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.