It was not difficult for even the most casual football to see that the Cleveland Browns had several problems on defense in 2020.
One of the most glaring came in the secondary, where season-ending injuries to cornerback Greedy Williams and safety Grant Delpit, along with cornerback Denzel Ward and safety Ronnie Harrison missing games during the season, left the Browns scrambling throughout the season to field an NFL-caliber unit.
General manager Andrew Berry was obviously taking notes as he made the secondary a priority this offseason. Free agency brought in a starting safety in John Johnson III and a slot cornerback in Troy Hill. The draft brought in a starting cornerback in the first round in Greg Newsome II and depth in safety Richard LeCounte III.
Which NFL teams improved their secondaries the most this offseason ⤵️https://t.co/WITO0A9Dyq— PFF Draft (@PFF_College) May 6, 2021
Those moves make it no surprise, then, that Cleveland’s secondary is considered the league’s most-improved unit by Pro Football Focus:
The Browns signed two starting members from the NFL’s top defense last season: John Johnson III and Troy Hill — to play safety and slot cornerback, respectively. Johnson wore several hats within Los Angeles’ defense, including the helmet with the green dot. He brings a well-rounded game to Cleveland and has earned PFF grades above 80.0 in three of his four NFL seasons.
Meanwhile, Hill played the largest role of his career in 2020, and it was the first time he lined up primarily in the slot. It’s difficult to call that stint inside anything other than a success. Hill’s 87.8 overall grade when lined up in the slot led all defenders during the 2020 season. It’s where he figures to slide into the Browns’ defense in 2021.
Newsome has some injury concerns, but he might be the smoothest off-ball coverage cornerback in this class with his feet and movement skills. His 2020 season at Northwestern was as good as it gets from a production standpoint. Newsome allowed 12 receptions and fewer than 100 yards into his coverage on 34 targets over six games.
The changes to the secondary not only give Joe Woods additional flexibility when he creates the weekly gameplan, but also provide the opportunity to run his preferred defense that features five or six defensive backs on most plays.
If everything works out as expected, Woods should deploy Johnson, Harrison and Delpit, along with Ward and Newsome, as his primary base defense, with Hill coming in when Woods wants that sixth defensive back. (And that is before he works in linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who earned coverage grades of 77.0 or higher the past two seasons from PFF.)
There are still some unknowns to deal with, most notably how Delpit will come back from a major injury and how quickly Newsome adapts to the NFL, but the days of tight ends and wide receivers roaming free through the Browns secondary may be coming to an end.