A year ago, the Cleveland Browns were in a stable, if secretly uneasy, place at the safety position. For better or for worse, Tashaun Gipson and Donte Whitner would reprise their roles as starters. Gipson started in 13 games at free safety in 2015, totaling 42 solo tackles, two interceptions and two passes defensed, while Whitner served as strong safety and totaled 81 combined tackles—the second-most on the defense—along with four passes defensed. And, as of Sunday, both men are gone.
Gipson, who played the 2015 season on a one-year, $2.56 million second-round restricted free agent tender, did not get a new contract offer from Cleveland and moved on, signing a five-year deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars at the start of free agency. Whitner, meanwhile, was released on Sunday, adding nearly $4 million in salary cap space (but also over $4 million in dead money). And now, the Browns have found themselves needing to identify the two men to replace these starters as well as build up more depth at the safety position.
The in-house options to replace Gipson and Whitner are Ibraheim Campbell, a 2015 fourth-round draft pick, and Jordan Poyer, an undrafted player initially signed by the Philadelphia Eagles who has been in Cleveland since 2013. Campbell had one start in 2015 and Poyer, four, all in relief of the combined five games that Gipson and Whitner missed on the season. Poyer, unsurprisingly, fared better than Campbell, with 25 solo tackles, one sack, four passes defensed and two interceptions; Campbell, meanwhile, had 10 total tackles on the season and was mainly a contributor on special teams.
There’s also Rahim Moore, signed to a one-year, $1.45 million contract last month. But Moore struggled in 2015 with the Houston Texans, appearing in just seven games with six starts and notching just one interception, two passes defensed and 16 combined tackles. He spent the second half of the 2015 season on the bench and was released after one year into his three-year, $4 million contract. Moore is an experienced veteran, to be sure, but the decline in his performance cannot be ignored. Poyer, and even Campbell, could certainly prove to be more talented as offseason practices begin next month and given Moore’s meager dead-money cap hit of $400,000, he’s no guarantee to remain on the roster through every round of cuts to come.
The Browns coaches and front-office staff may know something we don’t about the other three safeties on the roster—Tim Scott, Don Jones and Sean Baker—which means the trio could be in the mix to compete to start. Jones was signed to a one-year tender in March after being claimed off of waivers from the New Orleans Saints last October. He’s bounced around the league after initially being a seventh-round draft pick of the Miami Dolphins in 2013. He hasn’t recorded a tackle since 2014 and has no starts as a safety. Baker is an undrafted player who entered the NFL in 2012, and signed a reserve/futures contract with the Browns in January. He appeared in five games with the Atlanta Falcons in 2014, recording two combined tackles. Scott was an undrafted player who spent last summer with the Dallas Cowboys before being waived in September; the Browns also gave him a reserve/futures contract in January.
These three may be useful sources of safety depth—and, likely, special-teams play—but for now it looks as though Campbell, Poyer and, to a potentially lesser extent, Moore, will be the three safeties vying for two starting spots. That, of course, is subject to change in the draft, especially with the Browns staring down the No. 2 pick in Round 1. The Browns are in prime position to take Jalen Ramsey with that pick, a selection that could benefit the secondary in myriad ways moving forward. Though a cornerback in college, Ramsey can play all over the defensive backfield, so he could be a strong candidate to work as a free safety as a rookie. Then, in 2016 when the Browns have decisions to make regarding cornerbacks Joe Haden, Tramon Williams and Justin Gilbert, there is the option of moving Ramsey to cornerback to fill any voids that may arise from the release of any or all of these three veterans. Keeping Ramsey at safety would naturally also be another possibility.
No matter what happens, we are guaranteed a makeover at the safety position for the Browns this year. They either need to add someone who can serve as a starter or identify the players in-house who can take up the jobs formerly belonging to Gipson and Whitner. Poyer and Campbell are certainly two promising players and perhaps Moore can have a career renaissance with his new team. But, for now, it seems like penciling in safety among the Browns’ ever-growing list of positional needs would not be a bad idea.