Another NFL offseason has come and gone, and now the time has come for training camp. The Cleveland Browns, fresh off of a somewhat promising, yet ultimately disappointing, 2012 season, are ready to start anew under yet another new front office regime.
New head coach Rob Chudzinski, as well as new coordinators Norv Turner and Ray Horton, are in the process of instilling their new schemes and adjusting to their new player personnel. Likewise, the players are in the process of adjusting to the new schemes and acquainting themselves with some newfound tasks. I hope you’re sensing a theme here.
With a flurry of offseason additions and subtractions came the closing of a few of the team’s gaping holes, as well as the opening of a few more. One major weakness that existed prior to the beginning of the offseason and still exists coming into training camp lies in the secondary.
All-Pro caliber cornerback Joe Haden has performed admirably during his first three seasons in the NFL, but he is poised for even bigger and better things in 2013. Strong safety T.J. Ward, also entering his fourth year with the Browns, is already considered one of the league’s best safeties and could see an increase in production in 2013 with the offseason additions of front-seven forces Paul Kruger, Desmond Bryant, and Barkevious Mingo, as well as the hiring of top-flight defensive coordinator Ray Horton, taking pressure off of Ward and the rest of the Browns secondary.
Unfortunately, those players who make up “the rest of the Browns secondary” are largely unproven at this point in their careers. In fact, the remaining two starting slots have yet to be determined.
Veteran Sheldon Brown spent the last three seasons as the team’s starting cornerback opposite of Haden where he held his own, for the most part. As his tenure in Cleveland winded down, though, it became increasingly obvious that his game had lost a step or two. The Browns opted to not re-sign Brown this offseason, and he currently remains on the market as a free agent.
Heading into training camp, it looks as though the Browns will be taking a committee approach to the open conerback spot opposite of Haden. Currently in the running are Chris Owens, Buster Skrine, and Leon McFadden.
Owens, who spent the past four seasons with Atlanta after being drafted by the team in 2009, played a nickel corner role for the Falcons. He has recorded 100 total tackles and three interceptions over his first four seasons. While Owens definitely has the speed to compete at the NFL level, his performance has not quite been on par with his potential thus far in his career.
Most Browns fans have already seen enough of Skrine as he struggled mightily in 2012, just his second season in the NFL. Much like Owens, the speed is obviously there, but Skrine projects to be little more than a nickel corner as he struggles in man coverage and has often failed to impress up to this point.
McFadden, a 22 year-old rookie out of San Diego State, has the most upside of the three, and the obvious wish of the Browns coaching staff and front office would be for McFadden to be ready to start week one in 2013. A three-time All-Mountain West selection, McFadden set his school’s record for career pass deflections with 39. Although only 5’9″, McFadden possesses the strength and toughness, as well as the quickness and ball skills, to compete at a high level right away.
It’s no secret that, amongst the three, McFadden would be the most desired winner of the position battle. Making him the starter would also allow Horton to use both Owens and Skrine in the nickel corner role to cover slot receivers, a role that appeals favorably to the talent levels and styles of play of both players. However, the team will not force McFadden into the starting role if he is outperformed throughout training camp and the preseason by either of the other two players. Either way, none of the three options have any consistent starting experience in the NFL, leaving a giant question mark at the cornerback position regardless of who wins the starting spot.
The starting free safety position opposite of strong safety T.J. Ward is also up for grabs this fall, and Tashuan Gipson, Johnson Bademosi, and Jamoris Slaughter are expected to be the top three contenders for the spot.
Gipson, who is entering his second season with the Browns after starting three games in 2012 as a rookie, is considered the front-runner in the race at this point. After signing with the Browns as an undrafted free agent, Gipson made the most of his limited playing time last season. He collected 33 total tackles while also grabbing one interception.
An excellent contributor on special teams, Bademosi is expected to push Gipson for the starting role. The former Stanford Cardinal was also signed as an undrafted free agent by the Browns, although he has played strictly as a cornerback up to this point throughout his collegiate and professional career. Despite his inexperience with the safety position, Bademosi’s size (6’0″, 200 lbs.) and toughness should help in easing the switch.
Slaughter, a former Notre Dame Golden Domer, sat out most of the 2012 college football season after suffering a torn Achilles tendon in just the third game of the season. Despite the injury, Slaughter was drafted by the Browns in the sixth round of this year’s NFL Draft. Scouts rave about his strong football instincts and and pass defending abilities, but he is viewed as a bit of a “tweener” in the NFL as his playing style often broke the mold of the typical safety in college. Obviously, the season-ending Achilles injury also presents an area of concern.
Unlike the open starting cornerback position, I do not foresee the Browns wanting to slide a rookie into the starting free safety role this season. Slaughter will definitely see his fare share of action, but the starting role will most likely come down to Gipson and Bademosi. Much like the open starting cornerback position, though, neither of the three have the experience to match Haden or Ward.
I will go out on a limb here (not really) and say that I expect Leon McFadden and Tashaun Gipson to scoop up the final two starting spots in the Cleveland Browns’ secondary. However, expect to see plenty of Owens, Skrine, Bademosi, and Slaughter throughout the 2013 season, as well. Given the lack of overall experience amongst the group, I recommend you hold on tight, Browns fans. We could witness a secondary that’s full of potential truly come into its own in 2013, or we could be in for a long, bumpy ride.