By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
BEREA: Strong safety T.J. Ward insisted he hasn’t given any thought to the possibility that Sunday could be his last game playing for the Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium.
It could be, but not if cornerback Joe Haden has any say in the matter.
“Of course, I want him to be in the best position for him and his family and everything like that, but being a football player, you’re trying to win games,” Haden said Wednesday. “I think the best possible way is to have him as our strong safety. If I had any say, which I don’t really think I do, I would definitely want T.J. to be here with me.”
The Browns (4-9) will host the Chicago Bears (7-6) on Sunday in the final game this season at FirstEnergy Stadium and it is the last year of Ward’s rookie contract. He’s scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent March 11.
Haden expressed confidence that he’ll remain with the Browns beyond 2014, the final season of his rookie deal, though he stopped short of saying talks are underway.
“Yeah, I’m going to be all right,” Haden said. “I’m going to be straight.”
But Haden is also hoping Ward can stay with him. In 2010, ex-Browns General Manager Tom Heckert drafted Haden in the first round (seventh overall) and Ward in the second (38th overall). Haden said he’s willing to tell the organization’s new decision-makers how valuable Ward is to the defense if they ask.
“If there’s anything I can do to keep T.J. here, I’d do anything in my power for sure to keep him here because that’s not only a really good player, one of the best players on the team, it’s my best friend on the team,” Haden said.
Ward, 26, has said he wants to stay with the Browns, but he also wants the entire NFL to know what type of player he has become.
“They are going to see my best whether it’s Game 1, Game 16 or whatever,” Ward said. “Whatever game it is, whoever I’m playing for, whenever I step on that field, it’s 110 percent. That’s what you can expect from me.”
The 5-foot-10, 200-pound Ward is the second-best overall safety in the NFL behind Devin McCourty of the New England Patriots, according to ProFootballFocus.com’s rankings. Ward is often praised by the website for playing well against the run, but he argues that he’s underrated in pass coverage. Patriots two-time Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski had two catches for just 32 yards before he suffered torn knee ligaments as a result of the hit Ward put on him in the third quarter — a play Ward no longer wanted to discuss Wednesday.
“From the day I stepped on an NFL field, if you look at my numbers, the times I have been targeted and passes defended I’ve been in the top five of safeties,” Ward said. “That kind of itches me the wrong way when I get that stigma of ‘I can’t cover. I’m only a box safety.’ Numbers speak for themselves. Film speaks for itself. When I’m out there, guys aren’t catching the ball on me all over the field. It is kind of irritating when I get that stigma. When I’m out there, all I can do is prove myself as a high-level safety in this league, and I do that. I think I do that every week.”
According to PFF, Ward has allowed a passer rating of 58.9 on balls thrown into his coverage, which ranks 10th among safeties.
Haden thinks Ward’s coverage skills might be overlooked because he’s superb against the run.
“I like T.J. as the best strong safety in the league,” Haden said. “He does his job. He controls the defense. His run support is really good and his pass coverage, when he was covering Gronkowski, he was doing a good job on him.”
Quarterback Brandon Weeden practiced Wednesday for the first time since he suffered a concussion Dec. 1 against the Jacksonville Jaguars. He was limited.
Coach Rob Chudzinski said Weeden must still be cleared for game action by an independent neurologist to serve as starter Jason Campbell’s primary backup Sunday. The Browns waived Caleb Hanie on Tuesday. So their other option for a No. 2 quarterback is Alex Tanney, whom they plucked off the Dallas Cowboys’ practice squad Nov. 26.
Running back Willis McGahee didn’t practice and was sent home Wednesday after with the concussion he suffered in the fourth quarter Sunday. Chudzinski would not say whether McGahee’s season could be over, only that he was “feeling better.”
On Tuesday, the Browns signed running back Edwin Baker off the Houston Texans’ practice quad. He spent part of last season with offensive coordinator Norv Turner when he was on the San Diego Chargers’ practice squad.
Starting left guard John Greco (sprained knee) and backup offensive tackle Reid Fragel (illness) did not practice.
Jason Pinkston, who missed most of the season while recovering from a high-ankle sprain he suffered in August, will start in Greco’s place if cannot play Sunday. Pinkston rotated with starting right guard Shawn Lauvao against the Patriots before filling in for Greco, who was injured during the first snap Sunday but stayed in the game until the second quarter. It was Pinkston’s first game action this season.
“I thought [Pinkston] did a good job,” Chudzinski said. “I was impressed with him stepping in. He actually played right [guard] and left [guard] and didn’t miss a beat when he jumped over from one place to the other. He was very competitive in the game.”
In addition to Weeden, inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson (ankle) and Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas (back) were limited.
In Pro Bowl fan voting, Chris Ogbonnaya is second among fullbacks (222,495 votes), Jordan Cameron is fourth among tight ends (348,998), Thomas is third among tackles (145,141), Haden is eighth among cornerbacks (171,031) and Ward is seventh among strong safeties (60,552). Fans can vote on NFL.com until 6 p.m. Dec. 26. … Bears coach Marc Trestman told Chicago reporters he expects quarterback Jay Cutler to start Sunday, barring any setbacks after missing the past four games with a high-ankle sprain. … Trestman also said he’s “not optimistic” that Bears outside linebacker Lance Briggs (fractured shoulder) will face the Browns.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.