BEREA: Strong safety T.J. Ward knows he could play his last game for the Browns on Sunday when they visit the Pittsburgh Steelers (7-8), but he doesn’t want that to be the case.
“I definitely want to be back,” Ward said Tuesday before practice. … “You can’t block [the contract situation] out. I spent four years here, and I’ve given a lot to this team and this city, and they’ve given a lot to me. So you can’t completely block it out, but I try to stay focused on the task and one week at a time and finish it off right.”
Ward and center Alex Mack are by far the most notable players on the Browns’ roster with expiring contracts. They’re scheduled to become unrestricted free agents at 4 p.m. March 11, and Ward said he has no idea what to expect.
The Browns (4-11) have a record of 18-45 since they drafted Ward in the second round of the 2010 draft, so why would he want to re-sign with them?
“I like my team,” Ward said. “I love my teammates. I love being in this city. I love the organization. We haven’t had many wins, but I think we’re building something here, and I think it’s being built the right way. Sometimes things don’t happen right away. It takes a little bit of time, but good things are worth the wait in a lot of cases. We’re starting to build something, and if I have the opportunity, I’d love to finish it.
“I want to play in the playoffs here. I want to bring this city a championship. I’ve been doing everything in my power to help this team win. So I definitely want to see that through.”
Mack didn’t speak to reporters Tuesday, but he has also said he wants to return to the Browns next season.
“I think he definitely wants to come back,” Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas said of Mack, a first-round pick in 2009.
Browns coach Rob Chudzinski didn’t want to discuss the future of Ward or Mack.
“Those guys have played at a high level,” Chudzinski said. “I love those guys, but we’re focused on Pittsburgh right now and in the season. All of those things, we’ll talk about when the season is over.”
Thomas said he not only wants Mack back because they’re good friends, but also because he’s vital to the team.
“He’s one of the best centers in the NFL, and if we don’t bring him back, now we have a big hole to fill at center, which is one of the most important positions on the offensive line and on the offense,” Thomas said. “The way we run it, [centers] have a tremendous amount of responsibilities as far as directing the offense and the pass protection and the run blocking, even sometimes a greater role than the quarterback in the way that the offensive line and the tight ends are blocking everything.”
ProFootballFocus.com ranks Ward fourth among all NFL safeties and Mack first among centers. Mack became an injury replacement in the Pro Bowl for the 2010 season, and Ward believes he’s worthy of being selected for the first time this year. The players selected to the Pro Bowl will be announced Friday on NFL Network and NFL.com.
“I think I had a Pro Bowl season,” said Ward, who has 121 tackles, including a team-high 94 solo and 15 for loss, to go along with two interceptions, a fumble recovery and two defensive touchdowns. “I know I had a Pro Bowl season, but up to the fans and the other players. If you get the other players’ and coaches’ respect, then that helps.”
The Browns can keep Ward or Mack off the open market by using their franchise tag to lock one of them into a one-year contract. Ward would be the more logical choice from a financial standpoint because, according to CBSSports.com, the projected cost to franchise safeties in 2014 is $8 million compared to a projected $11 million for offensive linemen – centers, guards and tackles are included in one category and not broken down by specific positions for the tags. Teams may franchise players from Feb. 17-March 3.
“If I get the tag, I get the tag,” Ward said. “That would just be one more year here. It is a sort of free agency, but you’re still with the team. So it’s like a one-year contract, and I’ve just got to continue to do the things that I’ve been doing.”
Although Ward insisted he wants to stay with the Browns and he wouldn’t mind being tagged, there’s also a part of him that’s eager to test free agency.
“It is an opportunity, an opportunity I haven’t had,” he said. “It’s exciting kind of, but who knows? I could be franchised or whatever, but right now, I’m just looking forward to Pittsburgh this week.”
Starting left guard John Greco returned to practice Tuesday after missing the last two games with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee.
Greco said it’s important for him to return for the final game instead of shutting it down for the season.
“If I was hurt and knew that I was putting myself at risk or hurting the team by not going out there healthy, I wouldn’t be playing,” he said. “But that’s the thing this week -- if I go out there and if I feel good, I’m going to play. There’s no reason for me to sit out if I’m healthy. I want to help this team win. I don’t care what our record is. But at the same time, be smart about it.”
This was Greco’s first full season as a starter in the NFL. He signed a five-year contract in July worth about $13 million as long as he starts.
“Felt good,” Greco said of his season. “Our record didn’t reflect that guys fought hard all year. We’re going to continue to fight and try to go into the offseason on a positive note.”
Running back reunion
Browns running back Edwin Baker and Steelers rookie running back Le’Veon Bell will be on opposite sidelines for the first time in the NFL on Sunday.
The two were teammates at Michigan State in 2010 and 2011.
Bell missed the first three weeks of the season with injuries but has had a breakout rookie year since, racking up seven touchdowns and more than 1,000 total yards. He hasn’t been surprised with Baker’s success in Cleveland the past two games. Baker had 25 carries for 102 yards (4.1 average) and two touchdowns.
“I’m not surprised at all,” Bell said Tuesday during a conference call. “He’s a very, very good runner. He’s explosive. And I think as a runner, that always makes a defense nervous when you have somebody with that much explosive ability, who can get to the edge real fast, who can break long runs.”
Cornerback Joe Haden (hip pointer), guard Jason Pinkston (concussion), nose tackle Phil Taylor (concussion), tight end Jordan Cameron (concussion), tight end Andre Smith (strained calf), outside linebacker Paul Kruger (flu), defensive end John Hughes (sprained knee) and guard Shawn Lauvao (contusion) sat out practice Tuesday.
The Browns will be off for Christmas on Wednesday and return to practice Thursday. … Chudzinski declined to answer whether he has any doubt that wide receiver Davone Bess will play for the Browns again. “I’m not going to get into any of the situation or any speculation regarding anything,” Chudzinski said. Bess was placed on the reserve/non-football illness list Saturday for personal reasons because he’s dealing with a family issue, Chudzinski said. … Chudzinski said wide receiver Brian Tyms received playing time Sunday because the coaching staff planned to give him an opportunity, not because Greg Little dropped a pass in the end zone.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.