Coming off a 1-15 season, it is pretty safe to say that the Cleveland Browns struggled in just about every phase of the game in 2016. Hope abounds for much improvement across all position groups, but perhaps the most unsettled of those as OTA’s progress is the status of the secondary, especially after the recent acquisition of Calvin Pryor from the New York Jets.
Head Coach Hue Jackson addressed the media on Tuesday and in the vaguest terms essentially said Pryor will play wherever:
“He can play either or. Again, Gregg finds ways to make sure that we put the best guys out there. I am not concerned about that. We just want to get a guy–which, we made a decision to trade a guy and add a guy to our team–and what we are going to do is get him with the rest of the guys and when it is all said and done, we are going to play the best four guys that are able to play. It is not so much, ‘If a guy is at this position, that position.” One thing about Gregg, he has a lot of flexibility in his system to be able to play guys wherever we need to play them.”
The makeup of the secondary is something of a toss-up at this point. Rookie 1st-round pick Jabrill Peppers is going to be starting, somewhere. Ourlads has him listed as a “WS”, which is fitting. His role at Michigan makes him somewhat difficult to project at the NFL level, though he is listed as a SS. Presumably, that is also Pryor’s position, but as Coach Jackson points out, that may not be the case. Would the “best four guys” be a combo of Peppers at SS and Pryor at FS? That possibility does not appear to be out of the question but also doesn’t seem likely.
Pryor was not obtained for as cheaply as he was because he’s not without issues. Coverage skills were not his strongest suit, and if you subscribe to Pro Football Focus (well, not actually subscribe - what with the exorbitant pricing, but rather buy into their methods of evaluation) then he actually got worse as his career progressed, which is definitely disconcerting for a player originally drafted eighteenth overall in the 2014 draft. That doesn’t bode well for a run at FS.
It could be that Peppers is the “fifth” DB when passing situations call for it (which again is so frequent that I consider it to be our base alignment) and Pryor plays the traditional SS role. At that point, one would think Ed Reynolds and Tyvis Powell could be candidates at FS, but there is most definitely a lack of experience a lot of questions about what they can do there.
Not to be left out of this mix is post-draft acquisition Jason McCourty, who has spent his entire career (all of it with the Tennessee Titans) playing cornerback. Presumably, he would be the starter opposite two-time pro bowler Joe Haden, who has been held out of practices due to concerns over his lingering groin injuries.
However, it was speculated back when he was signed that there may be an interest in moving him to FS. This move seems pretty worthy to consider for a couple of reasons: assuming Haden is able to stay healthy, the other CB’s on the roster are Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Jamar Taylor. While perhaps not the strongest, that’s not exactly a weak rotation. You add to this that McCourty is not as fast/agile as he once was, and thus might be able to utilize his experience playing CB and translate it to a position that does not require as much spring in the step (I’ve been thinking the same thing about Haden for a while too, quite honestly).
Seems like I’m missing something...oh yeah, his twin brother Devin McCourty plays Safety at an all-pro level for the champion New England Patriots. Typically you don’t assume familial tendencies will transfer, but the guy has been playing CB at the NFL level (quite well) for a long time. It would seem therefore that a switch to FS might come a little more natural to him than most, and at least one of his teammates reportedly thinks he can:
#Browns WR Kenny Britt said knows CB Jason McCourty very well, played with him at Rutgers and with #Titans, thinks he'd be able to play FS.— Nate Ulrich (@NateUlrichABJ) June 6, 2017
Considering what we already have at the position, I’d certainly think it’s a possibility. If we were to go down that path, and considering that Peppers, though listed as the starting SS, might not actually play that position (and be more up on the line in much the same fashion Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams used Mark Barron in Los Angeles), that may leave the door open for Pryor at SS (even though Pryor also fits that role and may rotate with Peppers in it). Would the Browns then run three Safeties? Peppers evidently thinks it could happen:
#Browns rookie Jabrill Peppers discusses the possibility of using 3 safeties at same time. pic.twitter.com/27RG83vA7g— Scott Petrak ct (@ScottPetrak) June 6, 2017
At this point, looking at who the ‘best four or five guys are’ might mean looking at a starting secondary (with the understanding that our “base” is actually a 4-2-5) of Haden, Taylor, McCourty, Pryor, and Peppers. Given the corresponding improvements made on the DL and LB groups, this really is shaping up to be a much improved unit, which shouldn’t be all that difficult considering it was the 2nd-worst in the league last year.
What do you think? How do you see the secondary battles shaping up who is your ‘best four or five guys’? Let us know in the comments section below.