Broncos Sign T.J. Ward
The Denver Broncos signed strong safety T.J. Ward to a four-year contract worth just $23 million, adding what would appear to be a very important piece to a Broncos team that fell one victory short in 2013. However, things aren’t always as they appear to be, and there’s good reason to wonder whether this move was a shrewd one for the Broncos or, rather, one they’ll live to regret.
Last season, Ward was a very busy guy. As a starter on a Cleveland Browns team that finished with a 4-12 record, Ward was on the field early and often. He played 1,124 snaps (fifth-most among safeties) and performed admirably, posting the third-best rating (+14.5) while making 91 tackles (also third-most). And while he did miss 13 tackles, his +8.1 rating against the run was tops among all safeties.
Meanwhile, the safeties who logged the most playing time for the Broncos in 2013 (Duke Ihenacho, Mike Adams, and Rahim Moore) combined for a +1.6 rating against the run, barely above replacement level, which suggests that the addition of Ward should make the Broncos’ defense better.
However, the Broncos’ problem really wasn’t their ability to stop the run. Remember, this was a team that gave up 48 points to the Dallas Cowboys back in October (most through the air), while their run defense in 2013 (+74.6) was third-best in the entire NFL. When the run play gets to Ward’s level, it often means that those in front of him haven’t been able to stop the ball carrier, and in the Broncos’ case, that’s really not a problem that merited top priority this offseason.
By investing even $23 million in Ward — a modest sum for the star safety, but not insignificant — the Broncos have likely made a substantial tactical error, for if Peyton Manning and the Denver offense continue to perform at a prolific level, the splits in Ward’s ability (he’s elite against the run, somewhat above average against the pass) will severely reduce his value if he’s playing in a defense that typically operates with a lead rather than a deficit.
Meanwhile, the anticipated loss of Eric Decker on the offensive side could be very painful. Julius Thomas missed two games last season, and has played in only 23 games over his first three NFL seasons. Wes Welker’s susceptibility to concussions should be a very real concern. And while Demaryius Thomas has been durable over the past two seasons, there’s good reason to wonder how effective he would be if opposing defenses could aggressively bracket coverage in his direction.
Put simply, Decker provided some valuable stability for the offense, suiting up across from Thomas in all 16 games while producing at a level very similar to that of Thomas. The presence of the two receivers made it difficult to stop Manning, and it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Manning will be as effective in 2014 with a depleted receiving corps.
Indeed, the Broncos might find themselves needing Ward more if their offense isn’t as prolific. And so, his signing might in fact be a self-fulfilling prophecy, the Broncos losing a key component of their 2013 team in no small part because they’ve signed a player who might help mask some of the price for that loss. Make no mistake; Ward is a terrific run defender and a very solid safety. But by signing him, it’s more likely that the Broncos will be worse in 2014 than that they’ll be better.