions game. This time, he has to deal with an offensive lineman at the line of scrimmage.
Here, it looks like the offensive lineman has him, and Bush will have a big running lane.
Ward gets knocked back, but still manages to get to the ball-carrier and makes the stop after just a 2-yard run.
Again, when thinking about what he does best, there’s no doubt it’s play in the box and stop the run. That is Ward’s elite skill.
As we know by now, safeties have to be versatile. And being able to cover is a huge part of the job. In the games I watched, Ward was very rarely used as a single-high, center fielder-type safety. When he played back, it was often in two-deep looks.
But where he performed better than I anticipated was in man coverage – specifically on tight ends.
I took a look at the Browns’ Week 14 game against the New England Patriots. In that game, Ward hit Rob Gronkowski low in the third quarter and ended the tight end’s season. But before that play, Ward was used in man coverage against Gronkowski quite a bit.
By my count, he covered Gronkowski six times and did not give up a catch, although there was one 10-yard pass interference penalty.
Early on in that game, Ward lined up out wide against Gronkowski one-on-one.
Gronkowski runs a short comeback route, and Ward is playing off coverage. Initially it looks like an easy completion.
But Ward does an excellent job of closing on the ball and ends up forcing the incompletion.
Ward is an aggressive, physical player who seeks out contact. Keep in mind he was giving up roughly eight inches and 64 pounds on this play.
What are the concerns with Ward? Well, the big one as I mentioned above is he might not be available. The Browns could use the franchise tag or reward him with a long-term extension. If Ward does hit free agency, he’ll likely find a favorable market considering he’s only 27 years old.
If a team wants a pure ballhawk-type safety, that’s not really Ward. Opportunities have to be taken into account, but he had a combined eight interceptions/passes defensed last year. That ranked 31st in the NFL among safeties, per STATS, Inc.
There are also some inconsistencies in his tackling. Most of the time he does a good job, but there were several occasions where Ward didn’t finish. Pro Football Focus had him down for 13 missed tackles, which was tied for 15th among safeties.
Overall, he provides versatility with the ability to play the run at an extremely high level and also match up with tight ends.
If the Eagles somehow landed Ward, he’d immediately be their best safety since Brian Dawkins.
We’ll find out in the coming weeks if they get the chance to to even explore this option.