The 2021 Browns were supposed to be this juggernaut on offense while the defense was given this hope and prayer label.
Except DC Joe Woods’ defense played well down the stretch. And in the thick of all this was the defensive backfield.
The cornerback position was a huge question mark. Could Denzel Ward retain his Pro Bowl stature? What about Greedy Williams, who had always been the target to man the right cornerback slot but was always injured? Then the Browns drafted Greg Newsome in the first-round of the 2021 NFL draft to go along with veteran free agent signee Troy Hill and the youngster A.J. Green.
But for the safety position? The Andrew Sendejo experiment was over. Also gone was veteran Karl Joseph and Sheldrick Redwine who was a horrible tackler and is probably looking up the phone number to one of those new spring leagues. This meant this unit would have plenty of new looks.
Brought in was veteran John Johnson III from the Los Angeles Rams to co-exist with Ronnie Harrison. Grant Delpit was finally healthy and the Browns drafted the promising Richard LeCounte to compete with M.J. Stewart and Montrel Meander.
At the conclusion of 2021, what is the prognosis?
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A most quoted adage among die-hard sports fans is that defense wins championships. No matter how productively elite an offense may be, without the consistent ability to stop competitors from scoring, those hard-earned points quickly become inadequate to win. Therefore, in the Browns doggedly relentless quest to hoist high the elusive Lombardi trophy, stealth assessment must be directed to the secondary, specifically the safeties.
Deciding who stays or who goes within a roster is often a daunting task but in Cleveland there are definitely standouts that should stick with the squad. First up is Bama man Ronnie Harrison Jr. who rolled from The Tide to be drafted to the Jaguars, then was traded two years ago to land with the Browns. Harrison skipped the formal introductions and exploded onto the scene, shocking veteran QB Philip Rivers with an interception and then flexed lightning speed legs that easily propelled him through the end zone. At 24 he’s young and he’s hungry with an obvious gift to play the box. Harrison’s strong safety skills also extend to excellent deep coverage, and he knows how to tackle effectively. This has been an area of past vulnerability with the Dawgs, so the resolution is welcomed.
Up next is M.J. Stewart. As a utility safety claimed off waivers by the Browns from Tampa, he didn’t start for the Buccaneers yet his impact within Cleveland was immediately noticeable. He was most impressive and memorable against the Steelers in a playoff wildcard game chalking up not only 10 tackles but snatching one of Big Ben Roethlisberger's darts, which instantly endeared him to Browns fans. Although he’s had some hamstring issues, he’s only 26 so he represents one more within the safety ranks possessing that young hunger.
Experience within position cannot be underestimated or undervalued and among the safeties John Johnson III checks all the boxes, big time! He’s the veteran Super Bowl starter with multi tackles experience during the biggest game in professional football. As a third-round draft pick, he cut his teeth in his rookie season with the Rams in 2017 where he snatched an interception in his first League start. Cleveland signed him in 2021 as an unrestricted free agent and the Browns were smart to make sure he is still around after this season. He’s super solid with over 11 interceptions since his rookie season and was the third highest ranking safety in 2020 with over 100 tackles. He ranked first in interceptions, second in fewest receptions allowed and third for fewest targets thrown in his direction. This one is a no brainer.
Last but certainly not least to be assessed is Grant Delpit whom I consider the “mini-gambit” here. Without question he can play and his receipts as a two-time LSU All American attests to that. Yet, as sports fans know, one of the most game-changing injuries is an Achilles tear and that’s exactly what injury Delpit encountered during training camp, no less. Just like that, after being drafted to Cleveland in the second round, his rookie season was cut short. But does he fit? Browns Defensive Coordinator Joe Woods is a veteran that is known for implementing his DB’s into his balanced “stop the run and pass” type defensive schemes. In fact, Woods employed the 4-2-5 over 67% of defensive plays and even brought in the 4-1-6 for 9%. which means (not too sound like an oversimplification) that the secondary’s consistency is vital if you’re trying to stop the ball in Cleveland. So the answer is yes, Delpit fits.
Last year, the Browns ranked 27th in pass defense. One source rated the Browns’ safeties as the worst cumulative grade in the League with a grade of 48.2. Reference must be made that injuries took a toll on the safeties as well with Delpit and Harrison both being out of commission.
Based solely on performance, if Delpit who is a young, hungry 23-year-old and the selected stud rookie can return to full pre-injury form then he fits well into the scheme of Woods. In this scenario Stewart should be released.
Drafting safeties is not my choice because Cleveland already has the pieces and those choice picks are better utilized elsewhere. The Dawgs simply face what every other team does, which is the need to stay healthy and increase unified unit productivity. With patient development Woods must create the schemes that most utilize (1) Johnson, in deep coverage and play recognition with his ability to quickly diagnose the play (2) Delpit, with his ability to play anywhere on the field and line up as a utility slot guy, or play the box and (3) Harrison with his blinding speed which will ensure that nothing gets past him.
What are the facts? When all else fails, the safeties should not. Fundamentally, one of the primary purposes for the safety position is to literally be the last line of defense when all other areas of the defense are unable to defend.
The bad news is that when weak safeties dominate a squad, the secondary is fatally flawed. The good news is that such is not the case when it comes to the Cleveland Browns.
Would you re-sign M.J. Stewart?
This poll is closed
Of course - a tackling machine
No, he is a free agent let him walk