It is not very often that a team coming off of a 4-12 season has to choose which Pro Bowl player to let walk out the door. While that may be the situation in front of the Cleveland Browns, the decision is an easy one. Safety T.J. Ward is the guy who needs to be re-signed no matter what.
There are really only two major free agents who the Browns could potentially lose. Center Alex Mack and Ward are both set to hit the open market this offseason.
Besides free agency, Mack and Ward have a lot in common. They are both young impact players who play along side Joes who dominate their position. Mack has tackle Joe Thomas, and Ward has cornerback Joe Haden.
They are both coming off of a Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections as well.
That is about as far as the commonalities go. When you get to the financial end of these two players it is clear who is more valuable.
Mack has been a Pro Bowl center twice in his young career. He is going to want a huge contract, and rightly so. But as I laid out when talking about the franchise tag a few weeks ago, the best offensive lines in the NFL have centers who make very small salaries.
A long-term, big-money deal is the only option for Mack. His franchise tag number is over $11 million because the new collective bargaining agreement lumps all offensive linemen in the same category.
Ward, on the other hand, would cost just $8 million if hit with the franchise tag. That would make him one of the highest-paid safeties in the NFL, but he deserves it. Maybe not for the long term just yet, but certainly for one season.
Here is a breakdown of the top-five highest-paid safeties in the NFL and their stats from 2013. Not only does Ward belong in this group, but he is one of the best.
|T.J. Ward in 2013: 112 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 int, 1 TD|
|Eric Berry (KC)||$8.42 million||74||3.5||3||0|
|Troy Palamalu (PIT)||$8.25 million||69||2||2||1|
|Eric Weddle (SD)||$7.5 million||115||1||2||0|
|Antrel Rolle (NYG)||$7 million||98||2||6||0|
|Michael Griffin (TEN)||$6.2 million||82||0||1||0|
|Spotrac.com (Salaries) & NFL.com (Stats)|
Ward has yet to prove he deserves a long-term deal because he has just one full dominant season, but he has definitely earned the right to be labeled a “franchise player” for 2014.
ProFootballFocus.com gave him the third-highest mark among all safeties in 2013, and for the second straight year, he held the highest mark against the run. Even if he is given a top-five salary, he is already producing dividends.
It is not just the financial side, though. Ward brings leadership to a young defense that finally started to find its identity last year. NFL Films had Ward mic’d up during the Browns' prime-time game against the Buffalo Bills. It only takes one time through the video to see how much he means on the defense.
Whether he is giving speeches and leading the team onto the field before the game or hyping up the sidelines during the game, Ward has grown into exactly the type of leader needed to be dominant.
Ward's personality doesn't just shine through on the field, either. He has been known to hang out with Cleveland-area comics and even popped up in a few of their skits.
Back on the field, the demise of the Browns defense during the final few weeks of the season is what most people remember, but there was a long stretch where it was one of the best units in the league.
While the defensive line and cornerbacks had a lot to do with the success, there is one stat that points directly to the safety position. The Browns did not allow a 300-yard passer until Week 14 and did not allow a 100-yard rusher until Week 15.
That means that the Browns simply did not allow big plays all year. The final responsibility of making sure a normal gain does not become a game-changing play falls directly on the safeties.
Ward is only 27 years old and looks to be entering his NFL prime. If the Browns let him walk out the door now, then they will have to watch him make impact plays every week for another franchise.
It is time the Browns have a safety other teams fear. It is time the Browns have a safety who ends up in the Pro Bowl every season. It is time the Browns keep T.J. Ward.
This should be their very first priority this offseason.