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Training camp: Safety play will have to step up

Critical portion of the defensive backfield

Cleveland Browns v Baltimore Ravens
John Johnson
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Browns defense has really improved the past two seasons. In certain areas, that is.

The safety position has been one of those plus-or-minus areas. Depends on who you ask, this group is either solid or repeatedly out-of-position.

And the safety group has been a source of contention ever since Jabrill Peppers was shipped off to the New York Football Giants in the Odell Beckham trade.

A huge benefit is that Johnson is an established leader and play-caller for a club that went to the Super Bowl. He is a smart guy, still young at age 25, is effective against the run and graded out very strong in every category with PFF. He is an elite coverage safety.

Three safeties that are young, coverage smart, strong and fast.

At the safety position, there are quite a few questions that maybe had answers - and then maybe didn’t.

NFL: JAN 03 Browns at Steelers
Grant Delpit (22) is helped off the field after being injured
Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Ronnie Harrison has proven to be an exceptional deep cover guy at the strong safety position who is a terrific tackler. At free safety, that is where things were a bit fuzzy. Delpit was coming off a ruptured Achilles injury from training camp a year ago, which basically was his rookie campaign in 2021.

And now, supposedly Delpit is ready to compete for a starting position. There was some clarity as to what type of player he actually is because of his high draft status. Last year was his learning curve.

The Browns are counting on Ronnie Harrison’s continued progression as a key cog to the defensive backfield. But he missed five games last year with various injuries.

Grant Delpit is the Wild Card in this unit. If he can pick up where he left off and become the ace in the hole for Woods’ defense, coupled with the presence of Johnson, this unit could arguably become one of the club’s best units.

Last season, the Browns ranked 27th in pass defense. PFF rated the Browns’ safeties as the worst cumulative grade in the league with a grade of 48.2. Cleveland is tasked now with turning a weakness into a team strength.

John Johnson, III (6’-1”, 208 pounds)

One thing to know about Johnson: he is the most fiery, competitive, driven player on this defense. Okay, that’s three things. Oh yeh, and the undisputed leader of this group.

In 2017 the Rams were devoid of a first-round pick but had two third-round choices. After taking WR Cooper Cupp, they selected Johnson 91st overall. They liked what they saw on tape and what they heard from his college coaches. By Week 5, he was the starter. He had 119 total tackles his second year and 105 in 2020.

Free safety Johnson is known for being an excellent tackler and is a force in the run stoppage game who rarely over-pursues. He matches well against tight ends.

The buzz surrounding the Browns signing Johnson in free agency last year generated numerous high marks. GM Andrew Berry inked him to a three-year deal for $33.75 million with $29 million guaranteed and a signing bonus of $6.75 million.

With his first year in Cleveland, his steady play enabled 61 tackles, five pass defenses, one tackle for loss, a half sack and three picks.

The sixth-year veteran experienced pandemic conditions his first year in Cleveland and is optimistic about the Browns defense this year. Last year, the defense finished fifth in total defense and held their opposition to 20 or fewer points in their final 11 games. This period also netted 15 turnovers and finished strong.

Johnson is currently in his second year of his contract and will have a cap hit of $7.750 million which is not in character with how analytics work regarding what to pay the safety position.

This year the cornerback room is one of the league’s best which will only help the safeties do their job. Johnson is one of the most fit players on the roster and the defensive quarterback in the deep portion of this defense. The continuity is another plus in that the entire defensive backfield will have very few new faces this year.

Grant Delpit (6’-3”, 208 pounds)

As of now, Delpit is listed as the other starting safeties slated to man the strong safety. But by saying he is the starter is not necessarily accurate because DC Joe Woods plays a lot of 4-2-5 formations, and one of those linebackers has been another safety inserted. This means three safeties can begin each game.

Delpit was taken in the second round of the 2020 NFL draft for a reason. He is a good coverage safety The former Jim Thorpe Award winner has had a rocky start with the Browns. He suffered an Achilles tendon tear during his rookie training camp that set his development back one year.

NFL: OCT 31 Steelers at Browns
Can Delpit minimize the missed tackles?
Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

And when he finally was able to see the field last year he had some missed tackle issues. Despite the learning curve, Delpit has the length to disrupt receiver routes which helps to eliminate routes. He has a natural athletic presence and is loaded with speed as evidenced by his time of 4.39 in the 40.

He sees the field well and possesses great instincts. In his first year healthy, Delpit had 66 total tackles, three tackles for loss, one interception, three pass defenses, one sack, one forced fumble, and a QB hit with seven starts.

What improved most with Delpit from training camp to the end of the season was the efficiency of his movement with learning how to not waste steps. Plus, he looked a lot more comfortable as the season rolled along.

Now he has momentum to carry him into his third NFL year but second actual playing season. His salary is team-friendly in that his cap hit is $2.036 million. Can he put out Pro Bowl numbers this year? Let’s just get through the season first.

Ronnie Harrison (6’-3”, 214 pounds)

Harrison can lay the wood for certain. His coverage skills are what has come into question last year. He definitely has the speed (4.63) and can close quickly.

The fact that he is playing on a one-year deal can be good for his performance this year. His cap hit is $1.206 million which fits within analytics. There was speculation that the club would allow him to walk during the free agency period and simply move on.

Philadelphia Eagles v Cleveland Browns
Leaving areas open has been an issue for Harrison
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Harrison has been pretty durable although an ankle injury plus a shoulder issue has allowed him to miss games the past two seasons. Oh, and pushing an opposing coach that ejected him from the Kansas City game last year.

His numbers took a nose dive last year as well. In 2020, Harrison had 71 total tackles whereas last year his numbers dipped to just 38. A year ago his position was set in stone whereas now his future has a lot of questions. And after a full season he was expected to gel with his teammates and gain momentum but struggled to be effective on a consistent basis.

