2017 Browns Season Position Preview: Safety

Editor’s note: With the release of Calvin Pryor III, this article has been updated to reflect the removal of Pryor as an option at safety.

One position the Cleveland Browns have put the most focus on during their latest rebuild is safety. There has been a distinct move towards younger, more athletic players to plug into the last level of the defense. The current group is too young and inexperienced to be considered among the best on the team, but if the drafted players can fulfill their potential, then that perception can change dramatically over the course of this season.

The roster of safeties includes: Jabrill Peppers, Ibraheim Campbell, and Derrick Kindred, and Calvin Pryor III. With Gregg Williams preference for the nickel defense and only four cornerbacks on the roster, each of these players will be seeing significant time on the field in 2017.

What can the Browns expect from their talented-yet-inexperienced unit? WFNY can help answer that question with an examination of the Browns safeties going into the 2017 NFL season.

Additions: Jabrill Peppers, Calvin Pryor III

Subtractions: Jordan Poyer, Howard Tracy, Ed Reynolds

Projected Starters: Jabrill Peppers and Derrick Kindred
When the Browns selected Peppers in the 2017 NFL Draft, one of the main questions draft analysts had was how he could pair with the collection of safeties already on the roster. Kindred, in particular, has been considered a “strong safety only” whose toughness1 and big hits have been his best attributes since being selected in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Kindred did show off his 4.5 40-time speed on occasion his rookie year as he earned the starting role, but his inconsistencies in coverage were part of the reason the Browns struggled to cover tight ends. He returns to his role as the starting box safety with the hopes of some improvements his second year.

Gregg Williams’ response to those doubting Peppers ability to work within his defensive concepts was to shift his extraordinary athleticism to the free safety position. Despite only having one interception in his years at Michigan, Williams believed it was more a matter of role- where he shifted to play linebacker based on need last year- than ball skills. Scouts who worried about his lack of play recognition, instincts, and anticipation will either be proven correct or mocked mercilessly for falling into the trap of judging Peppers based on his responsibilities rather than his play.

Possible Contributors: Ibraheim Campbell and Calvin Pryor III
Pryor was a first-round pick of the New York Jets in the 2014 NFL Draft. The 25 year old came into the league with a reputation as being a big hitter who could be used as an intimidator in the defensive backfield. After his early years of being far too aggressive- leading to an inordinate amount of missed tackles- Pryor has settled himself in play a bit. He still is prone to missing some tackles, but he has surprisingly been adequate to good in coverage. For a team needing their third safety to play a bunch, Pryor might turn out to be a nice option.

Campbell is a 25 year old box safety taken in the fourth round of the 2015 NFL Draft. There were hopes he would be able to assume the starting strong safety role in 2016, but Kindred outplayed him on the whole. Campbell misses too many tackles and is the worst of the Browns safeties in coverage, which is not a good mix. His issues adapting to the NFL were a specific reason safety was considered high on the Browns priority list. Still, as a backup, Campbell can still offer adequate play as the fourth third in this group.

Biggest Strength: Peppers versatility
The Browns are only rostering four cornerbacks and three safeties for a total of seven defensive backs. With Williams wanting to employ nickel defenses to combat the three-wide looks that are proliferating through modern NFL offenses, that only leaves two true depth options available- potentially zero backup safeties. The one saving grace is the ability to move Peppers everywhere in the defensive backfield or even as one of the nickel linebackers should a need arise though- with Christian Kirksey, Jamie Collins, and Joe Schobert- the linebacking options should be covered.

Expect to see Peppers everywhere on the field. His primary role will be free safety as the deep center field roamer on this defense, but his ability to tackle, cover, and cause pure havoc means that he can play most any position with most any responsibility. Mixing versatility with the defensive creativity of Williams should be fun.

Biggest Weakness: Experience
The Browns should be excited to have a 21 and 23 year old starting on the back end of their defense, who can grow together to create a formidable unit. However, the complex schemes and coverages Williams will employ upon the defensive backfield will require some experience to learn. Some of those lessons are going to come in the form of miscommunications that lead to long touchdowns thrown against them.

Key Player: Jabrill Peppers
Peppers draft stock was all over the boards. Analysts had him anywhere from a potential Top 5 selection to a mid-round flier. The Browns obviously saw him as a worthy first-round selection, and they can bear out the results should he live up to the high end of his potential. The one aspect of Peppers that all analysts agreed upon is that Peppers lives for football. Coupling that football attitude with a propensity for a few big plays (hopefully more for him than against him) and he should quickly become a Dawg Pound favorite.

Overall Opinion:
The safeties are going to struggle at times throughout the 2017 season for the Browns as they are among the youngest units on the team. The key will be for the group to continue to learn as they gain the necessary experience. If they can keep getting better, then the group could enter 2018 as one of the strongest on the team.

2017 Browns Season Position Preview Series: Quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, offensive line, Defensive Line, Cornerback

  1. He played through a broken collarbone his senior year at TCU. []