What exactly is going to happen to the safety room in 2023 for the Cleveland Browns? That’s a fair question.
John Johnson III has the most years of tenure at the position, yet is a roller coaster. He will be out of position on plays, then smack someone in his area. His Pro Football Focus (PFF) grade from last year was a paltry 62.8. But he is a good tackler when he feels like tackling. He can also slack off in an attempt to bring down a beefier running back. Johnson had 101 total tackles in 2022, but only a single interception.
Ronnie Harrison Jr. is an unrestricted free agent and can sign with any club at any time. The Browns came close to not re-signing him last year, so it is up in the air if they are done with him or will retain him for another season. This past year, Harrison had just 24 total tackles, the fewest of his five-year career. He played in 16 games but only started five with zero picks.
Last year’s rookie D’Anthony Bell was utilized on special teams and proved to be a demon. But he also started two games at safety, and going down the stretch was on the field as a defender more and more as the games rolled off the schedule. He had 14 total tackles last year. And Bell is a hard hitter who does not back down from contact.
The one player who saw the most improvement was Grant Delpit. Through the first half of games, he was viewed as a liability and had a horrible tackling style, which meant he jumped on shoulder pads. In one game he rode a player for 17 yards. In another contest, he jumped on at the four-yard line and rode him until he scored. Delpit never did bring him down.
But after the bye week, Delpit began to tackle legs, and his tackling numbers jumped. His missed tackles stat was no longer an issue. He had 105 total tackles.
Undrafted rookie Bubba Bolden is the only other safety on the roster. He spent last year on the practice squad and signed a reserve/futures contract on January 9, 2023.
There seems to be a pressing need on the roster for another safety. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz relies on a lot of man coverage and not a lot of blitzing the passer. This means the safeties must help out in the deeper zones and assist in the run stoppage department.
Here are three to look at during free agency, which officially begins March 15.
Jessie Bates III – Cincinnati Bengals
6’-1”, 200 pounds
NFL draft: 2018 Round 2, pick No. 54 (Bengals)
Career Pro Bowls: 0
40 time: 4.50
2022 season: 16 starts, 38 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 1 forced fumble, 7 missed tackles, 4 interceptions, 8 pass defenses
Thomas Moore: Jessie Bates III appears to be exactly what the Browns need at safety. He is durable (79 career starts and more than 1,000 snaps on defense for five consecutive years), stout against the run (a grade of 84.8 from Pro Football Focus), opportunistic (14 career interceptions), and signing him would weaken a division opponent in the Cincinnati Bengals, who may not be able to keep him after signing him to the franchise tag a year ago.
If that is not enough, Bates also “has the post and split-field range to cover some grass, along with the scheme versatility to play from depth or spin down in coverage,” according to ESPN’s Matt Bowen.
The problem could be the price tag, as Bates will be considered the top free agent on the market at his position, which means a big payday is on the horizon. While Cleveland general manager Andrew Berry can certainly move around enough funds to be able to afford Bates, with other holes on the roster being a priority, Bates might just be out of reach for the Browns, no matter how good he might look lining up in Cleveland’s secondary.
Contract Projection: Five years, $75 million ($15M per year); $40 million total guaranteed
Chauncey Gardner-Johnson – Philadelphia Eagles
5’-11”, 210 pounds
NFL draft: 2019 Round 4, pick No. 105 (New Orleans Saints)
Career Pro Bowls: 0
40 time: 4.48
2022 season: 2022 NFL interceptions co-leader, 12 starts, 67 tackles, 26 QB hits, 1 sack, 5 tackles for loss, 0 forced fumbles, 11 missed tackles, 6 interceptions, 8 pass defenses
Barry Shuck: There is just a lot to love about this young man. And he comes from a very good defensive unit, so he will bring that swagger to Cleveland.
Most NFL GM’s won’t value an undersized safety that high, but Gardner-Johnson is a beast who is perfect for the Browns’ secondary. He is truly a ball hawk and is fearless with taking on runners or bigger tight ends. He did have a foot injury in 2021 and last year landed on IR with a lacerated kidney, which he suffered in Week 12, but was activated from IR on January 7, 2023. His play was critical during the Eagles’ playoff run and netted four tackles in the Super Bowl loss to Kansas City.
Gardner-Johnson could see his team’s franchise tag as Philly has stated they want to see him continue to play for their defense. However, the last time Philadelphia actually used the tag on a player was way back in 2012.
He is just off a season in which he picked off six passes but only played 12 games before his kidney issue. What would his results have been in a full 17-game season? He is a playmaker.
But the architect of that Eagles’ defense, former defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon, has moved on to the desert. Garner-Johnson just might want to move along as well.
Contract Projection: Three years, $34.5 million ($11.5M per year); $23 million total guaranteed
Jordan Poyer – Buffalo Bills
6’-0”, 191 pounds
NFL draft: 2013 Round 7, pick No. 218 (Philadelphia Eagles)
Career Pro Bowls: 1
40 time: 4.54
2022 season: 12 starts, 63 tackles, 4 tackle for loss, 1 forced fumble, 9 missed tackles, 4 interceptions, 8 pass defenses
Thomas Moore: Veteran safety Jordan Poyer is a familiar face for Cleveland fans after he spent four years (2013 to 2016) with the Browns. A durable player who started 91 games with the Bills, Poyer is the type of multidimensional player that allows creative defensive coordinators to move him around the field.
According to ESPN’s Matt Bowen, Poyer is an instinctual player who can “match in coverage, check tight ends, track the ball from post/deep-half alignments and play multiple roles in sub-packages,” which sounds like traits that would appeal to Cleveland defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.
This past season, Poyer posted his fourth consecutive season of grading out at 70 or higher in coverage and overall, according to Pro Football Focus, and his coverage grade of 92.1 since the start of the 2020 season is the league’s best among safeties.
There is a lot to like about Poyer, outside of being on the wrong side of 30, but if the Browns decide he still has enough left to hold down one of the safety positions for a couple of years, a homecoming could be in order.
Contract Projection: Two years, $17 million ($8.5M per year); $11.5 million total guaranteed
Put on your GM hat. Which of these players profiled would you sign?