Going into the 2019 NFL season, two areas were considered the bedrock of the entire roster: the defensive line, and the defensive backfield.
At cornerback, Denzel Ward was coming off a Pro Bowl season. T.J. Carrie was supposed to man the opposite side with Terrance Mitchell as a dependable veteran and much needed depth. Then, the Browns selected LSU’s Greedy Williams in the second-round of the draft, considered by many as late first-round talent. Carrie is now a former player as he was cut February 17.
While at safety, former first-round draft pick free safety Damarious Randall (age 28) had been obtained via a trade with the Green Bay Packers to co-habitat with the winner of the Morgan Burnett/Juston Burris/Eric Murray strong safety competition.
On paper, this unit reeked of dependable service and a season of success. But, this unit overall had many issues last year with the largest glaring problem targeted squarely on the safeties.
And to make matters worse, three of Cleveland’s backfield men are about to hit free agency: Randall, Burris and Murray. All three are unrestricted free agents which means the Browns can sign them up until the March 18 free agency period begins. After that, each player is free to find a job with another club.
Out of the three veteran safeties, Randall played the most with 67.2% of snaps. He also made the most money with a salary of $1,978,932. He will expect a big contract with big money this time around, although it is doubtful that will come from the Browns. Burris and Murray have similar numbers as each played just north of 30% of snaps while the money was $741,826 for Murray and $720,000 for Burris.
If Cleveland does sign any of these players, Murray and Burris will in all likelihood be signed in the $1-1.5 million a year range - probably on one year deals. The Browns did draft Sheldrick Redwine who was selected in the fourth-round last year. He has decent ball skills, but is a below-average tackler. His cap number is just $765,102.
Regardless of who the Browns keep and who they allow to seek employment otherwise, a dependable, young, hard-hitting safety should be drafted this year. The Browns can’t replace all of their safeties with multiple draft picks, so the one they draft must be proficient and able to start at least in their second season if not as a rookie.
Here at DBN, we have taken a list of safeties we feel Cleveland should target in the draft and give you our full analysis of each player’s abilities and faults. Absent from our list are the two best safeties in this year’s class: Grant Delpit (LSU) and Xavier McKinney (Alabama). Both are projected as first-round selections yet Delpit would be a reach with the Browns’ number 10 draft slot while McKinney is more of a mid-20s pick. In order to acquire either of these fine players the club would need to find a suitable trade partner and slide down.
We have used the draft site DraftCountdown.com for our position rankings. This is an excellent site that covers the draft and has loads of information about prospects.
Feel free to leave a comment of our findings and take our poll.
Free and strong safeties (listed alphabetically)
SS Terrell Burgess – 6’, 0” 198 pounds
College: Utah (senior)
40 time: 4.59
College starts: 29
Career total tackles: 72
Career interceptions: 1
Awards: Honorable Mention All Pac 12 (2019)
DraftCountdown.com safety ranking: 6
Projected round: 4
Chris Pokorny: A rotational player in his earlier college days, Burgess became a starting strong safety this past season for Utah. He had a solid season against the run, but it was his pass coverage ability against tight ends and in press man in the slot that turned heads. According to Pro Football Focus, he had a 90.4 coverage grade for the season. Is the one season enough to go off of for Burgess, especially when he would be one of the smallest safeties in this draft class?
Matt Wood: I really liked watching Utah’s defense this season and Burgess was a reason. That defense was solid from top to bottom and he along with Julian Blackmon was a nice pairing. Burgess seemed to be the guy who seemed to come towards the LOS more than Blackmon so I wonder how he could transition to the NFL. In today’s NFL more and more defenses will attack guys who like coming downhill, so I don’t know if he is a long-term safety fix.
Barry Shuck: Not a superior athlete, but his ability to find the right zone spot is uncanny. Was named a “riser” at the Senior Bowl. Decent tackler who will come down to make a stop without any hesitation, but only started his senior year. May need to bulk up a bit to take on NFL runners. Flexibility and can play every position in the secondary. Will begin his career more as a nickel, dime or rotational player at first.
