In Part 1 of our training camp preview on the' cornerbacks, we look at the five players at the top of the depth chart -- a healthy mix of veterans and youth, all of whom combine to make this one of the best groups in the NFL.
1. JOE HADEN - STARTING CORNERBACK
Joe Haden is at the high point of his career as he heads into his sixth season in the NFL and with the Browns. He was voted by his peers as the No. 23 ranked player in the NFL, two spots ahead of teammate Joe Thomas (No. 25), who is a future Hall of Famer. Recently, he also led the NFL in jersey sales, a sign of his popularity in Cleveland.
Things got off to a rough start for Haden in 2014. Several weeks into the season, opposing quarterbacks had a QB rating of 155.3 when throwing at Haden, making it the worst cornerback performance in the NFL. Rather than going into a shell like former Browns cornerback Eric Wright once did, Haden built himself back up and had a stellar finish for the remaining three quarters of the season.
Haden finished last season with a career-high 73 tackles and 3 interceptions. He has nothing to prove this season, but he worked with last year's first-round pick, Justin Gilbert, this offseason in hopes that the second-year man can turn things around in 2015.
Final Roster Odds: 100%
2. TRAMON WILLIAMS - STARTING CORNERBACK
The Browns made an interesting move this offseason by, in essence, choosing not to pay home-grown Buster Skrine a new contract and instead dedicating that money toward veteran Tramon Williams.
Williams spent the first nine years of his career with the Green Bay Packers, where he was an above average player. Williams might be viewed as a better fit to play press man coverage than Skrine was, but the move could also be a sign of hope that at some point, Justin Gilbert can replace Williams in the starting lineup while Williams' veteran presence can slide down to the No. 3 or No. 4 spot.
Williams brings durability to the position -- he's played in 127 of 128 regular season games. Last season, he still graded well on his coverage ability, but his numbers were brought down because quarterbacks got him for 10 touchdowns, including the overtime touchdown that sent the Seahawks to the Super Bowl. The number of touchdowns could also be inflated a bit when you remember that opposing teams often have to throw the ball to combat the high-octane offense provided by Aaron Rodgers. Pro Football Focus views Williams as an upgrade for the Browns over Skrine, and I agree -- not by a large margin, but mostly due to the difference in size.
Final Roster Odds: 100%
3. K'WAUN WILLIAMS - NICKELBACK / SLOT CORNERBACK
K'Waun Williams' rookie season was very impressive. He was injured most of training camp, but the coaching staff must have really liked what they saw in brief spurts from the undrafted free agent, because he made the 53-man roster and quickly became the team's nickelback. Williams played 13 games, missing a couple later in the season due to concussion symptoms.
This camp, Williams will be battling with Justin Gilbert and Pierre Desir for the nickelback role. Williams should have the significant upper hand, though. He was rated a "secret superstar" by PFF for having the 6th best coverage grade in the NFL last year. Gilbert and Desir also project as outside cornerbacks in the long term. I see Williams winning the job without breaking much of a sweat, but it is a concern that he already suffered two concussions in his first year in the NFL.
Final Roster Odds: 100%
4. JUSTIN GILBERT - COMPETING FOR PLAYING TIME
Just as Johnny Manziel was a disaster as a first-round rookie for the Browns, Justin Gilbert was the defensive equivalent of a disaster, and he was actually drafted much earlier than Manziel was.
Gilbert was billed as a press-man cover corner, which fit the type of player who Mike Pettine was looking for in his defense. The assumption was that Gilbert would start over Buster Skrine, who was entering his final year under contract. Instead, Skrine won the starting job, and before long, Gilbert wasn't even seeing snaps on gameday. It has later come out that Gilbert was dealing with an undisclosed personal issue most or all of last season, and he also had maturity issues.
The Browns would love for Gilbert to not only turn the corner, but to start this season. However, when Skrine departed in free agency, instead of feeling comfortable that Gilbert was ready for the role, they felt they had to go out and spend big money on a veteran cornerback (Tramon Williams). Gilbert has admitted his faults as a rookie and has vowed to redeem himself. In an interview with Browns.com earlier this offseason, he said that he has a photo of Skrine taped up in his locker as a reminder of what having a commitment can do in terms of winning a spot on the depth chart:
"I came in and everyone was expecting me to take his spot and he didn't say a word about it," Gilbert said after Thursday’s OTA. "He just went out every day and proved himself on the practice field. That's the same thing I intend on doing."
That is the right attitude for Gilbert to have, but like Manziel, attitude isn't everything. Both players need to work on their football abilities and techniques. Gilbert spent some time with Joe Haden this offseason, so hopefully that helps a little bit. Gilbert had very good ball skills, so with S Jim Leonhard retiring this offseason, the number of snaps he had last year will be up-for-grabs for a defensive back. It'd be nice if Gilbert could be worked into some of those snaps in a worst-case scenario.
Final Roster Odds: 100%
5. PIERRE DESIR - COMPETING FOR PLAYING TIME
We knew that Pierre Desir had raw skills when the Browns made him a fourth-round pick a year ago. It wasn't until the preseason games, though, that we got to see how lost Desir really was. He was tentative when it came to tackling and couldn't cover anybody. Desir became a regular "inactive," and it was believed that he'd be red-shirted for his "freshman" season.
Injuries at the position late in the season forced Desir into action. First, he came in relief of a 30-0 blowout loss to the Bengals. Despite being throw in to the first-team defense, he looked anything but loss -- he held his own in limited action. The next week, he started against the Carolina Panthers and continued to hold his own, finishing the game with 7 tackles and 2 passes defended. It was a shock to see Desir come so far from the beginning of the season, and also a bit of a knock at fellow rookie Justin Gilbert, who didn't make the same type of progress.
Desir still faces an uphill battle heading into camp. He should have no problems making the 53-man roster, but can he be anything besides the No. 5 cornerback on gameday? His best chance at contributing would be if Gilbert continues to struggle as a defender. Either way, when Desir is your No. 5 cornerback, the depth is looking very good at cornerback heading into camp.
Final Roster Odds: 99%
Next up, we'll take a look at the other five cornerbacks on the roster. Today's poll asks about your expectations for CB Justin Gilbert this season.