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Free Agent Focus: T.J. Ward

February 24th, 2014
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

T.J. Ward

With news that the Buffalo Bills plan to place the franchise tag on Jairus Byrd, T.J. Ward of the Cleveland Browns becomes the consensus top safety potentially available in free agency come March.

The Atlanta Falcons are a team that could be in the market for a safety if they decide to dump free safety Thomas DeCoud before the start of the league year on March 11. DeCoud is set to have $2.25 million of his $4.2 million 2014 base salary become guaranteed on March 15, which could prompt the Falcons to dump him and target a player like Ward to replace him.

Ward played mostly strong safety the past few years with the Cleveland Browns. With the introduction of defensive coordinator Ray Horton this past year, he saw a lot more time playing up in the box where he was essentially used as a sub-package linebacker. In previous years, he spent a bit more time on the back-end playing in more Cover-2 looks.

The Browns have plenty of cap space to re-sign Ward, and may also opt to franchise tag him if need be. He’ll be competing for that distinction alongside center Alex Mack. Both players are ones that the Browns strive to re-sign.

But if Ward manages to hit the open market, NFL teams are going to find a steady, reliable safety that can do multiple things. He missed half of the 2011 season with a sprained foot. He was well on his way to being one of the highest-rated safeties in the league that year by Pro Football Focus, rating as their 13th-best safety. He’s rebounded the past two years to earn top six safety grades from PFF.

Strengths:

  • Good speed and range to make plays in zone coverage
  • Has a good nose for the ball in run support and comfortable playing in the box
  • Able to cover tight ends and does a good job keeping things in front of him
  • Steady all-around safety that can blitz off the edge

Weaknesses:

  • Undersized and will miss some tackles due to being overpowered
  • Will tackle too high at times and doesn’t consistently break down and wrap up
  • Lacks top speed or hips to be left on an island in coverage
  • Doesn’t make a ton of big plays

How He Fits in Atlanta…

Ward isn’t a natural free safety in terms of playing the deep centerfield consistently. He can do that, but he consistently played much closer to the line of scrimmage during the past two seasons in Cleveland. He spent a lot of time in the box this past year in Horton’s defense and it will be a slight transition to play further back like he would in Atlanta. Mainly because William Moore already has locked down the in-the-box role in Atlanta.

But Ward would be an upgrade over DeCoud because he’s a much better run defender and is still an effective coverage safety. He can cover tight ends and slot receivers, although he’s by no means a great coverage guy that can be left on an island against premier competition. Thus he’s not an option to go up against Jimmy Graham and lock him down one-on-one. DeCoud might be better playing the centerfield because his range is a better, but I do think Ward is more comfortable playing in man coverage against tight ends and slot receivers.

One knock on Ward is there haven’t been an abundance of big plays from him. He has five career interceptions and five forced fumbles, neither of which indicate that he’s a ballhawk. He did have 10 pass breakups during his rookie season, but hasn’t had more than five in any season since.

The main issue is that since Ward is a better run defender than cover guy, it’s going to put a bit more pressure on the Falcons’ corners to be able to play and win on islands in man coverage. As a rookie in 2013, Desmond Trufant showed he was capable of doing that. Robert Alford and Robert McClain have flashed that ability, but haven’t been able to consistently show it week in and week out.

In an ideal world, the Falcons could find a free safety like Earl Thomas or a young Ed Reed that can sit back in centerfield and just make plays in coverage all over the field. Ward isn’t that player, but he can still be a good addition to the Falcons secondary and an upgrade there.

Overall, Ward would be a solid pickup for the Falcons because he’s a good all-around player that can do a lot of different things, which means he has scheme versatility. The role he would play in Atlanta is probably not his ideal role, but he has the skill-set and tools to fit here and be a solid starter for multiple seasons.

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