The Cleveland Browns claimed cornerback M.J. Stewart off of waivers on Saturday.
Stewart was originally a second-round draft selection by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 2018 NFL Draft, but was waived by the Buccaneers on Thursday after two disappointing seasons.
The 5-foot-11 and 200-pound Stewart played in 21 games and made six starts with Tampa Bay, but never found a role with the Buccaneers despite playing as an outside corner, as a slot corner and as part of the team’s nickel defense.
Therein may lie the problem.
Looking back at Stewart’s draft projections in 2018, there were some who believed that Stewart was better suited to play safety as opposed to cornerback, as NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein pointed out:
Stewart is well-built and very physical in both his coverage and his run support. He’s athletic enough to handle man coverage duties from a variety of techniques whether playing outside or inside and he has the instincts, ball skills and toughness to transition to safety if need be. Stewart can be deployed in a variety of positions in the secondary which should lend itself to early playing time for him with a starter’s role in his future.
While he did not advocate a move to safety for Stewart, Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller highlighted the holes in Stewart’s game that raise some questions about his ability to play cornerback:
Lacks ideal height (5’10⅞”) to play outside cornerback and doesn’t have the speed to run well in the slot (4.54-second 40-yard dash).
Short-area burst is average; not a twitchy guy and struggles some with hip tightness in transitions.
Will struggle to run with top receivers.
Doesn’t have the height or vertical (35 inches) to compete with taller receivers.
Having a cornerback who is too short to cover wide receivers on the outside and too slow to play in the slot seems like it would be a problem and could help explain why Stewart struggled in Tampa.
While no one is sure how the defensive side of the roster will shake out under defensive coordinator Joe Woods, the Browns only kept five cornerbacks last year on the initial 53-man roster.
If that holds true again this year, four of those five will likely be Denzel Ward, Greedy Williams, Terrance Mitchell and Kevin Johnson. As for the fifth spot, the Browns seem extremely high on undrafted free agent A.J. Green, so it seems reasonable that they would want to invest the time and effort into Green as opposed to a player who has spent two years struggling to play the position.
The safety position is a bit more unsettled and that could be the direction the Browns may go with Stewart in training camp.
Cleveland kept five safeties on the initial roster last year, and just like the cornerback position there are four players that seem to be a lock for the roster: Grant Delpit, Karl Joseph, Andrew Sendejo and Sheldrick Redwine. With little competition behind those four, Stewart could earn himself a spot at a position that might be a better fit for his skillset.
Stewart may ultimately just be a camp body, but as head coach Kevin Stefanski said this past week, with the changes to the training camp schedule the Browns are not going to bring in a player just because they can.
So while it still seems likely that Stewart is the player he showed in Tampa, how the Browns decide to work with him could be worth watching during the upcoming weeks.