August 1, 2014

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Browns: Safety T.J. Ward expects big season in contract year

LYNDHURST — Browns strong safety T.J. Ward has two weeks of free time before the grind of his fourth training camp begins. He didn’t plan a vacation, and isn’t trying to squeeze in a last-minute getaway to Hawaii or the Caribbean.
Ward was headed home to California following the conclusion of his youth football camp Wednesday. He was going to take a couple of days off, then start working out in preparation for camp.
He’s well aware it’s a pivotal year in what’s begun as a promising career.
“Definitely. That being my contract year, my fourth year, new defense, new coaches, it’s all kinda just happening at one time,” Ward said as the kids went through drills at Brush High School. “I definitely feel I should have a big year, I’m expecting to have a big year, I’ve prepared to have a big year. So I’m just going to go out and put everything out on the field.”
Ward, 26, was a second-round pick of former general manager Tom Heckert in 2010 and signed a four-year deal worth $4.027 million that will pay him $630,000 this season as it expires. Ward has started all 38 games he’s played and is being counted on again to help lead the back end of the defense, but the new regime of CEO Joe Banner and GM Michael Lombardi is in no hurry to extend his contract.
Ward said neither he nor his agent has talked to the Browns about a long-term deal.
“I’m not really focused on that right now,” Ward said. “If they offer something, then that’s great. But right now I’m looking forward to this season and then whatever happens after that happens.
“We’ll see. I’m focused so hard on this season and having a great season, and that’s pretty much where all my thoughts have been.”
Ward shouldn’t feel slighted. The front office has taken a wait-and-see approach with just about the entire roster it inherited. This season will be crucial in determining the Cleveland futures of many of those considered core players by the previous administration.
“I really haven’t gotten any impressions. I haven’t really talked to them, my agent hasn’t talked to them,” Ward said. “So my impression is to play ball, and what you do on the field will handle itself off.
“That’s what my motto is: You do what you’re supposed to do, you play how you’re supposed to play, then you’ll get what you deserve, hopefully. That’s all I can do.”
Ward believes if he does what he’s supposed to do, the sky’s the limit.
“I definitely feel I’m an All-Pro-caliber player, definitely a Pro Bowl player,” he said. “I’ll let the rest of my play speak for itself, but I’m definitely that type of player, that caliber, and everything else will show itself this year.”
Ward led the team and NFL rookies with 105 tackles in 2010. He had 68 tackles, a sack, an interception, four passes defensed and three forced fumbles last year. For his career, he has 211 tackles, two sacks, three interceptions, 17 passes defensed and five forced fumbles.
He missed the final eight games of 2011 with a sprained foot and the final two games last year with a knee injury that didn’t require surgery. He’s a big hitter in a medium frame (5-foot-10, 200 pounds), so some question whether he can hold up.
“Health is always the key, especially in this game,” he said “That’s what the offseason is for, though. If you prepare right, you prepare the correct way and you do the things you need to do to keep your body right during the offseason, then it’ll take care of you during the season.
“I missed the last two games last year, but for the most part I had a healthy season and I’m looking forward to having another healthy season this year.”
The biggest change for Ward comes in the form of new coordinator Ray Horton. Ward spent most of last year playing man-to-man coverage and setting the edge in the run game, both of which limited his playmaking opportunities.
Ward said he’ll have more freedom this year, including more chances to blitz in the 3-4 scheme.
“It’s back to kinda the same defense we ran my rookie year,” he said. “I’m allowed to do more things than I did in the 4-3 last year, so there’s a lot of different skills and roles that I’ll be taking and have to work on. I’ll be pretty much all over the place.”
He has made obvious strides in pass coverage in his three seasons, but that’s not the only area in which he thinks he’s improved.
“I’m much more mature, first off,” he said. “Off and on (the field). Definitely off and definitely on.
“I’ve become a much better leader, I feel. I just know the game. Every year you get smarter, or you should. Things are slowed all the way down.
“I’m just excited about the season. I think I’m coming into my own completely, I think this defense fits me perfectly and I think we have all the players to make huge strides this year.”
The maturity has manifested itself in an increased focus on the community. In addition to his camp, he held a fundraiser for the three women who had been kidnapped in Cleveland.
“I always wanted to give back before I got in the league, it was always something that was stressed by my parents,” Ward said. “Because I didn’t do this by myself at all. There will be more to come as the years go on.”
The kids this week had a chance to get instruction from an NFL starter, as well as interact with him in a laid-back setting.
“I want to show my support for the city and the children,” he said. “I want to do it every year to give back to them.
“You don’t really understand how much the kids look up to you and how much they appreciate seeing you. How enthusiastic and how happy they are when you come out here. It’s definitely something that should be cherished.”
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him @ScottPetrak on Twitter.