When the Browns decided not to franchise tag safety, T.J. Ward, they created a need for that position this offseason. The top two free agent safeties available are Jairus Byrd and none other than T.J. Ward. Both Pro Bowlers are difference makers that can come in and immediately contribute to a football team. So who should the Browns chase after, the high flying Byrd or the hard hitting Ward?
Both players have experienced instability at the head coaching position while enduring losing seasons. Ward has gone through three coaches in four years while Byrd has seen four coaches in five years. These defensive backs are very similar; they played together at Oregon and are both 27 years old.
Despite things in common, these free agents have gone down different paths to professional football.
Jairus Byrd was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the second round of the 2009 draft. Ward followed a year later when the Cleveland used a second rounder on him. Byrd is a three time Pro Bowler and Ward just earned his first Pro Bowl honors this past year.
T.J. Ward faced criticism early and started off his career slow but he really came around this season. The strong safety turned in a great statistical year, compiling 112 tackles, 1.5 sacks, two interceptions, one fumble recovery, and five pass breakups. In four seasons, Ward has registered 342 tackles, 3.5 sacks, five interceptions, and five forced fumbles.
The 2013 campaign was time for Ward to break out of his shell. He proved he can play like an elite safety. Ward has been known for shutting down the run game but has steadily improved his pass coverage. The four year veteran has earned a multimillion dollar, multiyear contract. Despite being a higher ranked position player, Ward may only demand around $8 million a year.
For the past month the Cleveland Browns have been reaching out to Ward’s representatives to get a deal done. Nothing has been able to be agreed upon by both parties. The safety has expressed his desire to stay in Cleveland and bring home a Lombardi Trophy. Ward has seen interest from various teams inquiring about his services. The Cleveland Browns need to move fast if they want to lock up their Pro Bowler.
Disregarding Ward’s upside, he isn’t that strong of a cover safety. This is why Jairus Byrd could be a serious pawn in Cleveland’s future plans. The free safety will demand more money than Ward. I heard he is looking for a five year contract at $10 million per year. The Browns clearly have the cap space to make this move and pay the man.
Unfortunately, we have not yet reached out to Byrd, who is highly coveted and apparently not returning to Buffalo. We have to move fast if we want a ballhawk like Byrd. The reunion of Byrd and coach Mike Pettine could be a deciding factor in what team lands the elite cover safety.
Since entering the league in 2009, Byrd is ranked first and second between all NFL safeties with 22 interceptions and 11 forced fumbles, respectively. Over five seasons, the Pro Bowler has broken up 33 passes earning him a second best passer rating allowing ranking among safeties. Byrd is a big time play maker and has been even as a rookie, when he achieved nine picks.
Not even injuries can’t hinder the shut down safety. The Oregon alum only played in 11 games last year but still snagged four interceptions. Byrd is a gem that is hard to come by. His flexibility allows a defense to be creative and attempt different things. The defensive back scares quarterbacks from throwing his way giving more opportunities for others to make plays.
Byrd possesses amazing coverage skills and can play all over the field. He is more than capable of playing in the middle or playing deep resulting in the other safety playing up towards the line of scrimmage. That is the main difference between Ward and Byrd. Ward is amazing when lining up like a linebacker while Byrd is a shut down player. Ward, the run stopper or Byrd, the ballhawk?
The choice is up to Cleveland’s front office and I will be happy with either player. Both are young, talented players with their prime years ahead of them. Byrd can catch anything thrown near him and intimidates quarterbacks to make mistakes. Ward is a tough run stuffer that can hit as hard as anyone in the league. Byrd is a slightly better all around safety than Ward but comes with a higher price tag. Ward is cheaper but carries the potential to be an impact, shut down player. Both players are ranked high for a reason and rightfully so, but I believe T.J. Ward should stay in Cleveland and be a part of something special.
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