In Cleveland’s first preseason game, the talk of the town wasn’t about first round selection Joe Haden, nor was the theme centered around hopeful future signal-caller Colt McCoy.
The rookie who stole the show was T.J. Ward.
Playing three quarters in his first action as a member of the Cleveland Browns, T.J. Ward racked up seven tackles, two special teams tackles, and a QB hurry.
He displayed great open-field tackling with the ability to close quickly on the ball carrier. Cleveland Browns analyst Reggie Rucker is even quoted as saying, “The guy is like a cobra. He attacks anything that moves.”
Not everything was peaches and cream for the rookie though, as Ward went one-on-one with Greg Jennings and was beaten over the top for a touchdown during the first quarter by Aaron Rodgers.
Joe Haden came on a cornerback blitz, leaving Ward on an island with one of the best wide receivers in the NFL.
How’s that for some on-the-job training?
Despite the typical rookie mistake, Ward never seemed timid and showed that he had a short memory as he went on to make plays all over the field.
He put a solid hit on veteran receiver Donald Driver, who then jawed back at him. Ward later made a great play on third-and-six where he read the quick-pass, made contact with Driver at the line of scrimmage, lifted him up and then drove him into the turf.
Needless to say, Driver didn’t have much to say after that.
His NFL introduction was so impressive, a highlight video of his first preseason game has recently surfaced on YouTube. Although he‘s starting to catch the eyes of some people, things weren’t so easy in the beginning.
When the Cleveland Browns drafted T.J. Ward in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft, some fans may have said to themselves, “Who?”
Most were expecting a wide receiver or a defensive lineman, while some thought that if the Browns would go after a safety, then it would have been highly-recognized prospect Taylor Mays.
Not so fast.
Ignoring the pre-draft rankings, Cleveland stood pat and decided to draft the player they really wanted…much to the chagrin of most Browns fans. Touted by most NFL Draft publications as a third-to-fourth round pick, the dreaded word “reach” could be heard echoing in the distance.
Some fans even argued that Ward could have been selected later in the draft.
Was it a knee-jerk reaction to the Philadelphia Eagles’ selection of safety Nate Allen right before the Browns picked? Could Ward really have been rated that high by Cleveland, and was there an interest in him by other teams?
Maybe, maybe not. We’ll never know for sure, but there are small stories behind the questions.
In the early morning hours before the second day of the 2010 NFL Draft, Michael Smith who was covering the Browns' draft for ESPN tweeted, “I've been talking about the Browns going S in round 2 and RB at some point today, but they also could very well be targeting an OL.”
Soon thereafter, Smith was asked about the possibility of Taylor Mays to which he replied, “Couple of you guys have asked about Taylor Mays as a possibility for Cleveland. Very doubtful. Might be another Pac-10 safety, though.”
Since another Pac-10 safety wasn’t even selected in the draft, it’s easy to see that this was the guy that everyone in the Browns’ front office and coaching staff was on board with drafting at pick No. 38.
Michael Smith nailed it.
It seems he was their plan all along, but most fans knew little about Ward because he was nestled away on the Northwest Pacific coast.
His injury history at Oregon was a likely reason for his early pre-draft ranking, but despite that he was still ranked as the second-best strong safety by CBSsports.com and was regarded as a riser in the days leading up to draft weekend.
The Browns also got an up-close look at Ward as they, along with Baltimore and Kansas City had a private workout with him right before the draft.
Cleveland obviously wasn't the only team on Ward's trail.
"He's a super tough kid, makes a lot of plays in the run game," General Manager Tom Heckert said. "We think he can cover. We worked him out. Good athletic ability, but just a super tough kid".
At the combine, he ran a 4.54 forty-yard dash only to top it at Oregon’s Pro Day with 4.48, which is pretty good considering his thick stature at 5’10” 211 lbs.
He also ranked near the top in both the bench-press (19) and 20-yard shuttle (4.12) for all safeties at the combine displaying his strength and ability to change direction.
His measurables add up, his on-field play adds up, and given his recent play in the preseason he definitely has the chance to be a special player. He may very well be one of the steals of the draft.
How long has it been since Browns fans have been able to say that?
Going by his debut and productivity in training camp, using the word “reach” to describe T.J. Ward now seems to have become a reach…if that makes sense.
In an interview after playing against Green Bay, Ward was asked what his first NFL action felt like.
“It was like a dream come true at first, but I just had to realize that this is the same game I’ve been playing for my entire life,” Ward said. “After the first couple of plays, I settled down. After the first drive, I got more comfortable and it kind of all started to flow for me.”
When asked what this could do for his confidence, Ward replied with a smile, “I’ve really never lacked confidence, but I’m just trying to build, to get better with every game and every practice—that’s my goal. So right now, we finished the game with a win against a really good team, and I feel it’s a bright future for us right now.”
Along with his great play early on, Ward is also carrying along something that very few draft picks have brought to the table for the Browns—a defensive identity.
In the preseason opener, Ward played with a passion on the field that Browns fans haven’t seen in a long time from a member of the secondary.
Cleveland hasn’t had an enforcer at safety since the days of Eric Turner, and although it was only one preseason game, early indications are that Ward can indeed become an impact player in the defensive backfield.
Throughout this season, he’ll make beginner mistakes, like all rookies do…although in just his first year, he’ll also make receivers think twice about going over the middle.