Cleveland Browns: Loaded safety class can help improve the secondary

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The Cleveland Browns must improve their secondary in 2017, and there are plenty of safeties in the 2017 NFL Draft who could help the cause.

The 2017 draft class offers a deep crop of safety prospects that can make an immediate impact at the next level. The Cleveland Browns have a need at both the free safety and strong safety spot.

The free safety position is known as the last line of defense in the secondary and his main responsibility is letting no receiver get deeper than him, and to play aggressively against the pass. Defenses covet a ball-hawking playmaker at this spot that can create and force turnovers in a hurry. The free safety will also be required to fill on run plays.

The strong safety is responsible for more in the run game. Simply put, in today’s NFL the strong safety is a faster version of a linebacker. They are asked to bring a strong physical presence against the run. In the pass game they are required to cover faster tight ends and running backs that cause mismatch problems for linebackers.

The best duo in the league is Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor of the Seattle Seahawks. Both players complement each other perfectly as Thomas has free range in the secondary to read the quarterback and break on passes where as Chancellor is assigned to more specific coverages and is asked to be an additional linebacker against the run.

The Browns secondary lacks playmakers that are capable of changing the outcome of a game. All season long the Browns defense struggled containing opposing teams running backs and tight ends in the passing game. In addition, the Browns safeties had zero combined interceptions. To become a more dynamic defense the Browns must look to the 2017 Draft to add a new dimension to the defense.

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For the Browns to take pressure off their front seven the team must get help in the secondary. Currently on the roster at safety the Browns have a group of young, developing players.

Free Safety

  • Jordan Poyer– Poyer entered the 2016 season as the team’s starting free safety. However, he lacerated his kidney against Tennessee in Week 6 and missed the rest of the season. The 25-year-old Poyer has been a member of the Browns since 2013 where he primarily served on special teams and as a backup. Poyer received his first starting opportunity in the 2015 season and won the starting safety job in the offseason for the 2016 season. Poyer has provided depth and solid special teams play in his tenure with the Browns. But with the uncertainty with his latest injury the Browns need to look for playmaker at the position, while Poyer will provide solid depth.
  • Ed Reynolds– Reynolds was a 5th round draft choice out of Stanford selected by the Philadelphia Eagles. He was signed to the Browns practice squad in early September after failing to make the Eagles 53-man roster. After Poyer’s injury, Reynolds was activated to the Browns roster and started seven of the Browns’ final ten games. Coming into the Browns defensive system late, Reynolds did a solid job of filling in the second half of the season. He stabilized the struggling secondary and made a handful of plays down the stretch. Reynolds flashed the ability to fight for a backup role in 2017 with a full offseason with the team.

Strong Safety

  • Ibraheim Campbell– Campbell was selected by the Browns in the 4th round in 2015 out of Northwestern. He played special teams and received some playing time in his rookie year in 2015. This past year in 2016 Campbell was named a starter entering the season. Campbell had an inconsistent season in which some weeks he would play exceptionally more than other weeks. He often missed tackles and was caught out of position in the pass game. Campbell is still a young player going into his third professional season, but he must take the next step to be someone the defense can count on.
  • Derrick Kindred– Kindred, a rookie in 2016, was selected by the Browns out of TCU in the 4th round. Kindred worked his way into Ray Horton‘s safety rotation and flashed the ability to be a physical presence against the run. Kindred was putting together a solid season before suffering an injury during the Browns’ bye week forcing him to miss the rest of the season. With an offseason of development, Kindred could push for the starting strong safety position with his tough and physical style of play.

Additionally, veteran cornerback Tramon Williams and rookie Tracy Howard saw playing time at safety this season. I expect both return to corner in 2017 if the team adds new players at safety.

Here are some players the Browns should look to add at the safety position through the draft.

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First Round Prospects

1. Malik Hooker, Free Safety, Ohio State

The Ohio State safety announced his decision to leave school early for the draft earlier this week. Hooker had a fantastic sophomore year for the Buckeyes, recording seven interceptions to lead the team, which also was good enough for third in the nation in total interceptions.

Hooker has received praise from scouts and draft analysts drawing comparisons to the great Ed Reed. Former NFL scout and current draft analyst for NFL Network Daniel Jeremiah supported the praise given to Hooker.

What makes Hooker great is his elite ball skills to track passes like a center fielder. Hooker displayed his range and natural playmaking ability on his interception off of Deshaun Watson in the playoff game on New Year’s Eve.

Hooker possess a rare blend of speed, instincts, and ball skills to quickly make him a top playmaking safety at the next level. Hooker is already in the top 10 on many draft analysts big boards and will certainly be a target for the Browns at No. 12 overall if they want to add an interception machine to the back-end of the secondary.

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2. Jamal Adams, Strong Safety, LSU

Adams is another elite player regarded as another top-10 prospect. Adams is a different type of Hooker however. Hooker is known as a ball-hawking playmaker, where Adams does a bit of everything.

Adams is an elite athlete and took on a lot of responsibilities within the LSU defense. His strength comes in his versatility.

