Browns GM Andrew Berry knows a thing or two about the defensive backfield. He was a four-year starter at cornerback for Harvard. In fact, he made First Team All-Ivy League three times while earning his degree in economics with a master’s degree in computer science.
A quarterback in high school who played alongside his fraternal twin Adam, Berry was switched to corner in his first season at Harvard. Upon his graduation, he was considered the greatest cornerback in Harvard football history.
And now as the man who wields control over all roster decisions, he has quietly built a very good defensive unit centered around DE Myles Garrett. Berry has seen the value of alignment of the roster from top-to-bottom and has had to make some tough decisions.
Berry has also built an extraordinary secondary.
There is an old saying, “you can’t have enough good cornerbacks.” That is a true statement from a man who knows what the position entails and which players will work best in DC Joe Woods’ system.
The majority of this secondary has been built through the draft. That is a testament to choose the correct players when on the clock.
Berry did inherit Denzel Ward who just came off his second Pro Bowl season. Ward (5’-11”, 190 pounds) is the general of the cornerback room and the most talented. Taken with the fourth overall pick in the first round of the 2018 NFL draft, Ward was a consensus All-American out of Ohio State along with First Team All-Big 10. In his senior year he had just two interceptions along with 37 total tackles, but he was able to blanket the other team’s best receiver each and every game. At the Combine he ran consistently in the 4.3 range in the 40 and was tops in the vertical leap at 39”.
Ward was voted to the NFL All-Rookie Team and named to the Pro Bowl, an extraordinary feat for a first-year player. So Ward already on the roster was the main building block for Berry to assert his experience as a former corner himself.
Greedy Williams (6’-2”, 185 pounds) was a second round pick in 2019 and was another that Berry had to build on. Often injured his first two seasons, he finally was able to start nine games last year and play in 16. Last year was a gradual progression for Williams and ended the year as arguably the second best corner on the roster behind Ward.
In Berry’s first draft in 2020, he selected safety Grant Delpit out of LSU in Round 2. But his first cornerback choice occurred the following draft when he chose Greg Newsome out of Northwestern with the 26th pick in the first round. Newsome’s stats weren’t that great coming out of college, but the reason was that opposing quarterbacks just quit throwing his way and instead avoided his coverage skills.
The threesome represent a good chunk of change regarding the Browns’ salary cap. Two first round picks plus a second rounder is costly for any club. But Berry had a plan.
And part of that plan occurred in the free agency period last year when he inked Troy Hill from the Los Angeles Rams with a two-year deal worth $9 million. Hill had been in the league six seasons and had one great year: 2020. Berry was hoping that the athlete had found his groove and had finally turned the corner on talent.
In his final season with the Rams, Hill returned two of his three interceptions and a fumble for touchdowns. He also recorded 77 total tackles plus 10 pass deflections. However, the 2021 season just wasn’t up to par with Hill. He started just four games and had 49 total tackles, but was inconsistent, missed a lot of tackles, was out-of-position often and never sniffed an interception. Hill became regulated to nickel back instead of earning the slot position to which he was signed to compete and win. After a lackluster year and limited playing time for a player who wasn’t earning his contract, he was traded during the draft for a lowly fifth round pick.
That opened the door for Berry to select Martin Emerson, Jr. from Mississippi State with the Browns very first pick in this year’s draft (#68) in the third round. According to Pro Football Focus, Emerson had the second best coverage grade (89.6) for any cornerback during the past two seasons.
Emerson is also a versatile cornerback with exceptional athletic ability who excelled in the very tough SEC.
And suddenly, the Browns have a foursome that is good at the skill level, but also has a ton of versatility at Woods’ beckon call. Woods stated:
“I just feel like we have three or four good corners who can go play for us right now. Greg can play inside so that moves Greedy outside so he is really the third outside corner. But when he stepped in last year, he proved he can play at a high-level as well.”
The fact that Berry traded Hill back to the Rams has opened the door for a new slot corner. If Emerson (6’-2”, 195 pounds) can elevate his learning curve, it would not be surprising to see him man the position. He has the size to be used in press and is a good run defender.
Woods noted this about Emerson:
“When we got here for the rookie mini-camp, I was just looking over at linebackers, safeties and looking at him, and I was like, ‘Man, this guy is big. He is another guy who is about 6-2, 33-inch arms. The type of technique that we ask our guys to play, he is tailor-made for that just in terms of the press techniques and being able to match up against bigger receivers.”
Newsome (6’-0”, 192 pounds) will be the wild card in the cornerback room.
Last year, he had issues with turning his head around when the ball was in flight. There were countless situations where if he had looked for the ball, he could have had a batted ball or even several interceptions instead of large gains.
The learning curve for a youngster playing against the big boys can be very steep and frustrating. It is a process. But as a rookie Newsome was able to earn three starts and play in 12 games. Going into training camp last year it was a huge storyline of whether Greedy or Newsome would win the cornerback spot opposite Ward. That is going to occur this year as well although he would fit perfect in the slot.
Newsome noted that the slot is a good position for him on Yahoo Sports:
“I think, for me honestly, it’s a little bit easier because outside you see I’m pressed up the majority of the time. Inside I get to play off a little bit more, trust my help a little bit more. I’ve got immediate help right there, immediate help deep. So I think it’s not that big of a challenge.”
While Newsome has his eyes taking Hill’s job, Greedy will be a very important chess piece for Woods. The trick will be to keep him healthy. If Greedy can win that right corner position with Newsome in the slot, that would allow Emerson to do what rookies do best: learn and absorb. However, if Greedy is again saddled with whatever injury hits him, the end result may mandate Newsome moving to right cornerback with Emerson now thrust into the slot and learning on the fly.
The Browns have locked Ward down with a five-year $100.5 million extension with $44.5 guaranteed. The total amount is the highest-ever paid to an NFL corner.
But with more money does not mean anyone can relax and not work hard. Others expected to contribute include A.J. Green and Herb Miller.
And quality depth is essential. Already this off-season both Ward and Greedy have experienced injury issues. Ward left the field on the final practice of minicamp with medical staff. An MRI and X-ray was performed on his left foot but showed no structural damage. Greedy sprained an ankle. Both are expected to be ready for training camp.
Berry has done Browns fans proud with building a stellar secondary. The amount of time each of these players spend with each other and are able to learn their nuisances, it will increase their relationships as not only defensive backs, but as men.