The Cleveland Browns massively overhauled their secondary this offseason, but it’s still unclear how the competition will shake out for the team’s No. 2 cornerback duties.
As of today, it appears Terrance Mitchell—who was believed to be a “depth” signing brought in by his former general manager John Dorsey—has impressed enough during training camp to lock down the position, but there are still question marks as Week 1 inches closer.
Initially T.J. Carrie had locked down the second outside cornerback spot across from rookie Denzel Ward—who has looked the part, by the way. But the door for a competition was opened after Carrie was continually getting beaten in camp.
We asked Football Outsiders’ Aaron Schatz who he believed is the best fit opposite Ward, and the result might surprise you (be sure to check out the 2018 Football Outsiders Almanac.)
“I understand that Terrance Mitchell has apparently been the clear No. 2 cornerback at training camp, but based on past performance I would start E.J. Gaines,” Schatz wrote in response to Dawgs By Nature’s query. “[T]hen use T.J. Carrie as the main nickelback.
“Carrie’s an interesting guy because he’s played a lot of safety too. They now have two guys who can theoretically play both safety and cornerback, Carrie and Damarious Randall.”
Schatz’s response was obviously before Gaines’ recent knee injury, but the sentiment is not lost. Gaines luckily dodged a major injury after it was originally believed to have been “significant,” and he is now labeled as “week-to-week,” per ClevelandBrowns.com team writer Andrew Gribble.
Previously, Mitchell struggled in his outside cornerback play when given increased snaps last season in Kansas City. While he did have some outstanding single-game performances as a starter, Mitchell finished as Pro Football Focus’ 94th-best cornerback in 2017. His 1.84 yards per cover snap allowed was also the worst among all cornerbacks in the league.
As for Gaines, Schatz pointed out that he was “second in the NFL in adjusted yards per pass last year!” PFF also recognized him as the 18th-best player at the position after struggling significantly in 2016 under Gregg Williams’ defense with the Rams. Carrie also saw a significant improvement in his rating in 2017, making him a desirable free-agent signing by Dorsey.
While the Browns’ secondary looked deeper on paper following the slew of moves Dorsey made to upgrade the speed of his secondary, PFF still predicted the Browns would draft a cornerback, and they did early by taking Ward.
It’s also worthwhile to highlight Carrie’s potential fit as a rotational safety, as Schatz pointed out. If he’s falling out of favor in the cornerback room, it might be smart for Williams to consider moving him around in his defensive backfield. That would free the team up to move Briean Boddy-Calhoun back to the group, which doesn’t seem like a bad idea given the uncertainty at the position.
Boddy-Calhoun was a playmaker for the Browns secondary last season in Williams’ scheme, and he finished with the second-best yards per cover snap rating among qualifying corners, per PFF. While he was primarily a slot defender, Boddy-Calhoun did line up on the outside over 40 percent of the time and held his own at both spots.
Mitchell could improve as young players tend to with more experience, especially when placed in a new system that better fits their play style. He may continue prove to be a better fit on the outside, and maybe once healthy again Gaines can surpass him to lock down the spot, but the Browns shouldn’t rule anything out in the coming weeks.
It’s better to have this competition decided sooner than later so that the guy they plan to start is able to settle into the role and prepare to be an every-week starter, but that hasn’t happened yet.
The Browns have given themselves options by adding multiple young and talented corners, but the concern remains that maybe they haven’t found one particular player who stands out among the rest.