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Browns claim CB Kahlef Hailassie. Good move? Or a parallel transaction?

You can’t have too many cornerbacks

The Cleveland Browns had their 53-man roster set on the final cutdown date of August 29. A day later, they claimed CB Kahlef Hailassie off waivers from the Kansas City Chiefs and released CB A.J. Green, who then returned on Friday via the practice squad.

On the surface, it appears the move was one defensive back for another. Is it? Could this be just one cornerback for another? What exactly is the advantage, if any?

Kahlef Hailassie (pronounced kuh-LEAF huh-LOSS-ee) is an undrafted rookie. Green was set to enter his fourth season.

Hailassie vs. A.J. Green

Green also went undrafted back in 2020 and signed with the Browns. He was a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award coming out of his senior year at Oklahoma State, named Second Team All-Big 8, and played in the Senior Bowl.

Cleveland Browns v Washington Commanders
A.J. Green
Photo by Todd Olszewski/Getty Images

Green’s experience at the Combine got off to a slow start. He was clocked at 4.62 seconds in the 40-yard dash which of course is a critical stat for a defensive back. Only two cornerbacks ran slower 40 times.

During his stint with Cleveland, he has either been a practice squad member or was elevated to the main roster several times over his NFL career.

Hailassie (6’-1”, 194 pounds) is a rookie this year. Green (6’-2”, 198 pounds) is a three-year veteran.

Coming out of Cosumnes Oakes High School in Elk Grove, California, Hailassie had offers from Oregon, Colorado, Florida Atlantic, Fresno State, Hawaii, Howard, Nevada, New Mexico State, San Jose State, UNLV, UTEP, Washington State, Wyoming, and Utah State.

He played two seasons for Oregon before transferring to Western Kentucky University. His career college stats are 126 total tackles, 12 tackles for loss, three sacks, four interceptions, 15 pass defenses, one fumble recovery, and three forced fumbles. As a senior, he was named Second Team All-USA Conference. His draft projection was the fifth or sixth round and ran the 40 in 4.55.

He is now in a select group with the Browns in that he is the third undrafted rookie to make the roster this season along with S Ronnie Hickman and LB Mohamoud Diabate.

Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski is certainly familiar with Hailassie. In Cleveland’s final preseason game against the Chiefs, Hailassie had eight tackles with two batted passes. This must have put a memory in Stefanski’s mind having seen the young cornerback that involved in the run stoppage game. He seemed to be all over the place.

Green’s main issue was a lack of speed that limited his scheme fits. He made up for this by imposing his size upon receivers and had good route anticipation. He is also a special teams ace.

Hailassie is more of a playmaker than he is a dominant tackler. He had a very good preseason with two interceptions. He may not have the skillset quite down yet, but he is very aggressive in coverage.

After the NFL draft, the Chiefs were very aggressive in signing Hailassie for training camp. In fact, they inked him to an unheard-of three-year deal worth $2.705 million. Not bad for a player who never heard his name called during the seven-round draft. The numbers on that contract were a $10,000 signing bonus, $100,000 guaranteed, with an average salary of $750,000 and a dead cap of $90,000.

The financials with Green were he had just finished his two-year Browns deal worth $1.51 million with an average salary of $755,000. Green was the first undrafted free agent GM Andrew Berry signed back in 2020.

The size of both players, money paid out, and age are all about the same for both athletes. So, what was the reason to cut the three-year veteran and grab an untested rookie? Especially after Green had made the final cut.

Why Green?

Green was a solid player despite spending most of his game snaps on special teams and played well there. With a new special teams coach in Bubba Ventrone, an experienced player for this unit would seem to work out initially. When Green was able to get snaps on the defense, he responded as an opportunity. He played in 31 games and recorded 2 interceptions in his first three seasons.

So why exactly did Cleveland part ways with a third-year player with 31 games of NFL experience and replace him with a rookie?

There are several possibilities.

Washington Commanders v Cleveland Browns Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Green was best at zone-heavy coverage, which is not what new DC Jim Schwartz plays. Schwartz requires his corners to play man which was a weakness of Green. Ultimately, this may be why Green became expendable and a more man coverage player was sought.

Another plausible explanation is Berry. A former cornerback himself, he has shown he has the ability to evaluate defensive backs. M.J. Emerson was taken in the third round of last year’s draft despite having two first-round cornerbacks already on the roster Denzel Ward and Greg Newsome. Emerson was the Browns’ first pick although other positions had greater needs. And now after just one season, Emerson is starting.

As Berry and Stefanski got an extended look at Hailassie in the Chiefs preseason game, neither had any insight that Kansas City would be releasing him. Regardless, Hailassie had a terrific game just days before the final cutdown which had a lasting impression. The Chiefs were high on him but had more pressing needs and had hopes that he would go unclaimed and could be signed to their practice squad. That didn’t happen.

Hailassie played 21 snaps on special teams during Chiefs preseason games. That means the loss of Green on special teams is instantly replaced with a cornerback who has great length and can play man coverage.

And it’s possible Green goes unclaimed and makes it back to the Browns practice squad. Currently, Cleveland has signed 15 players to this group which leaves one open slot.