One of the more surprising cuts at the end of last week was the Denver Broncos releasing safety T. J. Ward.
The 30-year-old former Oregon Duck spent three successful seasons with in the Rocky Mountains, picking up five sacks, three picks, 224 tackles, and generally bringing an air of physicality and toughness to the interior of the defense.
While he was by no means perfect, he played 81% of defensive snaps during his time with the Broncos, including the seven games he missed due to injury. He was a big part of what has been one of the best defenses in the league since he arrived.
Tampa have needed some help at safety ever since Mark Barron flamed out. They addressed part of that need by signing J. J. Wilcox to a two-year, $6.25 million free agent deal in March. However, when the chance to sign Ward came along the Buccaneers didn’t hesitate to make a deal.
They signed Ward to a one-year, $5 million deal, and to make room for him flipped J. J. Wilcox to Pittsburgh.
It was a ruthless move by general manager Jason Licht, but one that displays a good ability to make isolated decisions. Just like cutting Roberto Aguayo, Licht isn’t afraid to cut bait on a bad decision or to make a move when a better option comes along.
There has been some talk that adding Ward shows the Bucs are in “win-now mode”. Personally, I think that’s just hot takes from talking heads. The NFL is settling into an existence where teams are either rebuilding or contending, and the Bucs are very much still in the building phase.
While there seems a readiness to roll the red carpet out for Jameis Winston and the Tampa Bay passing game, perhaps thanks to Hard Knocks, the team still has a long way to go. They were 26th in run defense DVOA last year, and 30th in rushing offense. Improvements are to be expected year-to-year, but to jump from the bottom of the barrel to league-average in both areas is highly unlikely.
What does Ward bring?
Still, T. J. Ward does make the Buccaneers better. He is another strong tackler and good run defender in the middle of the field. Putting him alongside Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David in the middle should make them a better run defense, and he will certainly hit some receivers hard over the middle, however a safety can only cover up so much in your run defense.
Ward isn’t going to be holding the edge and turning runners inside, he can’t eat double teams to keep the linebackers clean.
Ward isn’t the athlete he used to be, but he’s still good in coverage against tight ends, something the Bucs need with Greg Olsen and Coby Fleener in their division. The issue is that he can’t really add that much there, the Bucs were fourth in DVOA against tight ends last year. Denver? They were fifth.
Now defending the tight end is rarely one person’s job, but Tampa were very good at it without Ward, can they really be that much better?
Why sign him at all then?
Don’t get me wrong. Ward is a better safety than J. J. Wilcox, but he’s not Eric Berry or Kam Chancellor, he’s not a world-changing signing for the Bucs. The hype that is around this team has a kind of nervousness about it, one that calmed a little in the wake of signing a known player.
It’s why people are so quick to say that Tampa are going for it this year. The NFC is, as ever, wide open so it’s not inconceivable that a team could go from outside the playoffs to the Super Bowl in one year, but the Seahawks, Packers, Cowboys, and Falcons are all still roaming around like a pack of lions. If the Buccaneers are really going to overcome them then they will need the Winston-Evans-Jackson-Howard passing game to become an elite unit and carry the rest of the team. Ward can’t impact that.
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