ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Denver Broncos have broken up the “No Fly Zone,” releasing three-time Pro Bowl strong safety T.J. Ward with a year left on his contract.

General manager John Elway said cutting the eighth-year pro was a difficult decision “after everything he’s done for our football team.”

“He was a respected teammate whose attitude and physical mindset played a big part in our success, especially during our Super Bowl run,” Elway said. “We thank T.J. for his contributions as a Bronco and wish him nothing but the best in his future.”

Ward set a nasty tone for Denver’s defense as a founding member of the “No Fly Zone” secondary that includes Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr., Darian Stewart and Bradley Roby.

Ward was due $4.5 million this year in the final season of his four-year, $22.5 million contract he signed in 2014. The Broncos will eat about $1.3 million in dead money from his prorated signing bonus.

But this decision wasn’t about money or cap space. It was about looking toward the future.

Second-year pro Justin Simmons has stood out in place of Ward, who missed most of training camp and all of the preseason with a torn hamstring. The Broncos also are high on second-year safety Will Parks and undrafted rookie Jamal Carter of Miami, who led the team with 19 tackles in the preseason.

Ward returned to practice Monday and Tuesday and word quickly got out that he was on the trading block or the chopping block this weekend when teams trim their rosters to 53 with their season openers approaching.

Teammates expressed disbelief that Elway would part with such a key leader, one who helped Denver go 37-15 and win a Super Bowl in his three seasons with the Broncos, and pleaded with him to reconsider.

“Mind blown,” linebacker Shaquil Barrett tweeted upon Ward’s release Saturday morning.

“Hate to see my brother @BossWard43 go,” tweeted defensive end Derek Wolfe . “Huge part of our success as a defense. Don’t forget this is a business first.”

“Going to miss my Dawg!” linebacker Brandon Marshall wrote on Instragram. “Irreplaceable Passion, Leadership, and just a DOG on the field!! I’ve learned a lot these past 3 seasons playing wit you. Somebody will get a STEAL !”

After Denver wrapped up a perfect preseason with a 30-2 win over Arizona on Thursday night, Von Miller said breaking up the “No Fly Zone” made no sense because the star-studded secondary was what “has made me great individually, us great as a defense and us great as an organization.”

But Miller added that he trusts the front office that has built a perennial contender.


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