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Huge questions: Filling out the safety position

Is the position fixed, needs help, or just in limbo?

Cleveland Browns v Jacksonville Jaguars
Ronnie Harrison
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

What is going on with the safety position going forward? Does anyone know?

Players have been brought in by the truckload in recent years to fill the position, but yet, here we are still without any resolution. The last steady player at this position was Jabrill Peppers, but he was shipped out years ago.

The safety position should ultimately become the most riveting conversation to watch this entire off-season. Everyone assumes all the pieces are actually there, carefully handled and ready to be assembled, dusted off, glued together and finally use a pipe clamp to cement it all together, let it cure and then see what you have as a finished product.

But yet, it is currently the most questionable position on the Browns.

Let’s see what Cleveland has, where the trouble spots are, what to do with what they currently have, what can be done and perhaps who can be brought in to help if our findings just don’t add up to something tangible and competent as a unit.

Depth chart

Before we dive into who is already on the roster, let’s take a glance at how the current roster was formulated from last season.

In training camp of 2020, the projected starters were the two seasoned veterans GM Andrew Berry signed in free agency: Karl Joseph from the Oakland Raiders and former Minnesota Viking Andrew Sendejo.

Cleveland Browns v Baltimore Ravens
Karl Joseph
Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Joseph was a first-round pick of the Raiders in 2016 were he started 49 games during his tenure in Oakland and had 236 tackles, three sacks and four interceptions. In the end, the Raiders declined his fifth-year option and when the 2019 season was concluded, he was allowed to sign elsewhere. The Browns inked him to a one-year deal for $2.5 million.

Sendejo was with head coach Kevin Stefanski in Minnesota, so there was some commonality there despite one being offense and the other defense. Sendejo came to the Browns as a 10-year veteran, but had played for four NFL clubs plus the Sacramento Mountain Lions of the UFL in 2010. Sendejo had a similar contract worth $2.25 million on a one-year deal.

The signing of both of these players signified that experienced guys were now on the team to help solidify a very porous group. Each player was announced during the free agent period, and then suddenly everyone assumed with two experienced veterans that the position was crossed off the problem area checklist.

Joseph was known for his hard tackling with swagger. Sendejo was identified as being flexible who could play nickel, either safety position or even outside corner, plus his 10-years in the league was viewed as a huge plus.

Other safeties in camp were second-round draft pick Grant Delpit out of LSU, two undrafted rookies with Liberty’s Elijah Benton and Jovante Moffatt from Middle Tennessee, and veterans J.T. Hassell and Sheldrick Redwine. Hassell was a last day cut, Benton was signed to the practice squad (and recently inked a reserve/futures contract), Moffatt was also assigned to the practice squad but was later placed on the active roster in late September where he remained. Delpit was having a good camp and showed promise.

Then, tragedy struck. Delpit became injured with a torn Achilles and was subsequently placed on season-ending IR.

The big plan was to start the veterans while the young second-rounder learned the pro game and eventually took over. Joseph and Sendejo knew they were signed as tutors/starters who would be replaced at some point.

And that is how 2020 began. Joseph and Sendejo as starters with Redwine as the only healthy backup.

Cleveland Browns Training Camp
Grant Delpit
Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

When Delpit went down, Berry made a trade with Jacksonville for veteran Ronnie Harrison for a fifth-round pick. Jacksonville was dumping some of their starters and Harrison was considered a plum for the Browns’ secondary. When he was drafted out of Alabama in 2018, Harrison was considered the second-best strong safety prospect in the entire draft.

And away the 2020 season went

Joseph and Sendejo were the main guys with Redwine and Harrison their backups. Harrison, at 6’-3”, 214 pounds, was the biggest and had more tackles the previous season of 2019 (71) than any of the other safeties on the roster. In Game 5 against the Indianapolis Colts, Harrison got his first start for the Browns and had a 47-yard pick six.

From that point on, Harrison had found his new home. Cleveland was using a lot of 4-2-5 formations so Sendejo, Joseph and Harrison were on the field together for much of the season. Redwine found spot duty and finished the year with just 27 tackles, one interception and three pass defenses.

Harrison did injure his shoulder towards the end of the year and was placed on IR and missed four games.

Suddenly, the air went out of the defensive backfield with Harrison gone. He impacted that part of the field and made big plays. Without his presence, the Browns depended on Joseph more and had to work through a new plan for safety. Then Sendejo tested positive for COVID-19 and missed the finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Browns were looking at the prospect of starting Redwine who at the time was ranked 85th out of 91 safeties. In addition, Cleveland added Tedric Thompson, who had yet to take the field after being claimed off waivers on November 30.

At season’s end, Harrison graded out at 74.7 on Pro Football Focus, while Sendejo graded 42.6, Joseph received a 53.3 grade, and Redwine finished at 45.3. Moffatt and Thompson did not have enough snaps to garner a grade.

Who is leaving this group? And who are the best choices to replace them?

The free agent list for the Browns: Unrestricted Free Agents (UFA) are Sendejo, Joseph and Thompson.

It is very doubtful the Browns will attempt to re-sign Thompson and Sendejo. Joseph could see another contract as a seasoned veteran. He is only 27-years old and can still hit. This year was his lowest graded year in that traditionally he had previously graded out at 75.5, 80.8 and 74.5 so the talent is there. He plays aggressive, is good in run support but is inconsistent and has had injury issues. Joseph would need to alleviate some deeper coverage lapses as well. If he returns, expect DC Joe Woods to feature Joseph mostly in the box to maximize him and help improve the Browns’ defensive effectiveness on early downs.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns
Ronnie Harrison #33
Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

All signs point to Harrison teaming up with Delpit to solidify the safety position. If these two are Day 1 starters, they will need backups.

