Eric Hagg is penciled in to start at free safety.
It is no secret that the Cleveland Browns were pretty low on depth at the safety position during the 2011 NFL season. With T.J. Ward lost for half of the season, the team relied largely on Mike Adams, Usama Young, and Eric Hagg, none of whom had previous experience as full-time starters. Entering the 2012 season, safety is the only position on the team in which a starter was lost and not directly replaced by somebody in the offseason or via the draft. Let's look at the six safeties who are currently on the roster.
1. T.J. WARD - STARTING STRONG SAFETY
After an impressive rookie season in which he logged a team-high 123 tackles in 2010, Ward did not have the type of sophomore season he was hoping for. First, he admitted that his preparation for the season was not up to par due to the lockout. That was followed by a string of injuries that bothered him most of the year.
The injuries for Ward started in training camp, when he strained his hamstring and missed three exhibition games. Ward said his hamstring bothered him for the first few regular season games, but then just as it got better, he hurt his wrist. During the Texans game in Week 9, he "got stitches at halftime because a bone in his left index finger broke through the skin." Ouch. Finally, he suffered a foot injury in that same game that kept him out the rest of the season.
Ward has had more than enough time to heal from those wounds and will be ready to go when training camp begins. He has the desire to be a premiere safety in the NFL, and a few members of the media still believe he's going to mature into a star. He is a good tackler and has a reputation of delivering hard hits. I'd like to see him focus more on his skills in coverage than waiting to deliver a lick on a receiver or tight end. Do you think this will be a breakout season for Ward?
Player Quality: B
Job Security: A+
Final Roster Odds: 100%
2. ERIC HAGG - STARTING FREE SAFETY
Usually, it is tough for fans to label a seventh-round pick who had limited playing time in his rookie season as the team's starter when there is another guy on the roster who has a leg up on him in experience. Hagg lined up as the team's starting free safety during all of the offseason programs, though, so he is the favorite to replace Mike Adams.
Hagg registered 11 tackles over the final six games of the season. Nebraska defensive coordinator Carl Pelini onced called Hagg "the steal of the draft," and said that "guys like him don't come around very often." We can hype Hagg all we want, but I don't think we have seen enough of him to be comfortable with him starting. I think there is a sense of optimism about Hagg because we trust the coaching staff (i.e. surely they would not start a low-round pick at safety over a veteran unless they really like what they see). I've seen conflicting reports on his speed, ball skills, and overall abilities, so we'll have to see if Hagg can hold on to this spot throughout camp.
Job Security: D
Final Roster Odds: 100%
3. USAMA YOUNG - BACKUP SAFETY
Young had career highs last season as he started 8 games and finished with 70 tackles and 1 interception. In 2011, he was originally believed to be the favorite to start opposite Ward. He got off to a good start in training camp before suffering a hamstring injury, which allowed Adams to secure the starting role instead.
Thanks to Ward's injury, Young still had plenty of playing time in 2012. He did not seem to be much of a difference maker and had his share of struggles against the run and defending the pass. I felt he sort of found his niche late in the season when defensive coordinator Dick Jauron began sending him on surprise blitzes. Every time he came, it was perfectly timed and he disrupted the opposing team's play in the backfield. We saw Young in a rotation with Adams to begin last season, and we could see the same thing with him and Hagg to begin 2012.
Final Roster Odds: 100%
4. RAY VENTRONE - BACKUP SAFETY/SPECIAL TEAMER
Ventrone is entering his fourth year on the team, but he is known for being a coverage specialist on kickoffs or punts. He played in 14 games last season but did not see much, if any, action on defense. In fact, he did not even produce much on special teams, finishing the year with only 3 tackles.
Teams usually keep at least four safeties. Normally, you would say that Ventrone's roster spot is in jeopardy, but the two guys behind him on the depth chart have less experience. To have Ventrone as your team's No. 4 safety is a big reason why I said the team is "low on depth." Ward, Young, and Hagg all had injuries in 2011. If one of them goes down, Ventrone will be the team's top backup safety on gameday. Scary thought, isn't it? Ventrone can also double as a wide receiver, so I guess you can say he has good hands. I would not be surprised to see the Browns sign a free agent safety who can bring more experience to the table as a backup.
Final Roster Odds: 80%
5. DAVID SIMS - PRACTICE SQUAD SAFETY
Sims signed as an undrafted free agent with the New York Giants in 2011 and spent all of training camp with them. He did not make the team's final roster cuts. In November, he was signed to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 53-man roster, but was waived three days later. A few weeks later, the Browns added him to their practice squad.
Sims' size doesn't allow him to cover taller receivers very well, although he is credited as having good leaping ability. Scouting reports label him as more of a zone coverage safety who is deciptively strong for his size as he quickly steps up in the run defense to deliver jarring hits. He'll be an interesting prospect to watch since keeping five safeties isn't an out-of-the-question thought. Last year, the Browns had Ward, Young, Adams, Hagg, and Ventrone on the team.
Final Roster Odds: 50%
Practice Squad Odds: 75% (if he doesn't make the final roster)
6. JOHNSON BADEMOSI - UNDRAFTED FREE AGENT FREE SAFETY
Bademosi bolstered his stock prior to the draft by having impressive measurables, according to NFLDraftScout:
Perhaps the most intriguing was Bademosi, who was clocked at a startling 4.35 on his first 40 attempt and also demonstrated incredible explosiveness in the vertical (40") and broad jump (10'5").
One of our resident Stanford experts, Brownie's Year, didn't exactly give Bademosi the greatest vote of confidence when the team signed him, so we'll see how things unfold for the rookie. Considering the team's lack of depth at safety, Bademosi's roster odds are higher than the typical undrafted free agent's odds would be.
Final Roster Odds: 25%
Practice Squad Odds: 25%
That concludes our preview for the safeties! Up next, we'll have two or three previews for the cornerback position. The poll asks about your thoughts on the free safety position.
What are your thoughts on the free safety position? (note: T.J. Ward is the strong safety)
I'm very comfortable with Eric Hagg starting (117 votes)
Usama Young should start; I think he'd do well (17 votes)
I'm uneasy about this position and don't know what to expect (122 votes)
The front office should be fired for not bringing back Mike Adams or drafting Mark Barron (15 votes)
271 total votes