(The OBR will do a position-by-position review of each of the Browns positions as the team heads toward the 2015 season. The sixth part will start our look at the defense beginning with the secondary.)
Three fourths of the Browns secondary were named to the Pro Bowl, which bodes well for the Browns defense heading to the 2015 season.
The fourth starter in the secondary, Buster Skrine, is set to become an unrestricted free agent. The Browns have tried to replace Skrine, but the scrappy cornerback has held off all challengers. The Browns have to decide if Skrine is valuable enough to not allow him to leave.
The Browns traded twice in the top 10 of last year’s draft to select Justin Gilbert to be the shut down corner opposite of Haden. However, Gilbert had a difficult rookie season and he wasn’t able to beat out Skrine, as well as undrafted rookie K’Waun Williams.
The Browns are hopeful that Gilbert can still become an elite cornerback, if not serviceable, after showing glimpses of potential, but there’s no guarantee of that and Mike Pettine’s defense is predicated upon having two elite cornerbacks on the outside.
Here’s a capsule of the members of the secondary:
Joe Haden—Haden was selected for his second-straight Pro Bowl and finished second in the NFL with 20 passes broken up. He finished with 73 tackles, 20 passes broken up, three interceptions and two fumbles recovered.
Donte Whitner—Whitner brought a hard-nosed approach to the Browns defense and led the team in tackles with 106. Whitner went to his third-straight Pro Bowl, first with the Browns. Whitner had five passes broken up, an interception and a forced fumble.
Tashaun Gipson—Gipson was in the midst of a break out season when he sprained his knee on Nov. 23 in the win over the Falcons when he collided with teammate Joe Haden. At the time of the injury, Gipson was leading the NFL with six interceptions. Even though he missed the final five games, he finished second in the NFL in interceptions. Gipson was selected to his first Pro Bowl, but couldn’t play due to the injury. He finished the season with 52 tackles, eight passes broken up, six interceptions and a forced fumble. He returned one interception 62 yards for a touchdown against the Saints. Gipson is a restricted free agent but the Browns are expected to sign him to a long-term extension.
Buster Skrine—Skrine had arguably his best season with the Browns with 66 tackles, 18 passes broken up and four interceptions. He finished eighth in the league in interceptions. The Browns drafted Gilbert with hopes he would win the starting cornerback position opposite of Haden to allow Skrine to move inside to the slot. However, Skrine was able to hold off all challengers and now is slated to be a free agent. The Browns are faced with a big decision on whether to keep him and rely on the young corners behind him.
Justin Gilbert—The eighth overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft finished the season on the Reserve/Suspended list for the final game for being late for a meeting prior to the final game to finish a disappointing rookie season. Gilbert played in 14 games with two starts and finished with 29 tackles, eight passes broken up and an interception. He returned his interception 23 yards for a touchdown against the Colts.
K’Waun Williams—The undrafted free agent rookie became the team’s primary nickel back in 13 games. Williams finished with 31 tackles, eight passes defensed and a sack. Williams didn’t seem to have the problem of transitioning to the NFL as Gilbert did.
Pierre Desir—Desir was supposed to be ‘red-shirted’ in his rookie year from Lindenwood, but was forced into action late in the season when Haden missed a game with a shoulder injury. He played in five games with one start. His start was at left cornerback against the Panthers in Haden’s place and he finished with seven tackles and two passes broken up. Desir finished with nine tackles and two passes broken up. The fourth-round draft choice showed good potential for the future at season’s end.
%%MATCH_7%%—Bademosi played in 14 games and is a core special teams player. He led the team in special teams tackles with 15, despite missing two games with a concussion.
%%MATCH_10%%—Nelson was a long-shot undrafted rookie free agent to make the team out of training camp. He appeared in seven games as a reserve.
%%MATCH_12%%—Leonhard was a valuable addition to the secondary filling in for Gipson at free safety when he went down. Leonhard is planning on retiring after his 10th NFL season. He finished with 35 tackles, three passes broken up, two interceptions and a sack in five starts. Leonhard was used also as a punt returner.
%%MATCH_13%%—A core special teams player, like Bademosi, Poyer was second on the team with 13 special team tackles. He played in all 16 games and had nine tackles as a reserve in the defensive backfield. Poyer returned punts and even a kickoff.
Summary: The secondary could be the strength of the Browns defense, with Gipson getting better, Haden in his prime and Whitner still playing well. However, Gilbert or Desir must emerge as a top-flight cornerback in time for next season.
Desir has a chance to be the cornerback the Browns hoped they drafted in Gilbert. If the Browns retain Skrine, he and Williams can be solid nickel and dime cornerbacks.
The Browns will likely need to find a replacement for Leonhard due to retirement.
A few of the potential Unrestricted Free Agents are: CB Antonio Cromartie (Cardinals), CB Charles Tillman (Bears), CB %%MATCH_9%% (Bengals). CB Tramon Williams (Packers), CB %%MATCH_15%% (Jets), CB %%MATCH_14%% (49ers), CB Rashean Mathis (Lions), CB %%MATCH_19%% (Steelers), S %%MATCH_8%% (Patriots), Kurt Coleman (Chiefs), %%MATCH_16%% (Colts), S %%MATCH_11%% (Jets), S %%MATCH_17%% (Steelers), S %%MATCH_18%% (Redskins)
(Next up: We’ll take a look at the linebackers)