Cleveland Browns: Cornerback Conondrum

No one is going to claim the Cleveland Browns have good set of corners but they also have some pieces in place that aren’t going to be replaced in the near future.

With both free agency and the NFL Draft coming up, one of the areas that has been mentioned as a possibility to upgrade for the Cleveland Browns is cornerback. They certainly can bring in additional help, but the most prudent way to do it is probably not through big ticket free agents.

The problem with that is it doesn’t take into account how much money the Browns already have invested at corner. The Browns have a ton of cap room and can afford just about whatever they want, but they already have $19.15 million committed to Joe Haden ($14.4 million) and Jamar Taylor ($4.75 million).

Taylor was just signed to his deal after he was acquired in a trade down during the 2016 NFL Draft with Miami Dolphins, who basically gave him away for nothing. Not only does Taylor fit the athletic profile of players the Browns like, but he played pretty well especially when he could focus on the slot. It stands to reason he’s in the Browns plans for the moment.

It was only one season, but Taylor looked markedly better than he had with the Dolphins, who took him in the second round in 2013. His play was as inconsistent as his playing time. Taylor set personal marks across the board for the Browns and his aggressiveness to make plays on the ball should be appealing to new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.

Meanwhile, Haden is a major source of frustration for fans. He’s being paid like a premier corner, but a combination of debilitating injuries over the past few seasons and some technical issues—most notably eye discipline—have held back his play. He hasn’t been able to live up to the promise that his Pro Bowl season suggested he could or that his contract says he should.

There’s no sense in cutting him. As much as he might not be worth the $14.4 million he’s scheduled to be paid this year, he’s a credible starting corner. Haden struggles with receivers like Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham because of their agility and quickness (almost every corner does), but he does fare better against bigger, more physical receivers.

Not only would the Browns have to eat $10.4 million to cut him or trade him, they would create yet another hole on a defense with so many. Trading him isn’t terribly realistic. First, while the Browns would eat all of his guaranteed money, his new team would have to have $11.1 million in cap space just to keep him and most teams have no interest in spending that much cap on a pretty good corners. It’s possible the two sides could negotiate a new deal, but it would be prudent for Haden to force the team to cut him and get him on the open market where he could get more money.

It also works in Haden’s favor to stay on the Browns that young players look up to him. He has effectively ingratiated himself to the city of Cleveland and Northeast Ohio in general. Haden being overpaid isn’t a problem for the Browns and how they want to operate. If the Browns are intent to move on from Haden, it would be after the 2017 season when they hopefully have the would be replacement in place.

Sep 25, 2016; Miami Gardens, FL, USA;  Cleveland Browns cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun (20) intercepts a pass and runs for a touchdown during the first half against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 25, 2016; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Cleveland Browns cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun (20) intercepts a pass and runs for a touchdown during the first half against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Briean Boddy-Calhoun was one of many players the Browns brought in over the course of the year to try to improve their roster. Calhoun was claimed off of waivers from the Jacksonville Jaguars and, while he struggled mightily at first, he fought through and got a lot better. Calhoun got a ton of game reps over the course of the season.

It remains to be seen just how much Williams will like Calhoun, but it stands to reason he’s going to get every shot to stick on the roster. Like Taylor and Haden, Calhoun attacks the football and they all tied for a team leading three interceptions.

Calhoun’s productive rookie season may be a big reason the Browns don’t deem it necessary to go for a big ticket free agent and prefer to attack the position through the draft. After all, A.J. Bouye was in a similar situation as Calhoun coming to the league, also an undrafted free agent.

The Browns brought in veteran Marcus Burley as another waiver claim, this time from the Seattle Seahawks, Due to injuries (Burley had a hamstring issue when he was added) and players like Calhoun stepping up, he became a forgotten man. He is a slot corner that is probably going to be fighting for a roster spot and might be released before training camp if it’s clear they are going in a different direction.

Lastly, the Browns also drafted Trey Caldwell, who spent most of the year on the practice squad before being called up to the active roster to ensure they had control of him for the offseason. Caldwell is another corner that thrives in the slot and will be competing there.

The first option the Browns have to improve the corner spot is free agency with A.J. Bouye of the Houston Texans and Trumaine Johnson of the Los Angeles Rams the most notable free agents. Bouye is coming off of a big year with the Texans and Gregg Williams obviously is familiar with Johnson, having coached him the past few seasons.

As mentioned before, the Browns are already committed to Taylor and Haden for $19.15 million. The Browns can easily afford to add another big contract like Bouye or Johnson, especially since Haden’s contract becomes pretty disposable in 2018.

This would Browns lock the Browns into Haden and that free agent corner. If Haden and that player are good, the move looks great, but if one or both were to struggle, it forces Williams to be true to his word about money not being a factor in who plays.

Going big in free agency could also limit what the Browns can do in the draft and this class is absolutely loaded at the corner position. Having five picks in the top 65 spots is hugely valuable, especially when looking at this corner class.

The amount of picks and the situation the Browns have at corner gives them a ton of flexibility. They could go with one of the top corners in the class at the 12th pick, such as Marshon Lattimore from Ohio State, Quincy Wilson from Florida or Tre’Davious White from LSU.

December 31, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes safety Malik Hooker (24) celebrates with cornerback Marshon Lattimore (2) after intercepting pass against the Clemson Tigers during the first half of the the 2016 CFP semifinal at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

December 31, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes safety Malik Hooker (24) celebrates with cornerback Marshon Lattimore (2) after intercepting pass against the Clemson Tigers during the first half of the the 2016 CFP semifinal at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Given the corner talent in this class, the Browns can and probably should be patient, attacking another issue with similar talent that doesn’t have the depth of talent the corner position does this year. The benefit there is they can let the younger guys compete and see who wins that starting spot across from Haden.

The focus should be on boundary corners. The slot position is certainly a starting position in the defense, but the Browns have better options there than on the outside. And there’s nothing to suggest they can’t add players with the ability to do both as they try to get their best group on the field.

The hope is the Browns will add two corners that can play the boundary. That would give them players that can compete with Calhoun and hopefully make Taylor’s only concern playing the slot. If they go with a free agent like Bouye, Calhoun and the drafted corner would provide valuable depth.

The hope is Haden will have a fully healthy season, but he’s only played 16 games once in his entire career and that was his rookie year. He’s played a total of 18 games the past two years, so it really highlights the need for capable depth.

Getting that second corner would mean that if they do move on from Haden after this season, they would have as many a couple corners with experience vying for that spot. Should they go entirely through the draft, the Browns could be picking their set of boundary corners for the foreseeable future.

The other thing the Browns might hope to get from one of the corners they pick up is in the return game. Last year, the Browns never found anyone they liked to return kicks, finally opting to sign Mario Alford late in the year with that being his only job. In the even the Browns ever have a return not called back for a penalty, they might want someone who can be a threat to flip the field back there.

Given the incredible amount of depth in this class, the best course of action for the Cleveland Browns is to address corner in the draft. It certainly could be a nice boost to add a big free agent, especially with the addition of Jamie Collins, it also moves up the schedule for the team to a certain extent. This draft class is also deep enough where the Browns could find their starting corners for years to come at a cost of pennies on the dollar, saving it for other areas on the team. Regardless of the path they choose, the Browns have a golden opportunity to really boost the corner position and they need to capitalize.

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