FS Ashtyn Davis – 6’, 4” 195 pounds
College: California (senior)
40 time: 4.39
College starts: 44
Career total tackles: 166
Career interceptions: 7
Awards: First-Team All Pac 12 (2018), Second-Team All Pac 12 (2019), Burlsworth Trophy finalist (best walk-on player - 2019)
DraftCountdown.com safety ranking: 3
Projected round: 2
Matt Wood: I just feel like he is a ‘meh’ kind of player. Doesn’t seem to do anything particularly well. He seems like the kind of guy who should be better than he is. Some times the light goes off and these guys blossom into good NFL players. But more often than not these guys who have physical tools seem to fizzle out. Especially at a position like safety that requires instincts. I wouldn’t be unhappy with Davis, I would just rather the Browns look elsewhere.
Barry Shuck: This is an extraordinary athlete with quite a bit to offer in his tool box. Originally a track guy who later joined the football team, his 4.39 speed is his greatest asset. 2019 Pac 12 hurdle champion. Big guy with long arms with experience in the box or in the slot. Is a very good tackler and physical. Also a kick returner. Has an issue shedding blocks especially from larger tight ends. Ended 2019 with a groin injury that may or may not be healed in time for the combine. His 40 time is off the charts for a man with his size. Very good range and just plain fast.
Chris Pokorny: Davis has great athleticism as a track-and-field star and is fit to play the deep free safety role to recognize plays and run over to make a play on them. He has also proven to be a good tackler when he is the last line of defense, which is one of my most important skills I look for in a free safety. His man coverage abilities are also respectable. His weakness relates to tackling in the box or being physical with blockers in coming up to help stop the run. One encouraging thing about Davis is that he is a willing tackler, so there is room to grow from him in that area. What is funny is that when I was looking up information on Davis, someone’s scouting report said that their NFL comparison to Davis was Damarious Randall.
FS/SS Kyle Dugger – 6’, 1” 215 pounds
College: Lenior-Rhyne (senior)
40 time: 4.46
College starts: 30
Career total tackles: 184
Career interceptions: 6
Awards: Second-Team All SAC (2017), AFCA All-American (2018), First-Team All SAC (2018), AFCA All-American (2019), First-Team All SAC (2019), Cliff Harris Award (best small school defensive player - 2019)
DraftCountdown.com safety ranking: 4
Projected round: 2-3
Barry Shuck: Talk about a player with something to prove. From a small school, he plays very big with 4.46 speed. This player jumped off the board at the Senior Bowl for his hitting abilities, physicality, and excellent ball skills. He is well-spoken and just a good kid. Can dominate receivers in space and is a force in the run game. If the Browns are looking for a guy to come in and compete from Day 1, this is that guy. Explosive and just a weapon in the run game. Versatile to play either safety position, slot corner, hybrid linebacker and is also a punt returner. Originally a late round pick, now will be taken in Round 2 and will be a Day 1 starter.
Chris Pokorny: With Dugger, we are switching to talking about a player who is more fit for the strong safety position. He is a firm tackler and a great athlete who played multiple positions in college. One concern is that he didn’t have the best instincts in diagnosing plays, but rather reacting to them after he saw where the ballcarrier was going. Some wonder whether teams will stick him at linebacker or strong safety. I tend to shy away from players who are tweeners, so that’s where the round value comes into play if I think about the Browns drafting Dugger.
Matt Wood: Small school guys worry me. Making the jump from college to the NFL is huge, add in an extra level being from a small school is even more daunting. Doesn’t mean that Dugger isn’t capable. His combine will be big in seeing how he stacks up physically against the others. I can’t say that I have seen any Lenoir-Rhyne games so this will be a complete roll of the dice for me.
FS Brandon Jones – 6’, 0” 210 pounds
College: Texas (senior)
40 time: 4.49
College starts: 32
Career total tackles: 266
Career interceptions: 3
Awards: USA Today All-American (2015), Second-Team All Big 12 (2019)
DraftCountdown.com safety ranking: 7
Projected round: 3-4
Chris Pokorny: We have another strong safety candidate in Jones. He is a good run defender in the box, has a good physicality to him, and gives strong effort. His stock lowered a bit this past season from missed tackles. As a coverage player, he is effective if he can use his length in short-area zone coverage, but shouldn’t be relied on as a man-to-man player very much. Jones might fit more as a rotational player - definitely a later round prospect.
