Whether or not defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and his angel safety position make a return for the 2018 season, the Cleveland Browns are going to have a devil of a time defending downfield passing unless they roster a true free safety in their defensive backfield. The rookie season of Jabrill Peppers should have made it apparent to all that playing him to his weaknesses is not going to help him develop as a player nor the Browns as a defense.
William has noted no other defensive back on the roster was able to supplant Peppers from the role when he was at full health. While some fans might lament the good work Jordan Poyer is doing for the Buffalo Bills,1 the Browns are left with a need at a position of scarcity- both in NFL free agency and the upcoming 2018 NFL Draft. Needing a Week 1 starter at the position makes aiming for a thin position even more desperate.
Here are some free safeties to watch for the 2018 NFL Draft.
Day 1 starters at free safety
Derwin James, Florida State
6-foot-3, 211 pounds
Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama
6-foot-1, 203 pounds
Browns fans might be leery of taking another incredible athlete who only has two interceptions in his collegiate career (second obtained versus Syracuse last week), who happens to be lauded for his ability to play all over the defensive backfield. There might be some concerns about a player with that size and speed combination when there is also an ACL tear just a year in the past. The difference here is that James, unlike Jabrill Peppers, has been used in the specific role of free safety (among the other facets of the Seminole defense). He would not be moving to the Angel position without any tape on how he might handle it. However, with a littany of young, capable strong safeties on the roster, James likely has more value on a team other than the Browns as he wouldn’t utilize his versatility as much in this scheme.
It might seem crazy that the more natural fit for the Browns at free safety is a player who has spent a bunch of time playing cornerback. But, Fitzpatrick is not your ordinary player. He was good enough to play as a freshman for Alabama. He is athletic enough to move anywhere on the field- he first played safety when the Tide suffered some injuries in 2016. Fitzpatrick has great ball skills and has shown an ability to track passes in the air. He takes proper angles across the field. Fitzpatrick is a potential game-changing free safety in the NFL, and he probably deserves to be at the top of the Browns safety board.2 Oh, and he was good enough to play as a freshman for Alabama.3
Intriguing but there’s a bigger leap to think he could start right away
Quin Blanding, Virginia
6-foot-1, 205 pounds
Blanding is a football player. He has nine career interceptions and is the all-time University of Virginia leader in tackles. If the ball is in the air or being run on the ground, then the odds are that Blanding is not far from it. He has played both free and strong safety, though those tackle numbers indicate where he spent most of his time. The Cavaliers defense relied on him greatly and there are roles in the NFL where he will have to adjust some of his aggressive tendencies. The angles he takes both to the ball carrier and to the ball on passes is superb and he should be a great candidate at free safety on Day 2.
Not really free safeties, but we’re getting desperate here
Van Smith, Clemson
5-foot-11, 195 pounds
Jamar Summers, Connecticut
6-foot, 190 pounds
Each of these players would likely be projects as a NFL free safety with some good upside but also worries about whether they can make the transition. As such, it is not a deep class, and if the Browns do want to find their starting free in the 2018 NFL Draft, then they better use an early pick.
The 2016 version of Smith would be moved up a category. He made plays all over the field, including forcing fumbles and making plays on the ball. He injured his knee in the Tigers opening game in 2017 though and his play on the field hasn’t quite popped as much as it did last year. He’s still an intriguing talent as the Tigers moved him all over the defensive backfield.
Summers is an incredible athlete who has shown at times a great ability of making plays. A cornerback who also plays safety for UConn, Summers is capable of covering receivers and tight ends well deep down the field. Inconsistency has been a bit of an issue for him, and it should be noted that UConn suspended him this year for losing his temper and throwing a ball at an opposing player.
Other names you might see but shouldn’t because they aren’t NFL free safeties
Ronnie Harrison, Alabama – SS-only.
Jordan Whitehead, Pittsburgh – SS-only.
Armani Watts, Texas A&M – Lack of speed and has been taken advantage of in the passing game.
Marcus Allen, Penn State – SS-only.
Donnie Miles, North Carolina – SS-only.