John Elway is planting stories around the NFL about trade interest in veteran safety T.J. Ward for a number of reasons, the most notable being that the Denver Broncos would like to move forward with a younger, cheaper option opposite Darian Stewart on the back end.
Ward, though, can still play as evidenced by first-year coach Vance Joseph’s reaction to the news that Ward is being peddled.
“He’s one of our better players,” the coach said. “I’d be surprised [if he was traded].”
Joseph shouldn’t be.
In a league where offenses are trying to spread defenses out and Park Avenue is so concerned about safety issues, the old-school hitter on the last line of defense is being phased out in favor of safeties with better coverage skills.
The best-case scenario is both, obviously, but finding a safety who hits like a heavyweight and covers like a cornerback is akin to discovering a figure from Greek mythology.
That might be overstating it. Ward was actually very close to that kind of player in his prime, but there is no denying things are changing in the NFL.
Former safety Tim Hauck, a journeyman who lasted a decade in the NFL due to his physicality, explained in detail what’s going on around the league to FanRag Sports earlier this summer.
“It would be really hard for me to play right now just from the fact that a big part of my game was the physical side of it,” Hauck, now a position coach with the Eagles, admitted. “The intimidation part is, I shouldn’t say it’s gone but it’s decreased. So playing zone defenses isn’t the same so guys better be making good breaks and making plays on the ball rather than dislodging it so much or intimidation where the receiver doesn’t want to catch the dang thing. The game has changed in that sense.”
That affects a player like Ward, a 5-foot-10, 200-pound thumper who happens to be a former three-time Pro Bowl selection.
Ward was once well above average as a man coverage strong safety, but that skill has decreased in recent years. He has become more of an intimidator. To be blunt, players like that are far less valuable these days than they would have been even five years ago, never mind a generation when they were actually coveted.
Ward is also a lame duck and was mediocre last season, according to ProFootballFocus.com, grading at No. 48 out of the 90 safeties who played enough to be rated. Ironically, he was incredibly steady and showed up as nearly equal in coverage and run support.
It’s clear, however, that Elway would like athletic second-year player Justin Simmons to enter the “No Fly Zone” this season. Ward is the obvious candidate he would replace because Stewart signed a four-year, $28 million contract extension during the 2016 season.
The cap ramifications regarding Ward are also palatable. He is due $4.5 million in salary this season and has a cap hit of $5.75 million. If the Broncos do make a move, whether it’s a trade or a release, the team would take a $1.25M bath from his original signing bonus.
All of that equals a perfect storm, one forecasting Ward’s eventual exit from Denver.
-John McMullen is a national football columnist for FanRagSports.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen