The Tampa Bay Buccaneers invested heavily in the safety position during the 2017 offseason, and then suddenly shifted some of their capital just before the season began.
Tampa Bay's first move, back in March, was to re-sign Chris Conte just as free agency was beginning. Two days later, the team added former Dallas safety J.J. Wilcox as an unrestricted free agent, ostensibly to replace Bradley McDougald, a 2016 starter who departed for Seattle. Finally, in late April, the Buccaneers used their second-round draft pick on rangy Texas A&M safety Justin Evans.
Training camp came and went and incumbents Conte and Keith Tandy remained entrenched in the starting spots. Then another opportunity arose when the Denver Broncos released Pro Bowl safety T.J. Ward in what was likely a financial decision on September 2. The Buccaneers pounced, signing Ward and trading Wilcox to Pittsburgh, all of this occurring about a week before the team was originally set to play its regular-season opener in Miami.
Ward's all-star pedigree and the relatively lucrative contract the Bucs shelled out were pretty clear indications that he wasn't brought to Tampa to play special teams and otherwise ride the bench. Sure enough, with only four Buccaneer practices under his belt, Ward got into the defensive mix in what was actually the team's first game of the season, against Chicago last Sunday.
"T.J. is a good player," said Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "Chris and Keith are good players. Justin Evans is a good player. We've got to figure out ways to get all four of those guys on the field. We were able to do that a little bit last week. It went from a thin area to a deep area just like tight end, so we've got to figure it out."
All four played during a dominant defensive outing against the Bears, which became the 2017 opener when Hurricane Irma caused the Miami game to be postponed. The rotation wasn't particularly complicated; Tandy (36 snaps) and Ward (28) split the available time at strong safety while Conte (57) ceded a few of his reps to the rookie Evans (7) at free safety. They helped the Buccaneers hold Chicago off the scoreboard until the final two minutes of the game and limit a good Bears rushing attack to just 20 yards.
"Right now, I'm just playing strong safety," said Ward. "I guess we'll see week to week. Coach Smith has told me to be patient and he's got a plan. I'm just being patient."
It might be Tampa Bay's coaching staff that struggles with its patience in getting Ward onto the field after seeing him in action on Sunday. On just his second defensive snap as a Buccaneer, Ward darted between a pair of offensive linemen on the move to drop Bears running back Tarik Cohen for a three-yard loss. Ward also had one other tackle and a pass breakup in the red zone, which temporarily preserved the shutout on the first play after the two-minute warning.
Ward's first practice with the Buccaneers was on September 6. That same day, the Buccaneers learned that Irma was going to force them into a makeshift bye week and the players scattered. When they returned, Ward got in three more field sessions before the Chicago game. He looked right at home in the Bucs' defense, partially because he understood the language and partially because he is, in Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith's words, "a football junkie."
"He loves to talk about the game," said Smith. "He is a guy that has a pretty good understanding of it. His time in Denver was with Jack Del Rio and Jack's verbiage is similar, so the transition is not as slow. It's not like we're talking Chinese and he is talking Spanish. We are pretty much on the same page. We've got some little nuances that we've got to get him up to speed at. It's just going to be going out and getting reps."
A look back at all of the match-ups between the Buccaneers and the Vikings.
Ward already played nearly half of the defensive snaps in his first game, so his immersion into the defense is well under way. As Smith has noted on several occasions, the Buccaneers like to think of 16 or 17 defenders as "starters," so Ward's arrival doesn't mean the team wants to move Conte, Tandy or Evans out of the mix. But Ward is still the same high-impact safety who went to the Pro Bowl after the 2013, 2014 and 2015 seasons and was a key part of the 2015 Denver defense that led the Broncos to a title. He's going to play, especially because the Buccaneers are adamant about improving their run defense over their 2016 results.
That last bit, of course, is a reason to believe that Ward will play at least as much in Week Three at Minnesota as he did against the Bears. With their quarterback situation a little unsettled, the Vikings are likely to lean on red-hot rookie running back Dalvin Cook, who doesn't shy away from contact. That would suit Ward just fine.
"Historically, the Vikings are seen as a pretty physical team, being in the NFC North," he said. "We're definitely expecting a smash-mouth game. Depending on what quarterback plays, there will probably be a little different game plan. But, yeah, [I'm] definitely looking forward to it."
The Buccaneers just happen to start the season against two teams from the old Black-and-Blue division that like to run the football. If that makes Ward a bit more valuable in the immediate sense, so be it, but the Buccaneers expect him to be an impact player for 16 weeks.
"Well, opportunities to use T.J. – as soon as he is ready to go, we are going to use him," said Koetter. "We're going to use all of our guys. You only have 46 of them. As far as looking at a game, I found out one day earlier than you did that we were getting T.J. Ward, so I wasn't saying, 'Man, I hope we get T.J. Ward for that Vikings game.' I mean, I had no idea."
Indeed, Ward was an investment opportunity that came about rather suddenly, not like the rest of the planning the team did for the safety position in the previous eight months. It looks like it won't take long for that investment to pay dividends.