One of the biggest areas the Cleveland Browns must improve in 2016 is the secondary. While Cleveland’s secondary was downright masterful in 2014, there was a precipitous drop off in the season that followed. The hope is for a quick bounce-back in the upcoming season, despite there being a very palpable uncertainty at both the cornerback and safety positions. But the ongoing injury issues and recovery of veteran cornerback Joe Haden could actually help and not hurt in these efforts.
Haden missed 11 games last year with a variety of injuries including ribs, ankle and a concussion that landed him on injured reserve. The ankle has been the longest-standing of the issues, with Haden undergoing surgery in March that could have him sidelined well into this summer’s training camp. While Haden isn’t banking on missing actual game time, his lack of participation in camp will give opportunities for other cornerbacks to get practice reps, allowing for a deeper evaluation of the position group and a chance for the coaches to assess which players can best help Cleveland’s secondary improve going forward.
Last year, the Browns gave up 4,012 passing yards, ranking them 22nd in the league and were 29th in passing touchdowns allowed, at 34. Though they were in the middle of the pack in pass plays of over 20 yards, with 52, they ranked second in passes allowed of 40 or more yards, with 16. Meanwhile, their interceptions dwindled to just 11, tying them with four other teams, and only seven recorded fewer. Though the run defense certainly needs a lot of work—as it has for years—it’s possible for the Browns to potentially get the passing defense improved more quickly. They certainly have enough cornerbacks and safeties on the roster, at least, to presumably help.
That’s why Haden’s ongoing recovery and assumed light or nonexistent training camp workload is actually helpful. The Browns know what they have in Haden—especially when he’s 100 percent healthy—and don’t have to worry just yet about their $13.4 million-man not being a starter come Week 1. Thus, his absence allows for other players to prove they can contribute. During OTAs at present, former Round 1 draft pick Justin Gilbert is working alongside Tramon Williams as a first-team cornerback, something that could help him get back on the field in a bigger capacity than he did in his mostly-lost 2015 season. The 33-year old Williams, meanwhile, started strongly last year in his first season with the Browns but dropped off later in the year. If signs of that continue through camp, he could see K'Waun Williams, Pierre Desir or even Charles Gaines Jr. move up to the first team. Jamar Taylor is also in the mix. And even if Williams may spend all summer penciled in as the starter alongside Haden, there’s no doubt the other corners on the roster will be rotated between first- second- and even third-teams in order for the coaches to see numerous combinations of defensive backs against passes.
The battle between the safeties for the two starting jobs will also heavily inform the defense’s ability to stop the pass this year, as will an improved pass-rush—the latter being something the Browns are certainly banking on after addressing it so heavily in the draft. But parsing through the cadre of cornerbacks to find the hidden gems will be a big task for the Browns’ staff to undertake in training camp. Haden’s recovery from surgery helps this process along rather than hinder it. While it’s never an ideal situation to have a key starter shelved for perhaps the entirety of the summer, the personnel evaluation opportunities this presents the Browns is at least a silver lining for a team that needs to get its secondary in order.