Leading up to the 2010 NFL draft, many publications and draft experts had the Cleveland Browns coveting Tennessee safety Eric Berry with the seventh pick in the first round.
Berry was considered by some experts as the best all-around football player available. But safeties don't have the same positional value that quarterbacks, offensive linemen and defensive lineman do so there was an outside chance that he would be available when the Browns drafted.
The Browns safeties were terrible in 2009 and new team president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert had yet to do anything to address the position during the offseason.
As the draft unfolded and offensive tackle prospect Russell Okung was still available when Kansas City selected, Cleveland's hopes soared because the Chiefs seemed the most likely destination for Berry.
Kansas City general manager Scott Pioli was noted for devaluing safeties and the Chiefs needed a tackle but they surprised the masses and passed up Okung, selecting Berry and leaving the Browns to select Florida cornerback Joe Haden at No. 7.
When the Browns selected Haden they also passed up Texas safety Earl Brown, who after Berry, was considered the best ballhawk in the country and could play both cornerback and free safety.
Haden's stock had dropped due to a poor 40-yard dash time at the combine and the Browns also failed to trade down for Haden, which was considered a possibility by many experts at the time.
The Browns had also acquired cornerback Sheldon Brown from the Philadelphia Eagles to pair with incumbent starter Eric Wright via trade leading up to the draft. In essence the Browns not only failed to land Berry but they drafted a player who appeared destined to be a backup and still had a huge void at safety.
What were they thinking?
Never fear, Tom Heckert was here to further confuse us by selecting a relatively unknown safety, T.J. Ward from Oregon, with their second-round pick. Ward had a significant injury history and was considered to be a third-round talent at best.
The Browns passed up bigger names like Major Wright from Florida, Chad Jones from LSU, Taylor Mays from USC, and Morgan Burnett from Georgia Tech.
At the time of Ward's selection, quarterbacks Colt McCoy and Jimmy Clausen were still on the board as was wide receiver Golden Tate, linebacker Sergio Kindle, and defensive lineman Terrence Cody. The Browns had needs at all four positions, and each of these players was regarded as having a greater potential impact than Ward.
Ward was considered a dynamic hitter with an excellent football IQ who struggled in pass coverage. He had suffered multiple leg injuries that required surgeries dating back to high school, in part because of his inability to temper his play.
That's right! Ward reminded some scouts of Indianapolis Colts safety Bob Sanders who is also an absolute force on the football field but has missed almost 50 percent of his career due to in part to injuries suffered because of reckless style of going all-out.
Ward showed up in camp and surprised everybody with his pass coverage ability during OTAs and by the time training camp rolled around in August he had supplanted Mike Adams as the starting free safety.
Once the pads went on and hitting commenced the former Oregon safety started to lay the lumber upon his teammates in practice and opposing players in the preseason and surprised everybody with his controlled aggression
In his first NFL game against the Buccaneers he had eight tackles and three assists and followed that up with 10 tackles and one assist against the Chiefs to lead the Browns in each game.
He was impressive for a rookie, the way he accrued the numbers and made his presence felt, and defied the skeptics and scouting reports. He also made general manager Tom Heckert look like a veritable guru.
He looked like a human missile hitting Chiefs ball carriers and wrapped up Buccaneers receivers like a veteran. Ward takes excellent angles to opposing ball carriers, diagnoses plays like a veteran, and seems to be adequate in coverage so far.
While watching the first two games I compared the Browns other starting safety, Abe Elam, to Ward and was stunned by the rookie's obvious differential in skill ability.
Elam actually whiffed on tackle attempts against a fullback and a tight end against the Chiefs. Talk about Matador defense. I know Elam is a Coach Mangini favorite but watching Ward and Berry play makes me wish for a talented running mate for Ward.
The game against the Chiefs offered viewers the rare opportunity to compare Chiefs safety Eric Berry with Ward. Berry was coming off a game against the San Diego Chargers in which he was burned twice for touchdowns and was eager to atone for his rough debut.
My first impression of Berry is that he looks more like a cornerback than a safety. He is an excellent athlete who made a couple of nice stops on Browns running backs in the backfield. However, he was part of a busted pass coverage that resulted in a 65-yard touchdown pass to Joshua Cribbs.
Berry bit on a play fake and looked a little foolish even though there was another Chiefs defensive back also involved in the play.
I don't know if Berry just wears small shoulder pads or what but he just doesn't look like an imposing force out there. He is a solid tackler who rarely misses his man but not exactly a big hitter.
Ward has a sturdy trunk and torso with broad shoulders and looks intimidating in uniform. He is a quality athlete who makes you wonder what he was like before the leg injuries and surgeries. Ward plays the entire game at the same pace and rarely misses a tackle.
The former Oregon safety seems to have tempered his reckless hitting from going for nuclear knockouts to laying stunning silencers on his foes as he has focused his intensity into a controlled aggression rather than a reckless abandon.
Overall, I think Ward is more of a traditional, hard-hitting safety than Berry is and I would rather have Ward on my team.
I think Berry is an excellent athlete who will be a better player than he has shown in the first two weeks of the season but he lacks the intimidating presence Ward brings to the field.
As a Browns fan, I owe general manager Tom Heckert an apology for questioning the selection of Ward. He was a great selection at No. 38 in the second round and, barring injury or free agency, should be our starting free safety for years to come.
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