Harrison seems to strive as an extra linebacker in the box which allows him to use his speed to help out the run game. When he lines up as a single-high safety is where he gets into trouble.

The issue is when his talent is useful when he’s playing this run support role and not expected to deal a lot with coverage where he tends to drift and leave areas open. No doubt he is a tackling demon.

In 2020, Pro Football Focus rated him 76.6 whereas last year he was listed at 60.8.

Richard LeCounte (5’-11”, 196 pounds)

The former fifth round pick plugged along last year and found his calling on special teams where he was an ace.

He led the SEC in fumble recoveries, had two forced fumbles and 4.5 tackles for loss. He was known as this turnover master. LeCounte had demonstrated his ability to be a defensive leader and display emotion and love to his teammates.

LeCounte had a reputation of being a hard-hitter who rarely missed. In his senior season ranked Number 5 in the country. He had a horrible dirtbike accident on Halloween night. He was later diagnosed with a concussion, broken ribs, a nasty gash on the bridge of his nose and a shoulder injury. Luckily, he was wearing a helmet.

Cleveland Browns v Green Bay Packers Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

From there, he underwent extensive rehab and was eventually released from the hospital. Being a team leader, he was beloved in the locker room. Now, his rehabilitation and recovery process was just beginning.

The accident made his second round evaluation into a Day 3 draft realization. The Browns still consider him second round talent with the hope that some development will bring it all back.

To add to the difficulty, the Browns have three exceptional players at the safety position and some very capable projects, some with NFL experience. LeCounte has power and dependability in his toolbox. His attitude remains a committed football player who will go out full speed and prove that his place this year is with the Cleveland Browns.

His salary is certainly friendly in that his cap hit for his second year is just $825,000. Last year he had just 76 defensive snaps but 105 on special teams. With the competition for the last safety spot, LeCounte will need to show his contributions on defense will increase.

Depends on training camp, but LeCounte could take Harrison place.

D’Anthony Bell (6’-0”, 211 pounds) – West Florida

Bell came from a National Championship D-2 college program so he has played at a high level in pressure situations.

He was scouted at the NFLPA Collegiate All-Star game where Browns scouts noticed his hitting abilities and the fact that he was playing around all this D-1 talent and not only blended in but impressed.

Bell can outright body slam offensive players and earned the nickname “Hitman” in college. Always plays all out and is a hard worker. Bell can get to the play quickly as he was clocked at 4.5 in the 40 so he gets to the play in a hurry.

He was named First Team All-Gulf South Conference. His senior year he had two interceptions and four pass break-ups to go along with 54 tackles and two forced fumbles.

He plays the ball well and his run support is outstanding. This guy is a hitter and will an interesting find if he continues to light up his opponents. His cap hit is $707,500.

Jovante Moffatt (5’-11”, 213 pounds)

Moffatt’s high school team won a state championship before he headed off to Tennessee State. There he was named Honorable Mention All-USA Conference and finished his college career with 313 tackles with 5.5 tackles for loss, 17 batted passes with five picks.

He has been clocked in the 40 at 4.52 and is not afraid to stick someone. After going undrafted in 2020, he was signed to the Browns practice squad but was called up and played in nine games mainly on special teams as he had 99 snaps but only one defensive snap.

NFL: AUG 14 Preseason - Browns at Jaguars Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Last year Moffatt was a last day cut, signed to the practice squad then brought up to the roster in October and active for Weeks 6-8 before reverting to the practice squad once again. Then in Week 14 against Baltimore after the bye week he was brought up for good.

In 2021 he was used on 15% of defensive plays and his special team snaps dropped to just 65, so the coaches saw improvement. After going unsigned in free agency, he inked a deal with the New York Jets with a reserve/futures contract. Just as their training camp was about to open, they released him and the Browns picked him back up.

He has played in 14 NFL games, mostly on special teams. In college he registered 55 starts and was very durable. Moffatt has a bad habit of playing undisciplined but is aggressive with good athleticism. Whether he sticks around this time is a battle he will need to face as there is stiff competition for the bottom two spots. He does come on the cheap with a salary of $895,000.

Luther Kirk (6’-2”, 196 pounds)

Cleveland Browns OTAs Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Kirk signed with Dallas after going undrafted in 2020 after being named captain while at Illinois State. He was named First Team All-Missouri Valley as he led his team with 89 tackles. Kirk was MVP of the Shrine Bowl. Dallas waived him on the final cutdown to which he was signed to the practice squad and then released again.

Minnesota then signed him to their practice squad and was called up for one game but was inactice. The following training camp he was again a last day cut. Atlanta’s practice squad was his next destination to which he played one game and then released. This past May, Cleveland signed him to a one-year deal worth $705,000.

Kirk has versatility and is a former quarterback. He has good range and is a ball hawk. He can cover the slot and would make a great nickel back and special teamer in a crowded safety room.

Safety stands for safety valve

Last year, the Browns kept four safeties plus had Moffatt and SS Tedric Thompson on the practice squad. Although listed as a cornerback, M .J. Stewart also lined up at safety at times.

Johnson and Delpit are locks. Harrison should be, but has had some concerns about his overall play last year so we will see. He is a heavy hitter so his physicality is not in question.

If Harrison sticks, that leaves one roster spot left. It is possible the coaching staff will keep five in this group especially to play the 4-2-5 to its peak effectiveness in the dime package.

Regardless, the competition for that elusive final spot will be fierce. The Browns will need proven hitters and sure tacklers as well as coverage guys. Being a physical deep portion should be a mainstay each year in order to punish their opponents.

Why not be known for that Cleveland defense that will hit hard and ask questions later?