Matt Wood: I like that Jones has been a long term fixture for the Longhorns defense. The one thing that stands out for me with him is his lack of turnover. I am a person who thinks that defense backs forcing turnovers is a skill. Guys that force turnovers at a good clip in college usually have a better chance of doing it in the NFL over guys who don’t ya know? Wasn’t a standout kind of guy when I watched Texas the past few years. I think his experience and run defense can get him a spot on a roster, but again not sure if he is a long term fit for the Browns.
Barry Shuck: Jones is a hard hitter who would come in and instantly become the nickel guy. Has great instincts on run stoppage, but with man coverage is only average and can lose his man. Impressive tackling skills with a won’t quit motor. Not great deep range coverage skills, but very skilled run support.
SS Antoine Winfield, Jr. – 5’, 10” 205 pounds
College: Minnesota (junior)
40 time: 4.52
College starts: 30
Career total tackles: 122
Career interceptions: 9
Awards: Unanimous First-Team All-American (2019), First-Team All Big 10 (2019), Big 10 Defensive Back-of-the-Year (2019), Bronko Nagurski Trophy finalist (2019)
DraftCountdown.com safety ranking: 5
Projected round: 2-4
Matt Wood: People are going to think this is some kind of homer pick with his OSU ties, but I LOVE what Winfield brings. He did so much for a Gopher team that vastly outperformed expectations, and he was a big reason for that. He was a ballhawk with his 7 INT’s and they weren’t of the fluke variety. He is the kind of guy that doesn’t seem to have the NFL body but will make plays for a team that is more concerned with the player than the measurements. I would LOVE him on the Browns.
Barry Shuck: This is a good player, but has had several foot injuries that may be of concern. Is a force when completely healthy and had a great season this past year with seven interceptions. Not an overly fast guy but is quick and a true tackler. Will attack larger players without hesitation and seems to always be around the ball. Fearless with the run support and has versatility. Better with short range coverage than the deep stuff, but is an intelligent guy whose father played in the NFL.
Chris Pokorny: Much like his dad, Antoine Winfield Jr. figures to have a good NFL career. He isn’t the fastest player at free safety, but he trusts his instincts to take a lot of gambles on jumping passes, most of which pay off to qualify him as the best playmaker in his class at the safety position. He also plays with good energy and likes to come up into the box to make an impact against the run. One of the downsides to Winfield is his injury history. He played in just 4 games in 2017 with a hamstring injury, then only played in 4 games in 2018 with a foot injury.
Chris Pokorny: The player I am most intrigued with is Winfield in the second round. I don’t anticipate Damarious Randall staying in Cleveland, so there will be a need at both safety spots. The injury history is a bit worrisome, but it’s good that he’s coming off of a full, healthy season, and if Cleveland’s cornerbacks get back to press man coverage, I like Winfield’s instincts to take some gambles and create some big plays for the defense. Pick: Winfileld
Matt Wood: In a perfect world the Browns can get Winfield in the 2nd round but I have a feeling he will be gone by the time the Browns pick. With a new GM and a new DC, it’s hard to lean on any past track record. But when you look at San Fran they had Jimmie Ward (a first round safety) and Andrew Berry was part of a front office that selected Peppers in the first round. Obviously that is super flimsy to rely on, but here we are. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the Browns go safety early on in this draft and if they leave with one of the guys above, Winfield is easily my choice. Pick: Winfield
Barry Shuck: My thoughts are the Browns should take an offensive tackle in Round 1 and then a safety in the second. This won’t be an easy selection as Davis is a fine, speedy safety who is a great tackler and at pick #41 should be sitting there and Winfield has loads of the credentials. I am just not keen on any player who cannot stay healthy. But after seeing Dugger at the Senior Bowl with my own eyes, he is a thumper and a great cover guy. Plug him in Day 1 and watch the run support and is a very good punt returner. Was named the best defensive player from every small college (over 5,000 players) regardless of position. However, he won’t last till the third-round so if they want him, the trigger must be pulled earlier than later. Pick: Dugger
Put your GM hat on. No, not your lucky fishing hat. The other one with the brown and orange. Now, draft one of these guys
This poll is closed
Terrell Burgess - Utah
Ashtyn Davis - California
Kyle Dugger - Lenior-Rhyne
Brandon Jones Texas
Antoine Winfield, Jr. Minnesota