Redwine is still under contract and has coverage skills, but can’t tackle his grandma. He hand grabs his opponent and tries to hang on until help arrives - which can be a liability after the catch is made. He had 275 defensive snaps and 179 special teams snaps, so Woods wants to use him.

And perhaps Delpit won’t be ready for the season opener. After all, this year will be like it is his rookie season. If not, a veteran presence will be necessary.

Do the Browns need more of a veteran presence?

The key going forward in regards to the safety position is Delpit.

After his injury, will he be ready for training camp? And even if he is ready, it does not mean he is a very good player. Delpit was a second-round choice which means he was a very good college player.

Who knows how that will equate to the professional level. As a Browns’ fan, you assume he is the heir-apparent, but until he gets into game situations at the NFL level, we aren’t really sure what type of player he is. He was drafted as an athlete who was versatile and perhaps the slot will become his domain. The hope for fans and the coaching staff is obviously that Delpit can fully recover and be a starter in the defensive backfield.

So to cover their bases, perhaps Berry should sign a veteran safety. Make that, a very good veteran safety.

The top three free agent safeties out there this year are Justin Simmons from the Denver Broncos, the Vikings’ Anthony Harris and Marcus Williams of the New Orleans Saints.

Last year, Harris (6’-1”, 202 pounds) was the Number 1 safety candidate in free agency. The Vikings slapped the franchise tag on him and kept his services another season and is quite possible they could do the same thing this year as well. But for now, he is listed as a free agent and able to field offers. If available, the Browns should jump all over Harris and pay the man whatever he wants. He was paid $11.44 million last year. Expect to see him sign for five years and between $14-$16 million a year.

Denver Broncos v Los Angeles Chargers
Justin Simmons
Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

In the last few seasons, Simmons hasn’t gotten his share of accolades. A former third-round pick of the Broncos, he was named Second Team All-Pro in 2019 and this past season made the Pro Bowl. He is an excellent tackler and has 97, 93 and 96 total tackles in each of the past three seasons. He also has 16 interceptions in his five years in Denver.

Simmons (6’-2”, 202 pounds) is not a huge blitzer, so don’t expect huge numbers there. But he is an exceptional run support guy who doesn’t have any issues coming down into the play in an attempt to make the tackle. He has started 64 of 74 games and is very durable.

In 2019, Pro Football Focus ranked Simmons the Number 1 safety with a stellar 90.8 grade and was a nominee for the Walter Payton Man-of-the-Year Award. This past season the Broncos placed the franchise tag on him with a salary of $11.441 million. This year his grade was 77.4. Simmons will most likely be signed in the neighborhood of $15-$16 million a year.

Williams (6’-1”, 195 pounds) does not have quite the pedigree as Simmons and Harris, but is a very talented player and would help the Browns tremendously.

The Saints selected him in the second-round of the 2017 NFL draft and was promptly named to the PFWA All-Rookie Team. He is solid with run defense and ranks in the 90th percentage of forced interceptions in the league. Williams is famous for his whiff in the playoff game against the Vikings a few years back despite being a good player.

This past year he had 59 total tackles, seven pass defenses and three picks. Expect his contract to be somewhere around $14 million a season.

If Berry wanted to bring in an experienced safety but without the hefty price tag, two players to consider would be Keanu Neal of the Atlanta Falcons and Jaquiski Tartt of the 49ers.

Atlanta Falcons v Carolina Panthers
Keanu Neal #22
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Neal is a traditional SS who has good range, is versatile and a good hitter. He has some injuries, though. Could be signed in the $5-$6 million a year range.

Tartt is also versatile and is a solid player with injuries of his own. He is a playmaker with a high floor in coverage. Would provide depth and run support in three safety sets. Will sign for around $4-$5 million a season.

Young depth

Currently, the only safety help under contract with depth is Redwine and Moffatt. And take their experience as you will, but there isn’t any young depth on the roster that can prove they can handle a larger role. This position must add some speed.

The upcoming NFL draft could change that.

If the Browns decide that another infusion of youth is warranted, here is a list of prospects in each round:

Round 2: pick #59

Talanoa Hufanga - USC: 40 time 4.6

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 14 Clemson at Syracuse
Andre Cisco #7
Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Round 3: picks #89 & #91

Joshuah Bledsoe - Missouri: 40 time 4.52

Andre Cisco - Syracuse: 40 time 4.33

Round 4: picks #107 & #129

Richard LeCounte - Georgia: 40 time 4.6

Tariq Thompson – San Diego State: 40 time 4.6

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 01 Texas v Maryland
Caden Sterns #7
Photo by Daniel Kucin Jr./Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Round 5: pick #166

Caden Sterns - Texas: 40 time 4.54

Round 6: pick #205

Shemar Jean-Charles – Appalachian State: 40 time 4.58

Round 7: pick #251

Qwynterrio Cole – Alcorn State: 40 time 4.6

New season, new faces, new solutions

The ideal situation would be for Harrison and Delpit to come out of training camp as the starters. In the meanwhile, Berry could sign an experienced veteran free agent to compete whether that is bringing Joseph back or signing another player. This would allow Joe Woods some insurance in the event that Delpit isn’t ready, or has some competition issues and will need some time to season and learn.

Perhaps Berry will draft a young guy in Round 3 or below. Most clubs will keep six cornerbacks but only four safeties; so let the new draftee compete with Redwine for the last safety spot.

And away the 2021 season goes.