The Browns revamped a majority of their roster in the 2018 offseason, under the leadership of general manager John Dorsey in his first season in Cleveland. Dorsey made many moves but there is one position group that received much more of a remodeling opposed to others.
Last season, the Browns’ secondary featured Jason McCourty and Jamar Taylor as the two starting cornerbacks, with Briean Boddy-Calhoun playing the majority of the time as the team’s third corner. In early 2018, McCourty was told he was going to be released and then was traded to the New England Patriots; Taylor was traded to the Cardinals.
Dorsey was aggressive in reshaping the secondary in the off-season, adding eight new talents to the depleted unit. Denzel Ward was drafted with the fourth overall pick and former Louisiana cornerback Simeon Thomas was drafted at 188. Thomas did not make the team’s 53-man roster, and now is a member of the Seattle Seahawks.
The Browns made three key free agent signings, adding T.J. Carrie (4-years, $31M), E.J. Gaines (1-year, $4M) and Terrance Mitchell (3-years, $10M), opening up a wide open competition. In addition, they also signed Denzel Rice and Tavierre Thomas as special team players and potential fliers.
It is important to note that Dorsey was not satisfied with the secondary’s play in 2017, so the additions kept on coming. The Browns also acquired former Green Bay Packers cornerback Damarious Randall, converting him back to his collegiate position, free safety.
The only three secondary members from last year’s team that made the 2018 squad were Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Derrick Kindred, and Jabrill Peppers.
Training camp essentially featured a free-for-all competition between all four starting spots in the secondary. Randall and Ward easily settled in at the team’s free safety and cornerback positions, respectively; Peppers beat out Kindred for the first-team strong safety position; The second starting cornerback position remained open. Mitchell secured the second cornerback spot, starting opposite of Ward to start the season. Through four games this season, Mitchell has only allowed 1.31 yards per coverage snap, good for second best on the team.
Against the Raiders, Mitchell went down with a broken forearm and could potentially miss the remainder of the season. The good news is, Mitchell’s surgery was a success but the bad news is the Browns seem to have an issue replacing him. Derek Carr threw for 353 passing yards, completing 60% of his passes, for four touchdowns and two interceptions in the 45-42 devastating Browns loss.
Carrie replaced Mitchell, playing 44 snaps in coverage. Carrie was one out of 34 total players that played 40 or more coverage snaps in week four, not finishing well. His passer rating of 103.6 was 15th worst out of those players, placing him in the bottom half of the league. Most notably, the secondary allowed 28 points without Mitchell’s presence on the field.
Gaines also played the role of filling in for the injured Mitchell, posting much better numbers in a smaller sample size. While only playing 26 snaps in coverage, Gaines’ allowed passer rating was 33.3, the best on the team against the Raiders. In addition, he also added an interception on Carr just before the end of the first half.
With Mitchell possibly being out the rest of the season, the question remains: Who will be the starting cornerback opposite Ward for the remainder of the season? Carrie, Gaines, and Boddy-Calhoun are the three possible replacements to fill in at the second cornerback position. Who is best suited to replace Mitchell?
Boddy-Calhoun and Carrie have had rough seasons thus through four games. Boddy-Calhoun has allowed a team-worst 118.8 passer rating in pass coverage and a team-worst 2.42 yards per coverage snap. On 11 targets, Boddy-Calhoun has only broken up two passes. Carrie is not much better, allowing the second-worst passer rating (98.7) and third-worst yards per coverage snap (1.40).
Let’s move on over to Gaines. The veteran cornerback has only played in one game but has produced for the Browns with his performance in Oakland. Last season for the Bills, Gaines only allowed 0.82 yards per coverage snap, only allowing one touchdown in 375 coverage snaps all season. He was targeted 60 times last season, but only allowed 38 receptions with just 90 yards after the catch.
Lastly, there is a dark horse. On Tuesday morning Mitchell was placed on injured reserve and Jeremiah McKinnon was promoted to the active roster. In the preseason, McKinnon played 62 snaps in coverage which was the fourth most on the team (out of 10 players). Despite playing so many coverage snaps, McKinnon allowed the second-best yards per coverage snap (0.32) in the preseason.
Although the loss of Mitchell proved costly for the Browns in week four, there is hope that the secondary can be salvaged. Damarious Randall (83.8) and Denzel Ward (77.7) have the third and fifth best overall grades from Pro Football Focus through the quarter mark of the season. Now, it is just a matter of figuring out how to fix a minor dent.
The Browns did pay Carrie a hefty contract in the off-season with perhaps high expectations for him this season, but Gaines is statistically the better option to replace Mitchell for the remainder of the season. The five-year veteran corner, Gaines, has only played 26 coverage snaps this season but based on what has been shown thus far in 2018 and from last season in Buffalo, Cleveland’s best option seems to be rolling with one-year rental.
As of right now, Gaines is listed as the number two cornerback on the Browns vs. Ravens week five unofficial depth chart. It is likely we could see both Carrie and Gaines on Sunday against Baltimore but when it matters most, the numbers show the Browns are better with Gaines on the field.
*Stats from this story were used courtesy of Pro Football Focus