The Denver Broncos made a big splash on the first day of free agency by signing former Cleveland Browns strong safety T.J. Ward. General manager John Elway announced the move on Twitter, saying Ward will bring “energy and toughness” to the Broncos secondary.
According to Mike Klis of the Denver Post, Ward’s contract is for four years with a total value of $23 million and $14 million guaranteed. For a player like Ward, it’s a relative deal and a move not many were expecting until rumors started to swirl over the past few days.
It’s a great signing by the Broncos because it solidifies the back end of their secondary—an area of significant need. The safety play was a huge problem for the Broncos last season as they had to bench strong safety Duke Ihenacho at one point. Mike Adams split his time at both safety spots, but he is better suited to be a third safety.
The Broncos can’t rely on the offense to repeat its performance from last season, which means the defense has to pick up the slack if they want to get back to the Super Bowl. Just about every time the offense sputtered in 2013, the defense didn’t offer much help to stop the bleeding.
Ward graded out as the best safety against the run in 2012 and 2013 according to ProFootballFocus (subscription required). Ward was also tied with Eric Berry with a grade of 14.5 as the best strong safety in the league in 2013—third overall. It’s safe to say Ward is one of the best strong safeties in the league.
|T.J. Ward's PFF Grades|
|Year||PFF Grade (rank)||Run Defense Grade (rank)||Pass Defense Grade (rank)|
|2013||+14.5 (3)||+8.1 (1)||+4.8 (12)|
|2012||+14.9 (6)||+11.1 (1)||+5.3 (16)|
Adding a player like Ward is a boon for a team undergoing a defensive makeover after a great year. The Broncos have to turn the defense around quickly to take advantage of the small window they have to win a Super Bowl with quarterback Peyton Manning.
What’s a bit odd about the signing is that run support wasn’t one of the Broncos’ weaknesses last season. According to ProFootballFocus, the Broncos had the third-best run defense in the entire league in 2013. The Broncos allowed 3.9 yards per carry and 101.6 yards per game, which was identical to the Seattle Seahawks. Where the Broncos did have trouble was stopping the run in the red zone, as teams were able to score 15 touchdowns rushing.
Of course, Ward isn’t too shabby against the pass, either. Ward is far from a one-dimensional box safety that can’t cover. ProFootballFocus gave Ward positive grades in pass coverage in each of the past two seasons. Ward is probably one of the better cover strong safeties in the league, which means he would thrive in any defense.
Ward allowed 29 receptions on 50 targets in 2013 per ProFootballFocus for just 250 yards, an average of a measly 8.6 yards per reception. Ward allowed one touchdown, intercepted two passes and his season high for yards allowed was 42. By comparison, Ihenacho allowed 29 receptions on 46 targets, but on nearly 200 fewer snaps and for over 100 more yards.
Having a safety like Ward enables the Broncos to play defense differently. Linebacker Von Miller can go after the quarterback or play the run more aggressively knowing that Ward will be there to make a play behind him.
Ward will also help the cornerbacks in 2014. The young Kayvon Webster will take over for the recently released Champ Bailey and Ward’s presence helps him the most. Most NFL teams put the tight end on the right side when using regular personnel, meaning they more often line up the tight end on the right side of the formation. That means Ward and Webster will often line up on the same side.
The Broncos have mitigated the risk of having a young cornerback play many snaps by protecting him with a very good safety. It's a wise plan, and signing Ward should help the defense rebound from a lackluster 2013 season. If the Broncos can play defense like they did in 2012, they should have a chance to make it back to the Super Bowl.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics via pro-football-reference.com.