The Denver Broncos sit just three months removed from a Super Bowl 50 victory, but safety T.J. Ward still feels he and the defense have plenty to prove.
As he heads into his third year with the Broncos, the seventh-year pro said Monday the Denver defense doesn't get the respect it deserves.
But after the Broncos finished with the NFL's top-ranked overall defense in 2015, Ward isn't quite sure where the criticism is based.
"I don't know, but it really doesn't matter," Ward said. "We're going to the White House in a few weeks. But you know what, it's a new year. It's a new season. We lost a couple guys on defense and maybe they like to see us play with a chip on our shoulder. Maybe it's more entertaining that way."
That perceived disrespect can serve as motivation for the coming season, he said. And though many clubs suffer in the season following a Super Bowl victory, Ward thinks the Broncos have plenty of reason to stay hungry.
"Seems like a lot of the media is [providing motivation] for us," Ward said. "We still don't get the credit. I don't know. Just be better than last year -- that's what we want to do. Be better than last year. We were learning the defense coming in and it's so much easier coming in that second year when you already have the defensive plays and you know what you're doing. It's like right now, it's [repetitive] for us. The rookies need to hear it. We're light years ahead of where we were last year. That's a lot of confidence going into the season."
Some of the questions stem from the loss of linebacker Danny Trevathan and defensive tackle Malik Jackson, who both played significant roles for the Broncos in 2015. Yet while Ward acknowledged Denver would miss those players, he also said constant turnover defines the NFL. As the Broncos turn the corner from rookie minicamp toward OTAs, they'll need their young players and free agent pickups to continue to improve.
"They have to come in and step up," Ward said. "That's the name of the game. If they do that, we'll keep on grinding away."
"When I heard about the guys that we picked up," Ward said. "I definitely saw what type of players they were and what type of people they are. I think we've got two good guys. They're going to contribute a lot to us."
He got his chance to meet the new players when he "forgot it was rookie minicamp" and showed up to UCHealth Training Center over the weekend.
Ward will look to take his own steps forward, as well. He recorded 61 tackles, two sacks and two forced fumbles in 12 games in 2015, but he'll aim to get his hands on the ball even more in 2016. Though he did not record an interception last season, he snagged two in 2014 during his first season with the Broncos. The Oregon product has seven picks in his career.
But don't expect Ward to be hanging around his TV to see if he makes the NFL Network's Top 100 list. While he said he plans to watch "a little bit here and there," he's more concerned with the way he shows up in September.
"Guys around the league, they know what it is when we step on that field on Sunday," Ward said. "Regardless of if I'm in the Top 100 or not, I play as a Top 100 player. It is what it is."