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PFF likes Browns rebuilt secondary

Four members of the defensive backfield land on the rankings of the best at their respective positions.

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NFL: Washington Football Team at Cleveland Browns Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Cleveland Browns general manager Andrew Berry has been swinging a heavy hammer at the team’s defense during this offseason.

Since the Browns playoff run game to an end against the Kansas City Chiefs in the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs, Berry has made additions at all levels of the defense, including:

  • Jadeveon Clowney and Takkarist McKinley at defensive end
  • Sheldon Day, Malik Jackson, Malik McDowell, Damion Square, Tommy Togai and Marvin Wilson at defensive tackle
  • Tony Fields II, Anthony Walker and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah at linebacker
  • Troy Hill and Greg Newsome at cornerback
  • John Johnson III and Richard LeCounte III at safety

All that work is an effort to give defensive coordinator Joe Woods the types of players he needs to prevent the likes of Baltimore’s Trace McSorley or Kansas City’s Chad Henne, plus a few more notable players, from converting on key third downs to help defeat the Browns.

If Pro Football Focus is to be believed, that work will pay off - especially in the secondary - as four Cleveland players landed in the site’s rankings of the top players at their respective positions.

Denzel Ward, who is one of the game’s top cornerbacks and a cornerstone of the defense, comes in at No. 8 among outside cornerbacks:

Despite being drafted in the top five back in 2018 and playing on a team generating plenty of buzz heading into the 2021 season, Ward is often overlooked as one of the NFL’s top cornerbacks. He recorded coverage grades of at least 72.0 in each of his first three seasons in the league and has allowed just 51.4% of the passes thrown into his coverage to be completed. Ward’s dominance in single coverage (96th percentile grade since 2018) has been particularly noteworthy.

Troy Hill, signed as a free agent from the Los Angeles Rams, comes in at No. 5 among slot cornerbacks:

Hill is a newcomer to the slot cornerback ranks in 2020 after spending the vast majority of his time as an outside cornerback over the first five years of his career. That move came with plenty of success for both Hill and the Rams defense last season.

Hill was the highest-graded slot cornerback in the NFL (87.8) in his 620 snaps inside. The split between his grade when lined up in the slot compared to out wide was glaring. Hill earned just a 43.9 overall grade at wide cornerback in 350 snaps. He should begin next season as the starting nickel for Cleveland, with Denzel Ward, Greedy Williams and Greg Newsome II on the outside on an improved Cleveland defense.

John Johnson III, the club’s marquee signing in free agency, is No. 3 among safeties:

Johnson has earned overall PFF and coverage grades of at least 80.0 in every healthy season he has played in the NFL, and now he gets the opportunity to show he can stay at that incredible level with a new team after his offseason move to Cleveland.

Ronnie Harrison, who came to the Browns in a midseason trade in 2020, is at No. 30 among the safeties:

Harrison’s career wasn’t stellar in Jacksonville, but the second he was traded to Cleveland, he began to look like a different player, and that was within a secondary that wasn’t loaded with quality. In 2021, Harrison should be surrounded by a dramatically improved supporting cast and able to build on the overall PFF grade of 76.6 he posted in limited snaps last year.

The Browns should be fairly confident that Harrison, Johnson, Hill and Ward will all come through as expected this season. If Grant Delpit can make it all the way back from the Achilles injury that ended his 2020 season in training camp, and the combination of Newsome cornerback Greedy Williams, who also missed all of last season with an injury, can hold down the outside cornerback position opposite Ward, then the secondary has a chance to be one of the league’s better units.

If that happens, then Browns fans could dial back the anxiety a bit when the defense is facing another third-and-long in a big spot this fall.