Cleveland Browns: Buckle Up For Safety

The Cleveland Browns have to address the safety position, and the 2017 NFL Draft is the perfect opportunity to make a significant impact.

When it comes to the offseason for the Cleveland Browns, the safety position is as big of a wild card as any on the team. The team needs to address the position but just how the front office intends to do it and what type of safeties they are targeting is not entirely clear.

In 2016, the Browns had a group of safeties with almost no experience and had the typical peaks and valleys that come with it. Unfortunately, they spent a lot more time below sea level than above it.

Some of that was caused by injury as the lone veteran, Jordan Poyer, suffered a lacerated kidney that ended his season. Poyer is a decent spot starter and better than some would ever credit, but he was never going to be a longterm answer.

Poyer has proven he can play in the slot or play as a free safety, especially as a role player in obvious passing situations coming in for a strong safety. He’s tremendous as depth, but so too is the Browns’ and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ need a playmaker at that spot.

The other issue for Poyer is his football future. He intends to continue to play football, despite protests from his family after suffering the lacerated kidney that landed him on injured reserve and an extended hospital stay. Poyer is also an unrestricted free agent and the Browns may simply opt to move on from him, whether he intends to play again or not.

This regime inherited Ibraheim Campbell, a fourth-round pick from 2015. Campbell is a deep strong safety and a good tackler, though he did not light the world on fire in his second year. Campbell is still on his rookie deal, so it’s certainly worth seeing what he can bring the team through training camp and the preseason.

This past year, the new regime drafted Derrick Kindred in the fourth round and before he broke his ankle during the bye week (an event that has yet to be explained), Kindred showed potential. Wildly inconsistent, Kindred did his best work making plays on the football in coverage, which is valuable from the strong safety position.

The biggest criticism with Kindred is also why some like him so much. He plays out of control and is always flying around. So when he’s right, he can make a big hit or impact play. When he’s wrong, it’s really wrong.

The overwhelming lack of depth at the free safety position forced the Browns to move Tracy Howard, an undrafted free agent corner, back from corner to safety. He was as awful as the move was desperate. They moved Tramon Williams there from corner and he was decent in coverage. The team released him due to his advanced age and the money attached to his contract, however.

Williams did quite a bit in his time with the Browns, especially behind the scenes with younger players. But like quarterback Josh McCown, he’s run his course for the Browns as they continue to go young.

The last safety that saw a lot of time for the Browns was Ed Reynolds, who was brought in as a free agent from the Philadelphia Eagles. Reynolds was a standout safety at Stanford where he was an All-American. He made a curious decision to declare for the NFL Draft and ended up a fifth round pick in 2014.

For the Browns, Reynolds excelled as a run defender at free safety. He took good angles and fulfilled his responsibility. His ability in pass coverage was far more suspect, which was the impetus for moving Williams back there.

Before Kindred’s injury, the Browns were often playing their safeties based on situation. Campbell and Reynolds would be in for run downs while Kindred and Williams came in sub packages and obvious passing situations.

Sep 11, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles running back Kenjon Barner (34) is tackled by Cleveland Browns free safety Derrick Kindred (30) at Lincoln Financial Field. The Eagles won 29-10. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 11, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles running back Kenjon Barner (34) is tackled by Cleveland Browns free safety Derrick Kindred (30) at Lincoln Financial Field. The Eagles won 29-10. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

It stands to reason the Browns would like to have full-time players at the safety position that never come off the field. Kindred appears to have the potential to fill one of those roles, so the Browns could roll with Kindred and Campbell, but they might want to bring in additional talent to try to bolster the position.

Meanwhile, free safety really doesn’t have a starter right now. If the Browns had to play a game tomorrow, they would have Ed Reynolds and the recently added Tyvis Powell as their two options there. Powell, an Ohio State alum, was an undrafted free agent released by the Seattle Seahawks to make room for Devin Hester for the playoffs.

Powell fits the athletic profile the Browns like in addition to possessing good size for the position. His tape was mediocre, which is why he went undrafted and only contributed on special teams in games as a member of the Seahawks.

The Browns need to add a free safety that can not only start for this team now, but can be a playmaker as well. New defensive coordinator Gregg Williams wants to get someone who can not only play the deep middle of the field, but can also be a ballhawk that will cause turnovers.

