For many years now the Cleveland Browns seem to have been stuck picking inside the Top 10 of the NFL draft with little sign of improving. In recent seasons, however, they’ve begun to see more of their picks paying off.
On defense we’ve seen the likes of cornerback Joe Haden and defensive end Jabaal Sheard contributing immediately while defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin and linebacker D’Qwell Jackson have grown into the players the Browns hoped they would be. On offense, they made a big splash in April by selecting both running back Trent Richardson and quarterback Brandon Weeden in an attempt to kick-start an offense that has been little short of anaemic lately.
The focus of this Secret Superstar installment is another recent Cleveland draft pick, third-year Safety T.J. Ward (+5.6) who, despite finishing the season on injured reserve, has given Browns fans further hope that the franchise is turning around.
Drafted out of Oregon with the 38th selection in 2010, Ward went straight into the starting line up in Week 1. Playing all but three snaps on the road in Tampa Bay, he finished the game with four defensive stops and added a hit and a pressure on his four pass rush attempts.
His rookie season had ups and downs, with his best and worst performances of the season coming in Weeks 16 and 17. At home to the Baltimore Ravens he finished with a grade of +2.4, breaking up the only pass thrown into his coverage and picking up a defensive stop on his only tackle. The following week on the road in Pittsburgh, though, he allowed receptions on three of the four passes thrown his way while missing two tackles en route to a career-low grade of -3.2.
Missed tackles were the most disappointing aspect of his first season in the league, finishing tied for the fourth-worst among all safeties with 13. That being said, he still managed to slot in as the 37th safety out of the 85 qualifying players (those playing 25% of their teams’ snaps) with a grade of -0.1. He may not have set the world on fire, but he certainly didn’t look out of place starting as a rookie.
His 2011 season was cut short midway through the season but his overall grade of +5.6 was still good enough to see him ranked ninth at his position. Through eight games he missed just two tackles–a massive improvement on his first season–while adding 11 defensive stops. In coverage he gave up four touchdowns and managed to break up just two of the 22 passes thrown at him, but he allowed 3.8 fewer yards per reception than in 2010.
Against the Run
Ward’s 5-foot-10, 211-pound frame suggests a safety built to play the run well and it’s in that area that he has graded out best during his first two seasons in the league. He may have been 37th overall in his rookie season, but based on his rating against the run alone, only nine safeties had better seasons. In 2011, despite only playing in eight games, Ward was tied for seventh in that category.
With only a season and a half under his belt it’s easy to see why Ward is flying under the radar right now. However, if he produces more displays like his Week 6 effort in Oakland–where he registered a stop of three of his six tackles–he’ll make a name for himself soon enough.
Against the Pass
While his play against the run is already up there with the league’s best, his coverage skills still require some work. In two seasons he has given up six touchdowns from the 70 passes thrown into his coverage. Looking just at 2011, it was four TDs from 22 targets; a touchdown on 18.18% of throws his way. He also allowed a reception once every 18.1 snaps in coverage.
In his rookie season of 2010, he only allowed two touchdowns from 48 throws into his coverage, but was still giving up a reception once in every 17 coverage snaps. For Ward to become a true superstar safety, that’s something that will have to improve or quarterbacks will learn to target him even more.
Ward has also been used to rush the passer occasionally and, though he hasn’t caused anyone to confuse him with DeMarcus Ware or Trent Cole, he has ranked in the middle of the safety pack with Pass Rushing Productivity ratings of 12.5 in 2010 and 18.1 in 2011.
We’ve seen some impressive play from a number of safeties in the past two seasons and stepping up into that class has to be the goal for Ward. He may have had his struggles in coverage, but his play against the run should see him slide straight back into the starting line up in Cleveland in 2012. He was our ninth-ranked player at the position last season and if he improves in coverage while maintaining his level of play against the run, he should find himself ranked even higher this coming year and more of a known entity to fans around the league.