Free Agent Duel: Ward vs. Mack
The NFL’s final game ended on Sunday night, but the off-field action is kicking into high gear as teams shift their focus to improving their rosters in 2014. With the franchise tag window opening in less than two weeks and free agency not far behind it, each squad will soon have to make some tough decisions. Though every general manager would like to retain all of his key players, the reality is that some will have to choose one quality performer over another.
Just as they did last year, PFF Analysts Gordon McGuinness and Pete Damilatis are looking at some of this offseason’s toughest free agent calls and debating which player is the better bet if only one of them can stay. We’ll kick it off with the Cleveland Browns, who may have to choose between two second team All-Pros in their prime, safety T.J. Ward and center Alex Mack.
The Case For Ward
By Pete Damilatis
It’s stunning to look back and see how many of today’s great young safeties came out of the 2010 Draft, which produced Eric Berry, Earl Thomas, Devin McCourty, and Kam Chancellor. As the 38th overall pick to Cleveland, Ward may not be as big a household name as his draft brethren, but his young career stands up with any of theirs. His overall grade has steadily risen in each of his four NFL seasons, and his +14.5 mark in 2013 tied him for third among safeties. As a difference-maker against the run and a quality cover-man, he’s a rising star in the secondary who the Browns can ill-afford to lose.
Now that the great Antoine Winfield has retired, Ward has taken the title of the NFL’s best run-stopping defensive back. For the second straight season his run defense grade led all safeties. His 20 run stops were also the most of any defensive back, and he continually showed the ability to thwart bigger blockers at the point of attack. A good example came in Week 2 against the Ravens with 7:06 left in the third quarter, when Ward undercut a pulling Marshall Yanda to bring both him and Ray Rice down for a loss. The Browns’ strong safety is excellent at slipping around blockers near the edge, yet also unafraid to meet them head-on to muddy up the point of attack.
If Thomas is renowned for his ability to cover ground in coverage, Ward is equally rangy against the run. On multiple occasions we’ve noticed him start more than 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage at the snap, only to quickly read the handoff and stop it for a short gain. That same speed also serves him well as a blitzer, where his five quarterback pressures on just 20 pass rushes earned one of the top Pass Rushing Productivity marks by a safety this season.
Some players’ focus on the run comes at a detriment to their pass coverage, but Ward certainly holds his own there. His only passing touchdown allowed all season was on a tough back-shoulder throw to Joseph Fauria. He was solid in zone coverage underneath, as his game-sealing pick-six against the Bills can attest. But he was also capable in slot man coverage, exemplified by his tipped pass in the end zone versus Brandon Marshall to cause an interception in Week 15.
You rarely hear Ward’s named as the best safety in the league, but his top-notch run defense and solid coverage certainly earns him a place in the discussion. His grade and impact have only improved with each season, making him a safe bet to continue his production. The Browns’ new coaching staff is taking over a quietly talented roster, and a difference-maker like Ward should be part of their future.
The Case Against Ward
By Gordon McGuinness
Ward is obviously a fantastic player and he adds a physicality that no other Browns defensive back brings to the table, but if there is one aspect of his game that gave you cause for concern in 2013, it was how many tackles he missed. With 13 he was tied for the 15th most by a safety in the entire league, missing a tackle once every 9.4 attempted. Missed tackles are an underrated stat in my opinion, with every miss a potential touchdown – especially when it comes from the last line of defense.
It was the first time since his rookie year in 2010 that he missed more than four tackles in a single season, but it happened at enough frequency to give you pause for thought. There’s no doubting how important he has been to the Browns’ defense in recent times, but coming off another losing season they are a team with plenty of needs. While they would certainly be losing out in terms of overall quality, a player like James Ihedigbo or Bernard Pollard could maintain that physical presence at a fraction of the cost.
The Case For Mack
By Gordon McGuinness
Arriving in Cleveland with the 21st pick in the 2009 NFL Draft out of California, center Mack has been a consistent force in the middle of the Browns offensive line throughout his career. In that time he has never finished a season with a grade lower than +8.7, ranking among the Top 10 centers in that regard every year. That included finishing 2013 as our fourth-highest graded player at the position, excelling both in pass protection and as a run blocker.
He allowed a fair amount of pressure this past season, with his Pass Blocking Efficiency Rating of 97.4 good for only 20th among centers in 2013, but a closer look at the pressure allowed paints him in a slightly more favorable light. Just seven of the 25 total pressures he allowed came in the form of a hit or a sack and, for all the pressure he did allow, there weren’t too many occasions where he was beaten handily right at the snap.
Where he really shone, however, was with his work in the running game, with some great play both at the point of attack and at the second level. That included a really nice play on 1st-and-10 with 3:38 left to go in the first quarter of the Week 9 win over the Baltimore Ravens. Passing linebacker Jameel McClain off successfully to tight end Gary Barnidge, he quickly turned to catch linebacker Daryl Smith, who looked to have a clean shot at running back Willis McGahee in the backfield, and drove him into the ground.
He was the standout player of the Browns’ interior offensive line once again and the impact of his departure would be significant. One way in which they may try to handle it if they don’t bring him back is to slide John Greco in from left guard but with Greco’s stellar play at guard in the past two years it doesn’t make much sense to weaken both positions. Instead, the Browns should make it their No. 1 priority to bring back Mack, giving whomever lines up under center in Week 1 stability directly in front of him.
The Case Against Mack
By Pete Damilatis
It’s hard to knock Mack’s play on the field. With just nine games graded “in the red” in five seasons, who wouldn’t want that consistency on their team? However, it’s debatable how much the Browns need a dominant run-blocking center. They’ve already invested $10 million of cap space in left tackle Joe Thomas for the next few seasons, and paying top dollar to two offensive linemen when they’re still looking for a quarterback might be putting the cart before the horse. Cleveland had our fifth-ranked offensive line for the second straight season, yet still struggled to move the ball. Despite Mack’s best efforts, the Browns finished in the Bottom 10 of every significant rushing category and managed just four rushing touchdowns all season.
Ward, on the other hand, is a dynamic playmaker on a defense that certainly needs one. Cleveland’s front seven is solid against the run but needs better pass rushing beyond the underrated Jabaal Sheard. Gordon noted Ward’s missed tackles, but free safety Tashaun Gipson’s 17 whiffs were even worse. Ward was one of two defensive backs in the league to lead his team in defensive stops. His physical presence and pass-rushing potential would be a perfect fit for new coach Mike Pettine’s hybrid blitzing defense. The Browns can’t go wrong with keeping either of these two Pro Bowlers, but Ward is more valuable to their future than Mack is.
If you were the Browns general manager and could keep only one, would you opt for T.J. Ward or Alex Mack? Make your case in the comments section in the comments section.