Cleveland Browns General Manager Andrew Berry, while aggressive on the offensive side of the ball in his first free agency period, looked to find short-term solutions on the defensive side of the ball, signing seven players to one-year deals. One of the acquisitions that excited Browns fans was that of former first round pick and hard hitting safety Karl Joseph.
Joseph didn’t live up to his billing as the 14th overall pick in the 2016 draft during his time with the Raiders. He often showed flashes of what he could be, but underwhelmed overall. Berry signed him to a one-year-deal worth $2.5M in hopes that he would fit in as one of the teams starting safeties.
Joseph was sidelined to start camp, recovering from offseason foot surgery but was ready to go when week one came around. Joseph injured his hamstring in week three and after playing in their week four contest, missed three of their next six games and was on the field for just 36 snaps total during that span.
He played his best football when positioned up in the box finishing with 54 tackles on the season. Despite coming up with some key plays during the Browns run to the AFC Divisional round, he was inconsistent at best in coverage. He finished the season with a career low Pro Football Focus grade of 54.7.
Woods and Three Safeties
Browns first year defensive coordinator Joe Woods revealed his intentions to use three safeties early on his tenure.
“I would like to transition into a dime system, but it is going to be something that is going to take time to get into, just because of getting their reps…Eventually, I would like to have a nickel package, where we have two linebackers on the field, but also, just to create better matchups and be a little bit more diverse in our scheme, I would like to get to a dime package, where we are putting an extra safety on the field.”
Unfortunately, Woods vision of a diverse three safety dime defense was shelved when the Browns second-round pick and Jim Thorpe Award-winning safety, Grant Delpit, was lost for the season to a torn Achilles tendon. The Browns did improve the safety room significantly when they traded a 5th round pick for Ronnie Harrison Jr. After taking a few weeks to get acquainted with Woods’ scheme, Harrison Jr. played very well, finishing 9th out of 94 qualifying safeties at PFF.
The Browns were not very good behind Joseph at safety, who was disappointing in his own right. Andrew Sendejo played 999 snaps for the Browns in 2020 which is terrifying to think about, considering his poor level of play. Still, one could argue that Sheldrick Redwine was just as bad if not worse in his second year out of Miami University(FL). If you look at Joseph, Redwine and Sendejo together, none of them posted a coverage grade above 49.1.
Joseph and The Browns?
According to Spotrac, Joseph’s market value is estimated to be $8.2M per year. The Browns will not re-sign him at that price and that calculation seems quite a bit on the high side. It is more likely he makes a per year salary somewhere between the veterans minimum and $2M per year. I don’t think the Browns will bring Joseph back unless they can agree on a cheap deal and only to provide depth at the position and even that scenario is probably unlikely.
Heading into 2021, the Browns believe they have two starting-caliber safeties on the roster already. However, as mentioned above, Joe Woods needs three starting safeties. Even if Woods didn’t plan to deploy three safety looks in the future, the approach this offseason should still be to find another high-end safety because Delpit isn’t a proven entity and his injury complicates things a bit.
The Browns are likely to sign two free agent safeties and draft one as well. They will do their homework and look to add a player near the top of the free agent safety market as well as looking to add a value-priced veteran at the position in order to add some much-needed depth. Here are a look at some safeties that would either fit in as a starting safety for the Browns or as a proven back-up.
S Marcus Williams – New Orleans Saints
Marcus Williams is the kind of difference-maker the Browns need to add to the back end of their defense if they want to compete for a Super Bowl in the next couple of years. He is just 24 and does everything well. He plays fast and smart with instinctive coverage skills while still grading out extremely high against the run. He will be highly sought after but the Browns should be a player if they are serious about contending now. Look for his market value to be between $13-16M per year,
S John Johnson III – Los Angeles Rams
In today’s NFL, your safeties have to be able to cover and Johnson can do so in dominant fashion. He posted a ridiculous 85.6 coverage grade in 2020 and finished with the third-best grade of any safety in the league(PFF). The 26-year-old will likely command a yearly figure between $12-14M.
Value Level Addition:
S Keanu Neal – Atlanta Falcons
Neal dealt with some injury issues early in his career but is coming off of his best season. He is a very good box safety with the range to cover underneath speed routes. He is a former first-round pick coming off of his rookie deal which fits the type of player Berry signed last offseason (Joseph, Kevin Johnson). Neal’s market value should be between $3M-$5M per year.
S Jaquiski Tartt – San Francisco 49ers
Tartt played for Woods in San Francisco and is familiar with the scheme, He is a good athlete that is skilled enough to play both safety positions. Tartt would add nice depth to the safety room. His knowledge from prior years playing for Woods and his positional versatility could make him valuable to the Browns. Look for his market value somewhere between $3M-$5M per year.