Should The Denver Broncos Keep Safety T.J. Ward In 2017?

2016 was a solid campaign for T.J. Ward, before it ended with him on injured reserve. Heading into the final year on his contract, and considering the talent Denver has at the position, should the Broncos move on from Ward?

The Denver Broncos secondary is teeming with talent. You won’t find two cornerbacks in the game today better than first-team All-Pros Chris Harris, Jr. and Aqib Talib.

The safety spots are manned by the underrated Darian Stewart and the imposing T.J. Ward. With each starting player in the secondary having been selected to a Pro Bowl at least once during their time in Denver, the No-Fly Zone moniker is well deserved.

Instead of another playoff run, the Broncos are coming off of a humbling 9-7 campaign, which broke their streak of five straight AFC West crowns. Going into this year’s free agency period and the draft, general manager John Elway has both money and draft picks at his disposal to upgrade the team. Every offseason brings uncertainty. The Broncos are no exception. Who will be back from the previous year’s roster? All 32 NFL franchises go into this period of the season doing a juggling act, trying to get younger or cheaper at some spots, while upgrading others.

This brings us to the curious case of T.J. Ward. Notching 87 combined tackles, with three forced fumbles and a sack, Ward is still playing at high level. The veteran safety is heading into the last season on the four-year deal he signed back in 2014.

While still only 30 years old, the nature of the way Ward plays the game, combined with upcoming prospects like Justin Simmons and Will Parks looking for more playing time, has produced rumors that the Broncos might part ways with Ward in the offseason.

Hypothetically, of course, let's take a look at the pros and cons of such a proposition. 

Keep Him

Any team can find bodies for a given spot on the field — that part is easy. Finding leaders who can rally a team together to go above and beyond themselves is difficult. For all the good Ward brings to the Broncos, his most valuable asset is his emotional brand of leadership.

Compared to a Tasmanian devil for his wild demeanor, Ward plays with a nasty, physical edge that every defensive unit covets. Any Bronco defender lacking in motivation can look no further than Ward when he’s flying around the field looking to lower the boom on a hapless running back or wideout. Since his arrival in Denver, Ward has brought a swagger and toughness to a group that was in dire need after the Super Bowl loss to Seattle.

Those attributes are what separate Denver from other top defenses in the league. Because of Ward, the Broncos have a dangerous mix of elite-level talent and junkyard dog mentality.

With the possibility of DeMarcus Ware leaving this summer, losing more veteran leadership isn’t the best recipe for success. Long term, Parks and Simmons may be better players. For the present, however, they’re not capable of replacing all the intangibles Ward still brings to the table.

Cut Him

Let’s get the obvious out of the way; T.J. Ward has coverage issues. Whether it be in zone or man-to-man, Ward has problems being an effective defender in the passing game.

Yes, he is a thumper coming downhill, blowing up ball carriers but some of that gets negated when he’s matched up against an athletic tight end. Seeing the likes of Antonio Gates and Travis Kelce a couple times a year, Ward is a prime target to be exploited when teams throw the ball.

It’s also not fair to keep the youngsters on the sidelines in Parks and Simmons. Scheme flexibility could give Stewart a chance to slide over to Ward’s spot at the strong safety and let Simmons move over to the deep-centerfield.

The team can also go with Parks at the strong safety and let Simmons move into the David Bruton role in the big nickel sub-packages the team was missing in 2016.

In the last year of his deal with very little dead money, Ward is a prime candidate to be released. It’s a dog-eat-dog league and Denver may want to take the dollars they would save in releasing Ward to fortify the rest of the roster, while also letting Simmons and Parks further their development.

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It’s maddening to see Ward get beaten by running backs and tight ends. It’s also frustrating to see him going for the highlight-reel hit or the big play, rather than just making the tackle or deflecting the pass away.

With that being said, Ward is still in his athletic prime and has been a durable player for this team. His only absences this past season came in Weeks 16 and 17, resulting from a concussion suffered against New England. Ward has his shortcomings but he offsets much of it, as well.

He brings an identity and a leadership to the defense that is both infectious and irreplaceable. Considering that he was playing at a relatively high level until late in the season, it would be unwise to take his leadership or ability for granted for the sake of saving money.

For at least 2017, T.J. Ward should remain the starting strong safety for the Denver Broncos. In what should be a bounce-back season, Ward only makes a talented Broncos defense that much better. 

Adam Uribes is an Analyst for Mile High Huddle. You can find him on Twitter @auribes37.

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