Whether by design or blind luck, the Browns are staring at a draft class with outstanding talent at the safety position, particularly free safety. From top to bottom, this draft is loaded with options that could improve the position and potentially make an instant impact. The last time a draft was this talented at safety, it was 2010—a class that included Eric Berry, Earl Thomas, T.J. Ward, Kam Chancellor and Reshad Jones.

It would be perfectly reasonable for the Browns to draft three safeties in this class. The class has the talent to support it and the Browns have the space on their roster to account for them. They might look to add both a strong safety and free safety.

Later in the draft, probably Day 3, the Browns may grab a hybrid safety that has the size fulfill linebacker roles as well as contribute special teams. Some colleges like South Carolina call this position a “spur.”

The Browns could also target a free safety that can be depth but also can cover in the slot with some size and bring some physicality coming forward. There’s a lot of different names for this position, but a common one is “star.”

At the very least, the Browns need to target a free safety and pick them pretty early in the draft. With a pair of first round picks and second round picks, if they don’t get one, it won’t be for lack of opportunities. The Browns not only need to find a playmaker at this position, but they need someone that can basically come in and start immediately.

December 31, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes safety Malik Hooker (24) celebrates after intercepting a pass against the Clemson Tigers during the first half of the the 2016 CFP semifinal at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

December 31, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes safety Malik Hooker (24) celebrates after intercepting a pass against the Clemson Tigers during the first half of the the 2016 CFP semifinal at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The most popular prospect for Browns fans is Ohio State’s Malik Hooker. Despite only having one year of experience in college, Hooker was as dangerous a ballhawk as college football had to offer in 2016. He also has tremendous size and athleticism for the position.

The problem for Hooker is that he took poor angles defending the run and never appeared terribly physical. Hooker also recently had surgery to report a labrum in his leg and a sports hernia, so he won’t be able to do any athletic testing as he recovers. And in that same vein, that will possibly limit how much of an impact he will have in his rookie year, not unlike it did for Corey Coleman last year.

The biggest issue with Hooker is he probably won’t last until the 12th pick of the draft. Hooker’s upside could have him going as high as fifth or sixth overall. The surgeries could drop him into the pick for the Browns and he is the prototype for what Williams wants as a centerfielder, which would make him a tempting target.

Bishard “Budda” Baker of Washington is far more realistic and could be in play for the top pick of the second round. Short but densely built, Baker has athletic ability, but his instincts allow him to play that much faster and give the impression he’s all over the field. He processes information quickly and often gives the impression the defense has an extra player on the field because he’s so good with his reads.

Of all the safeties in this class, Baker might be the closest one to being ready to go out of the box. It just comes down to how creative a defensive coordinator wants to be with him. He may not have the upside of Hooker or Jamal Adams of LSU, but he is a terrific football player who could be a playmaker on this defense and with his intelligence suggests he’d have no problem setting the defense.

Strong safety is a little more complicated. Unless Adams slip to 12 or the Browns pick Jabrill Peppers from Michigan or Obi Melifonwu out of Connecticut, they are probably looking for depth to compete with Kindred as opposed to a starter to come in and play right away. And even with Peppers, it’s not a given that he just moves to strong safety since that’s not what he played at Michigan and did very little in coverage.

If the Browns want to add a safety that can play the star position and has upside to be a full service free safety, they might look to Saint Francis in Pennsylvania. Lorenzo Jerome did a little bit of everything for the Red Flash defense and really thrived playing in the slot. He’s also a great athlete who should test quite well.

For a hybrid linebacker, Xavier Woods of Louisiana Tech seems to fit the bill. Woods often was one of the lone bright spots on the Bulldog defense, but his production has been outstanding for three years. His listed weight of 219 looks perfect, but he measured in just 203 at the East-West Shrine Game, which is a little concerning. He may be trying to get quicker to have a broader appeal whle the Browns will probably want someone with a little more heft in that role.

Whether it’s a product of planning or just good fortune, the Cleveland Browns are staring at what should be a special draft class when it comes to the safety position. It has the talent and they certainly have the holes to facilitate it. It’s on the front office and coaching staff to utilize it effectively to at the very least get a good free safety, but it could opt to completely transform the position group as they try to build a young, talented defense.

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