In speaking with the assembled media on Wednesday, Ward said he indeed wants to return to the Browns in 2014. Ward said, "When you start something, I'm a person who wants to finish things, and I want to finish things on a winning note. I want to play in the playoffs here, I want to bring this city a championship," according to the (Ohio) News-Herald's Jeff Schudel.
Ward certainly has performed well enough to deserve a new deal. Playing on a $630,000 salary in 2013, he has become Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) fourth-ranked safety this season. He has 104 combined tackles to date, 1.5 sacks and 10 tackles for a loss.
In coverage, he's allowed only 29 of 49 passes thrown his way to be completed, for 250 yards, 133 yards after the catch and one touchdown to two interceptions. Quarterbacks throwing his way have a passer rating of just 62.5.
|T.J. Ward, 2013|
|via ESPN and Pro Football Focus (subscription required)|
Ward may be the best all-around defender the Browns have at present, and if they don't pay him, some other team will. The Browns would be best to not let Ward test the free-agency waters and instead sign him prior to the March 11 start of the new league year. The question is what to pay him.
The Browns should have somewhere between $35 and $40 million in salary cap space this year, depending on the cap limit and the amount of carry-over cash they have from 2013. Clearly, they will have enough to pay Ward, but it also depends on the market value of safeties compared to his value to the team.
One option is to give him the franchise tag, expected to be at $8 million for safeties in 2014. That amount would give him a top-10 cap figure among safeties for the year and also doesn't give Ward any job security. For a player who envisions his career playing out in Cleveland, the tag may not be an attractive option.
Paying Ward is a balancing act. On the one hand, there's the Browns' need to lock down one of their most productive players. On the other, there's the risk that once Ward gets paid, his production will decline. Of the top-10 safety salary cap hits for 2014, only four of those are among Pro Football Focus' top-10 safeties this year in terms of performance.
|Top-10 Safety Salary Cap Hits, 2014|
|Rank||Player||Team||Cap Hit||PFF 2013 Rank|
|7.||Tyvon Branch||OAK||$7,157,000||N/A, IR|
|8.||Charles Godfrey||CAR||$7,100,000||N/A, IR|
|via Pro Football Focus (subscription required) and OverTheCap.com|
Even for a team with relatively a lot of cap room to work with like the Browns, they still don't want to overpay Ward just for him to underperform after the check clears.
To Ward's credit, this is the second straight season he's played at a high level. He was Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) sixth-ranked safety in 2012 and has only improved in new defensive coordinator Ray Horton's 3-4 defense. Horton's background as a defensive backs coach has gotten the most out of the player, and his ceiling seems to be quite high.
So, what does that mean for the Browns' financial bottom line in 2014 and beyond? It means that Ward, if he gets a new contract, should take up $6 to $8 million of Cleveland's salary cap in 2014, just based on the average financial value of a safety performing at his level. Looking at the contracts for safeties around the league, the 27-year old Ward could easily get a four-year, $28 million deal, with around 45 percent of that cash guaranteed.
Including bonuses, Ward could make the franchise-tag amount of cash this year while also having relative security in Cleveland. It's money the Browns should spend, considering their alternatives. No other free-agent safety is going to play as well while costing less. The only comparable potential free-agent safeties in terms of talent are Jairus Byrd of the Buffalo Bills and Donte Whitner of the San Francisco 49ers. And they're going to cost just as much or more than Ward to sign.
Ward's replacement doesn't currently exist on Cleveland's roster, either, and the prospect of drafting a safety and expecting him to play as well or better than Ward in his rookie season is also not desirable. The Browns don't have many high-priority free agents in 2014, so it wouldn't be a misuse of money to lock down Ward to a lucrative-yet-reasonable deal.
Top safeties are hard to come by. It's a position that demands versatility, especially in a defense like Horton's that asks safeties to work in coverage, against the run and as an occasional pass-rusher. Ward has shown he's adept at doing all three tasks, and at doing them much better than most of his NFL counterparts.
The cost of the Browns re-signing Ward would ultimately be lower than the price the team would pay without him on the roster. The earlier they offer him a new contract, the better.