One striking exchange in the late Broncos preseason came after the fourth preseason game, on Thursday. In front of his locker and with his usual calm, cool disposition, second-year safety Justin Simmons reflected on what veteran safety T.J. Ward has done for him with the Broncos.
“The easier question would be, ‘What hasn’t he done?’ That’d be a shorter response,” Simmons said. “T.J. has been there for me since day one. He was the first person to text me on draft night.”
That’s what the Broncos are going to miss in Ward, who was released by the team Saturday and becomes a free agent. But they aren't going to miss Ward's play on the field as much as you’d think — or as much as the Broncos players seem think, as they continue their woe-is-me mutiny on Twitter. Yes, Vance Joseph's going to have his hands full in his first season.
But teams that last do this kind of thing too early instead of too late, when older bodies start to break down, especially those whose entire game is built around hits that punish themselves as much as they punish the opponent. Ward plays the game like a defensive fullback. Fullbacks are injured a lot. Ward just usually played through it.
At some point the Broncos were going to have to turn over some of these big-money contracts and roll with the next wave. This is that point at safety, where Simmons immediately becomes a critical part of the "No Fly Zone," and, like any smart rookie, knew the best way to make a bunch of money is to shadow the guy who’s already made a bunch of money. So he picked Ward's brain at every opportunity, just like Steve Atwater with Mike Harden before him and young Chris Harris Jr. with Champ Bailey before him.
Simmons is different than Ward in almost every way imaginable. When Ward was leading the "No Fly Zone" in its song and dance after wins, Simmons, a team captain at Boston College, is the quiet one watching it go down with a smile. The Broncos lost some bark, but they gained some bite, considering Ward's advanced age (30) and lingering hamstring. The hurdle for Simmons will be the chorus “T.J. Ward would’ve made that play” each time Simmons doesn’t make a play. It’s a rule that players always get better when they’re gone.
When he was healthy in Denver, Ward proved to be worth every penny of the stash of cash he received in a free agent haul alongside DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib. Ware was supposed to the leadership on defense that Peyton Manning was on offense (he was exactly that); Talib was supposed to be the flashy, edgy complement to Chris Harris Jr. on the other side (he’s been that and more, for better and worse); Ward was supposed to be the reckless thumper who continued the tradition of physical Broncos safeties. And no one hit harder or personified a cocky, world-class defense more than Ward, who was more ticked after a 16-3 loss to the Patriots (he truly loathes the Patriots) than he ever was happy after a win (and no one in the building crowed louder). He'll be missed in the locker room, not as much on the field. Welcome to the No Fly, Justin Simmons. Stick around for a while, will ya?