Denver Broncos: Breaking Down Why T.J. Ward Will Be Their Defensive X-Factor

Baily DeeterSenior Writer IIIMarch 15, 2014

Cleveland Browns strong safety T.J. Ward catches a pass during practice at the NFL football team's facility in Berea, Ohio Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)
Mark Duncan/Associated Press

Aqib Talib got the money. DeMarcus Ware got the media attention.

However, while both of Denver's recent free-agent signees will help, it's T.J. Ward who will make the biggest impact.

Ward "only" got paid $23 million over four years, which is not a lot compared to the $57 million Talib could make (over the span of his six-year deal) and Ware's $10 million average annual salary. However, he is worth much more than his contract, and he's going to prove that.

He graded out as the third-best safety in the league, and he scored positively in both run defense and pass defense. Ward also surrendered a mere 61.3 opponent passer rating, flexing his muscles in the passing game.

He is also a hard hitter. He is known for knocking out New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, but he has also laid the wood on other players. Ward will set the tone for the Broncos defense, much like enforcer Kam Chancellor did for the Seattle Seahawks in their crushing defeat of Denver in the Super Bowl.

The physicality of the Seahawks won them the Super Bowl. Ward can bring that physicality to the Broncos.

Additionally, he can help them cover tight ends. In 2012, the Broncos were abysmal covering tight ends, and in 2013, they struggled against the only elite ones they faced, Rob Gronkowski (who caught seven passes for 90 yards and a touchdown) and Jason Witten. Other tight ends, such as Coby Fleener, Brent Celek and Anthony Fasano, did a nice job. 

Even when the Broncos didn't play against good tight ends, they weren't great. The Broncos will play against Gronkowski, Vernon Davis, Antonio Gates, Charles Clay and other quality tight ends in 2014.

They need to be able to lock down these tight ends. Ward can help the Broncos do that. 

Gronkowski caught just two passes for 32 yards against the Cleveland Browns. He played about three quarters in that game before getting knocked out with an ACL injury. Ward helped out against Gronkowski, and he could do this in Denver as well.

Even against teams without tight ends, Ward would be of immense value. He can make plays against the run consistently, as evidenced by his 15 tackles for loss in 2013. He made 112 tackles overall, and he should have similar production something similar in Denver.

As a strong safety, Ward is like an extra linebacker in the box. Broncos fans remember strong safety Duke Ihenacho's incredible Week 1, and they remember how Bernard Pierce and Ray Rice combined for 21 carries and 58 yards. Ihenacho had a lot to do with that. 

Many started to tout Ihenacho as the next great Bronco safety, but he finished the 2013 season with a minus-10.8 grade. Ward, however, could be that next great Broncos safety, and he's not going to play just one good game.

In other words, he will resemble Ihenacho's Week 1 performance week in and week out.

While making great plays against the run, Ward could also force turnovers. He has intercepted five passes and has forced five fumbles in his four-year career. The Broncos didn't force a single turnover in the 2013 postseason, and Ward can change that.

With his ability to play well in many facets, he will be an incredibly valuable asset. He'll also be a huge upgrade over Ihenacho and Mike Adams, Denver's two starting safeties for most of the second half of the season, who were both mediocre at best in 2013.

Ward's deal might have been the steal of free agency. However, even if the Broncos needed to pay him a boatload of money, it would have been worth it. He is a Pro Bowler in his prime, and he's only going to get better.

Sure, Talib and Ware are getting the attention. But if the Broncos emerge victorious in the 2014 season, there's a great chance that it will at least partially be because of Ward. 

Because Ward is one of the best safeties in the NFL, and he's going to transform the Broncos defense.


*All advanced stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required).