Adams has elite ability to fly all over the field and make tackles. He is a proven run stopper who has great instincts against the run. In the pass game, Adams has shown rare ability to not only cover running backs and tight ends but receivers as well. LSU lined Adams up in the slot and was asked to cover faster receivers from the slot.

The versatility of Adams will give an NFL team one of the safest prospects in the draft. Adams might not produce the interception totals of Malik Hooker but that won’t be his job.

Adams will give an NFL team strong support against the run and solid coverage against any position in the pass game. Few safeties have the motor to fly around the field like Adams and he has drawn lofty comparisons because of this. Bleacher Report’s lead draft writer Matt Miller compared the LSU prospect to one of the most complete safeties the game has seen.

In my view, Adams is a do-it-all prospect. Although the term “ballhawk” won’t be given to him as he only recorded one interception this season, Adams has the athletic ability to do whatever is asked of him at the next level.

Adams has few weaknesses and will be able to give an NFL franchise a safety that can play near the line of scrimmage or drop back and cover multiple positions against the pass. The versatility of Adams will be appealing to the Browns with the No. 12 overall pick. The decision between Hooker and Adams will likely come down to preference of what skill set they covet out of their safeties.

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3. Jabrill Peppers- Strong Safety/Outside Backer, Michigan

Peppers has received a lot of media hype and it has confused fans to what type of player Peppers is. The Heisman finalist is in no doubt a first-round prospect but people don’t realize Peppers’ strengths and weaknesses.

Peppers was asked to be a “jack of all trades” player at Michigan. In the NFL he projects best at a strong safety position, as he is too small to play linebacker. Peppers is still raw a prospect because Michigan heavily used him as a linebacker. He has undeniable athletic ability which NFL teams will covet, but teams will need to acclimate him to the position as to see if he’s a better fit at safety or outside linebacker.

Peppers could be a target for the Browns with the No. 12 pick. However, Hooker and Adams are more pro-ready prospects and will be able to contribute right away. It is unknown how Peppers will be able to transition to an NFL safety position based on how Michigan used him. There is no question Peppers’ athletic ability alone makes him a top prospect. But for the Browns’ sake, the team should look for more seasoned prospects instead of taking a player that may need a year or two of development.

In my view, I can see Peppers being used at the next level similar to how Shaq Thompson is used with the Panthers and how Deone Bucannon is used with the Cardinals. Both players are hybrid players in the fact they were college safeties and have transitioned to hybrid players at the next level. The Cardinals use Bucannon in a role they call the “money backer”. This term used by the Cardinals means Bucannon plays in the box as a linebacker but in given situations plays more like a traditional safety. Peppers can develop into a similar role as he has the athletic ability to line up in multiple spots.

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Second Round Prospects

1. Budda Baker- Free Safety, Washington

Baker is a consensus first-team All-American after leading the Huskies in tackles this season with 71. He is slightly undersized, but Baker has shown elite coverage skills and speed that make up for his lean frame.

With his speed, Baker has the range to cover the entire field and quickly locate the ball. He has the ability to be a solid open field tackler and plays bigger than his actual size. Baker is easily a top-40 talent in the 2017 draft class. However, the only knock on him is his size, which could prevent him from being drafted in the first round.

Despite his size, his speed, range and playmaking ability have made scouts and experts fall in love with his play. Baker has drawn comparisons to other smaller defensive backs in the NFL. NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah gave Baker a solid comparison.

If the Browns decide to go in another direction in the first round and elect not to draft a safety, Baker will be a top option for them in round two. Baker has elite skills coveted for the safety position and will be an immediate starter. Baker plays bigger than his given size and has shown his size doesn’t cause any noticeable limitations to his game. Baker would make a great value pick for the Browns if he is on the board come round two. Simply put, Baker has first-round traits and will likely be a second-round pick.

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2. Marcus Williams, Free Safety, Utah

Like Budda Baker, Williams is slightly undersized for the position at 6-feet tall, 195 pounds. Williams has solid cover skills and instincts to transition easily to the next level. He recorded five interceptions this season and with solid testing at the combine will continue to climb up draft boards.

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3. Eddie Jackson, Strong Safety, Alabama

Jackson suffered a fractured leg on October 22 vs. Texas A&M and has been sidelined the rest of the season. If it wasn’t for his injury, Jackson would be in the first-round conversation. In his time at Alabama, Jackson showed elite instincts coming up against the run and showed the ability to play in coverage. If his medical issues check out, Jackson would be another great value pick in the second or third round with the ceiling of a first round player.

Shane Alexander from Inside the Pylon remains high on Jackson’s potential,

Since the Browns have parted ways with safeties of the past such as Tashaun Gipson, Donte Whitner and T.J. Ward, the team has failed to add adequate replacements. The safety class contains top prospects projected to go in the first and second round giving the Browns many options on draft day.

Whichever way the Browns shape their draft board it is almost certain these safety prospects will be targeted on their draft board. It will be a main priority for the Browns to draft at least one of these prospects if not two, to rebuild the secondary giving support to their developing front seven.

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