This is it! By the time we are finished with our three-part series on the safety position, we will have covered all 90 players on the Cleveland Browns’ roster leading up to training camp. It’s always a cathartic experience going through all 90 players, but this year I’ve been able to stick to my coverage schedule pretty well. In Part 1 of our safety preview, we look at the top candidates to start.
1. Jabrill Peppers - Starting Strong Safety
Height: 5-11 | Weight: 213 lbs | Age: 21
Experience: Rookie | College: Michigan
As of this post, Peppers is the only member of the Browns’ draft class who remains unsigned. I think he’ll be under contract by the time everyone reports to camp, but am not as certain he’ll be ready when rookies report a few days early. Either way, his contract situation should end up being a non-issue regarding what he can contribute this season.
Cleveland’s play at the safety position for at least the first half of last season was abysmal. I had never been more certain about a Browns’ offseason move — they were going to address the safety position with a prominent move in the offseason. At first, they tried to do it through free agency with Tony Jefferson, but he opted to sign for lesser money in Baltimore. Then, I got real excited about the thought of drafting Malik Hooker, but the team passed on him and gained future assets while then making the somewhat surprising selection of Peppers in the first round.
I had Peppers ranked high on my draft board due to how Gregg Williams had (successfully) used LB/S Mark Barron with the Rams, and I’m confident he’ll make it work with Peppers. When you look at Peppers’ Swiss army knife utilization at Michigan, safety was actually where he was used the least. At the NFL level, I expect him to play a lot more in the traditional strong safety role, while still maintaining a good amount of versatility.
Peppers’ strengths include his ability to make an impact against the run, whether that be pursuing ball carriers or sacrificing his body to take out would-be blockers. His athleticism also allows him to be a threat in some pass-rushing packages while also staying with tight ends and even some wide receivers. The questionable part of his game relates to his instincts and ball skills. Regarding his instincts, while the good can make for some game-changing plays, you also have to live with the bad, which can include some blown coverages off of playaction.
Final Roster Odds: 100%
2. Ed Reynolds - Competing to be Starting Free Safety
Height: 6-1 | Weight: 207 lbs | Age: 25
Experience: 3 years | College: Stanford
Long-time readers know I’ve had my fair share of being giddy about certain players, and the present one who fits that bill is Reynolds. Cleveland was well on their way to being a historically bad defense in my book, particularly due to the safety position having coverage lapses and poor tackling every single week.
When Jordan Poyer was placed on injured reserve last October, the Browns signed Reynolds. He was a sixth-round draft pick by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2014. He played in 6 games for them in 2015, finishing with 21 tackles, 1 pass defended, and 1 interception. Reynolds led the Eagles in tackles last preseason with 10, and he also had an interception. The Eagles had a crowded group at the safety position, though, with two clear starters in Rodney McCleod and Malcolm Jenkins, so he was a roster casualty.
The best word I can use to describe Reynolds’ impact is that he was stable. The long completions against safeties ceased. When running backs got to the third level and Reynolds was the last line of defense, he made the tackle. He wasn’t a game-changing safety, but a player who seemed to have instincts far superior to the rest of the players at the position. In fact, last December, Browns.com ran an article that said Reynolds gave the Browns a “calming voice” in the secondary.
“He is smart. He understands how to play the position, how to get people aligned. He has been very vocal back there, and that is what has been needed,” said Browns head coach Hue Jackson near the end of last season. “It has been a calming situation happening back there because he does a good job communicating with his other teammates. He has a chance to get people on the same page, doing the right things so that maybe we do not have the issues that way from a communication standpoint.
He also graded as the 12th best safety against the run last year by Pro Football Focus. He began this offseason as the starting free safety, and I hope it stays that way. The odds could really be in his favor — although the team could opt for the veteran Calvin Pryor to move to free safety, when I look at Peppers, Pryor, Derrick Kindred, and Ibraheim Campbell, I see players who fit strong safety better than free safety. Side note: I’m fully aware that Jason McCourty could jump from cornerback to free safety, but until that happens, I’m keeping him at cornerback.
The only reason Reynolds isn’t 100% in my roster odds is because there’s always a chance Gregg Williams sees his play and simply says, “nah, not interested.”
Final Roster Odds: 90%
3. Calvin Pryor - Competing for a Safety Spot
Height: 5-11 | Weight: 207 lbs | Age: 25
Experience: 4 years | College: Louisville
At the beginning of June, the Browns acquired Pryor from the New York Jets in exchange for ILB Demario Davis. Pryor was a first-round pick (No. 18 overall) by the Jets in 2014. He didn’t quite live up to expectations in New York, so now Cleveland will try to get out of him what they got out of CB Jamar Taylor a year ago. Also, with the Jets having drafted Jamal Adams No. 6 overall and Marcus Maye No. 39 overall — both safeties — it was clear that New York was looking to move Pryor.
Pryor is entering the final year of his contract. The move away from an inside linebacker (Davis) further indicated that Cleveland is showing personnel signs of being an every-down nickel defensive team — and when you consider Peppers’ versatility, Brent Sobleski of Bleacher Report sees how three “safeties” could be used regularly:
Browns could very well be playing a LOT of big nickel this year with Peppers, Pryor and whomever starts at FS.— Brent Sobleski (@brentsobleski) June 1, 2017
Adding Pryor is great in the sense that it further removes Cleveland from being as bad at they were at the position a year ago in terms of depth. However, there’s a reason the former first-round pick was shipped away in a move that actually saved money for Cleveland, and it stems from his inconsistency and tackling:
The Cleveland Browns have traded for former Jets first round pick, S Calvin Pryor.— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) June 1, 2017
He saw a career of ups and downs in 3 years in New York. pic.twitter.com/buwD6V4odv
There’s a chance that Pryor could simply end up being this year’s Rahim Moore — a veteran who sees some reps in camp before ending up on the chopping block. I think he’ll stick around on the roster, but will only play a part-time role on defense.
Final Roster Odds: 80%
4. Derrick Kindred - Competing for a Safety Spot
Height: 5-10 | Weight: 210 lbs | Age: 23
Experience: 2 years | College: TCU
A fourth-round pick last year, Kindred played in 12 games with 5 starts, totaling 46 tackles and 5 passes defended. His season had gotten off to a rough start, but once Ed Reynolds started playing, Kindred settled in at strong safety a lot better too — growth is important in a rookie season, and after some early missed tackles and blown coverages, he showed progress. Unfortunately, he suffered a foot injury in early December, forcing him to miss the final four games.
The additions of Jabrill Peppers and Calvin Pryor push Kindred further back on the depth chart, but it’s not impossible to think he could play a big role in the secondary this year. Cleveland will use three safeties regularly, and if Peppers is all over the place, then it could really come down to Kindred vs. Pryor. Kindred’s progress at the end of last season, coupled with him entering his second year of being a Browns-grown talent, gives him a fighting chance.
Final Roster Odds: 99%
Here are your poll questions for Part 1:
Who will be the Browns’ starting free safety?
This poll is closed
Let’s assume Jabrill Peppers has a clearly defined role, but the team also has a regular "strong safety" who essentially sees starting reps. Who would that be?
This poll is closed