In Part 1 of our training camp preview on the Cleveland Browns' safeties, we look at the two starters and the two players competing for that valuable third safety role.
1. DONTE WHITNER - STARTING STRONG SAFETY
In Donte Whitner's first year with the Browns, he led the team with 106 tackles. It's the second-highest number of tackles he's had in his career, only behind the 140 he had in his final season with the Bills in 2010.
Whitner replaced T.J. Ward at strong safety in 2014. Ward was known as a solid run defender, while Whitner was known as a better defender against the pass. When last season was all said and done, Pro Football Focus gave Whitner positive grades against both the run and the pass.
There weren't as many "big hits" or "high impact plays" from Whitner as I would have liked, but maybe some more of those will come in 2015. The Browns have Whitner under contract for three more years and he loves playing for his hometown team. His job is no where near being in jeopardy.
Final Roster Odds: 100%
2. TASHAUN GIPSON - STARTING FREE SAFETY
One of the Browns' top missions this season will be securing Tashaun Gipson to a long-term deal. Cleveland slapped a second-round tender on him this offseason, and the restricted free agent was reportedly upset that the team did not grant him a first-round tender. Whether Gipson likes it or not, the fact of the matter is that no other team came calling for Gipson to try to sign him away from the Browns. From a negotiation standpoint, that is a plus in the Browns' column.
Gipson is coming off of a breakout season in his second year as the starting free safety. In the 11 games he played, Gipson logged 6 interceptions with 158 return yards (1 for a touchdown). Those six interceptions came in his first eight games of the season, and there were a couple of more that Gipson wishes he could have had. The key is that he was positioned in the right spot and did a good job baiting opposing quarterbacks.
Gipson suffered a knee injury in Week 12 against the Falcons, causing him to miss the final five games. Thankfully, it wasn't the most serious type of knee injury, and if Cleveland had stayed in contention, there were reports that he might have been able to return for the postseason. We can only hope that Gipson being in a contract year motivates him to return even stronger, and that he doesn't take the alternative path (aka, the Peyton Hillis effect).
Final Roster Odds: 100%
3. JORDAN POYER - BACKUP SAFETY / SPECIAL TEAMER
Jordan Poyer is entering his third year with the Browns. His special teams play has been improving, but unlike a player such as Johnson Bademosi, Poyer is actually receiving an opportunity to contribute on defense.
Jim Leonhard played a lot of snaps as the third safety last year, but when Gipson went down at the end of last season, Poyer stepped in as the team's third safety and performed well. Poyer recently told the Chinook Observer how he studied Leonhard's role last year and now wants to fill that void:
"Jimmy Leonhard had basically the position that I would have played this (last) year," Poyer said. "It was his last season, and I kind of studied under his wing. The coaches wanted me to play one year in that system, and come in next year and have the role that Jimmy Leonhard played — to come in on second-and-long plays and third down situations."
Poyer received some first-team snaps while Gipson was holding out earlier this offseason, and defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil singled out Poyer as an under-the-radar guy who has impressed him:
"If you ask me just one guy in the secondary, I really think (DB Jordan) Poyer has opened my eyes to the type of player he is. He has really taken advantage of the reps that he’s been given, and he’s done a great job. His pre-snap communication has been outstanding. He’s improved in man coverage. I know he’ll tackle. He’s been a guy who has really stepped it up this offseason, and I’m excited about all those guys."
Final Roster Odds: 95%
4. IBRAHEIM CAMPBELL - BACKUP ROOKIE SAFETY
Ibraheim Campbell was the first of two picks made in the fourth round by the Browns this year. Here is what CBS Sports' Dane Bruglar said about Campbell heading into the draft:
A four-year starter, Campbell isn’t a well-known name, but he has been the Landon Collins of the Big Ten since he arrived in Evanston. He is aggressive downhill and throws his body around with the break down skills and strong hands to be a reliable wrap up tackler. While tough vs. the run, Campbell lacks an extra gear and is often a step too late in coverage, allowing too many big plays through the air. Northwestern hasn’t produced a defensive draft pick since 2010 when Campbell was a senior in high school, but he projects as a mid-round draft pick and box safety, who is ideally suited as a back-up and special teams player.
Campbell will see work at both free safety and strong safety. My original expectation was that he would be the leading candidate to replace veteran S Jim Leonhard. However, it appears that Poyer is the current favorite for that role, and Campbell will have to prove himself in training camp if he wants to be more than a special teams contributor as a rookie.
Final Roster Odds: 100%
We have one more preview to go with the final three safeties on the team! Today's poll asks which player you think will take on the "Jim Leonhard" role this year.