Around a month or so ago, I wrote about five potential free agent targets for the Cleveland Browns heading into the 2020 off-season. Two of those targets (Austin Hooper and Case Keenum) have since signed with the team, addressing needs at tight end and backup quarterback. Additionally, the Andrew Berry regime was also able to ink the best right tackle on the market in Jack Conklin (formerly of the Tennessee Titans), middle linebacker B.J. Goodson, and traded a 2021 seventh-round draft pick for fullback Andy Janovich. As we learned in 2019, winning the off-season (coupled with disadvantageous coaching) is about as futile as the hairs left on George Costanza’s head. However, these moves fit with the team’s vision, offensive and defensive schemes, and positional needs heading into a pivotal 2020 off-season for a franchise looking to climb out of the AFC North basement.
Although the front office hit the ground running, there are still some glaring holes on this roster, including (but not limited to) nickel cornerback, left tackle, interior defensive line, and safety. With that said, let’s take a look at four additional targets who could potentially fill a few of these roster holes:
The Browns released six-year veteran T.J. Carrie on February 17, 2020. With that move, the team does not have a nickel (or “slot”) cornerback on the roster. As NFL offenses continue to evolve and gravitate toward the passing game, especially the use of “11” personnel (1 running back, 1 tight end, and 3 wide receivers), the nickel cornerback has become an integral part of defenses.
As the name suggests, the nickel cornerback is the fifth defensive back on the field when a defense deploys a 4-2-5 defense. The nickel replaces an outside linebacker and, as a result, the player must be able to not only cover opposing slot receivers but also defend the run. The position demands traits such as agility, closing speed, and field awareness.
A player the Browns could potentially target to fill the position is Nickell Robey-Coleman, who was released by the Los Angeles Rams earlier this week. In 2019, Robey-Coleman had 13.5 coverage snaps per reception, which tied for 7th-best among all slot cornerbacks. Additionally, his 0.63 yards per coverage snap was 6th-best at the position (both statistics courtesy of Pro Football Focus (“PFF”)).
Outside of left tackle, nickel is one of the team’s most significant needs and Robey-Coleman is more than capable of immediately stepping into a role in Joe Woods’ defense.
I am in the firm belief that the left tackle position should be addressed in the NFL Draft with someone along with the likes of Tristan Wirfs (University of Iowa) or Andrew Thomas (University of Georgia). However, should this regime want a proven commodity or have their sights set on an Isiah Simmons (linebacker- Clemson University) or Javon Kinlaw (defensive lineman- University of South Carolina) in the first round, there is not a more viable option on the free-agent market than former Philadelphia Eagles left tackle Jason Peters.
Although he is 38 years old, Peters is still among the best at the position and could be a short-term option for the Dawg Pound. Per PFF, he has graded in the top-six among all tackles two of the past three seasons (number four overall in 2017 and number six in 2019). More specifically, his 873 pass-block grade was 4th-best among all tackles who played 250 snaps in 2019 (88 qualifiers).
In my opinion, the signing of Peters would not (and should not) preclude the team from drafting a left tackle in 2020. Using the above scenario, the Browns could draft Ezra Cleveland (Boise State University) or Austin Jackson (University of Southern California) in a trade-up from the 41st pick in the second round. However, the most likely (and my preferred) scenario is the Browns punting the position in free agency and drafting the long-term answer at left tackle with the tenth pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
The Browns defense allowed an atrocious five yards per carry to opposing running backs in 2019, which was the most in team history. Further, veterans Sheldon Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi struggled to generate any sort of pass rush along with the interior of the defensive line. In a division that has Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Burrow (most likely), Joe Mixon, and the entirety of the Ravens backfield (and Most Valuable Player quarterback), the team must find a way to at least slow down opposing offenses on the ground and in the air.
Insert Shelby Harris, a 28-year-old defensive tackle that has spent the last three years with the Denver Broncos. In 2019, Harris accumulated 6.0 sacks, 24 quarterback pressures, 9 pass breakups, and 27 defensive stops (Sports Info Solutions).
Additionally, per PFF’s 2020 NFL Free Agent Rankings: “A player who has consistently graded well since he came into the league, the only question teams will be asking about Shelby Harris is how good can he be and how big a role can he assume for a new team? Harris earned a PFF grade of 90.8 back in 2018, but he played just 391 snaps that year, and when the Broncos scaled up his workload as a reward, his play trailed off to an overall grade of just 76.8. Harris may ultimately be an elite-level role player or an average player with a bigger role for a new defense, but either way, he represents a valuable addition to some teams and likely won’t cost a fortune.”
He is currently best-suited as a rotational player at the position but could prove to be a valuable asset for the Browns defensive front and at a reasonable projected cost of $5.5 million on an annual basis (Over the Cap).
*Please note at the time this article was drafted, Karl Joseph was still on the free agency market. He has since signed a one-year contract with the Browns.
Currently, second-year players Sheldrick Redwine and J.T. Hassell are the only safeties on the team. Someone who could fill this roster spot is four-year veteran Karl Joseph, who has spent the entirety of his career with the Oakland (Las Vegas) Raiders. During his tenure with the club, he amassed 237 tackles, 14 pass breakups, four interceptions, and one forced fumble. The statistics are relatively pedestrian and Joseph isn’t a guy known for making flashy plays, but he has the ability to be a steady and solid addition to any defensive backfield, especially in the box where he has recorded double-digit defensive stops every season throughout his young career (PFF).
Mackensie Alexander (nickel cornerback), Eric Reid (safety), Von Bell (safety)
What say you? What other players would you like to see the team add in free agency?