Heading into this year's NFL Draft, safety was one position earmarked by most Cleveland Browns fans as an area where an upgrade was needed. Apparently, the Browns and Butch Davis agreed. After dealing their second round pick to move into position to assure themselves of being able to nab Kellen Winslow Jr., the team moved back into the second round and selected Sean Jones, who was widely thought of as the second best safety prospect in the draft behind Sean Taylor.
With the recent news out of Berea that Jones will likely miss the season due to a torn ACL at quarterback school this week, the safety position has quickly become an area of concern once again. The team viewed Jones as being big, strong, and physical enough to play strong safety and also quick and agile enough to ball hawk at free safety. His loss cements starting roles for returnees Robert Griffith and Earl Little and puts immediate pressure on Chris Crocker to fill the void behind those two. It also opens up one or two roster spots for guys like Michael Jameson, David Young, David Gibson, Kentrell Curry, Michael Grant, or Josh Buhl as the team's fourth, or possibly even fifth safety.
When taking a look at the Browns defensive statistics from last season, it's not hard to decipher that Griffith and Little offered little support against the run last year. We were 25th in the league in runs allowed of twenty yards or more, and also 25th in the league in yards allowed per carry at 4.6 per clip. Over the last two seasons only one team (Atlanta) has allowed more runs of more than twenty yards than the 31 (nearly one a game) the Browns have surrendered. Our hated rivals the Ravens have only allowed 15 such runs over the past two seasons.
Defending the pass has been another matter, and one the Browns excelled at last year. They were fifth in total pass defense, fourth in the league in fewest yards per reception, and third in fewest touchdown passes allowed. We also prevented big plays in the passing game; ranking second in the league in fewest pass plays of 20+ yards allowed.
It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the Browns will need much better run support from the secondary to continue to improve as a unit, and to help this team win enough games to get us where we want to go. Sean Jones was drafted to help address that weakness. My concern is that the only battle tested run stopping strong safety on this roster is Robert Griffith, who is not getting any younger, and exhibited surprisingly poor decision making as a run stopper last season…often taking poor angles and going for the big hit instead of the sure stop.
Part of it is coaching, and I've really liked what I've seen from Dave Campo so far. In the interviews I've heard with him, he has addressed this concern every time I've heard him speak. Still, I don't see Earl Little becoming a much more technically sound and dedicated run stopper at age 31 from the free safety spot.
And the bottom line is that there's really no available outside solutions. The only two somewhat intriguing safety options out there right now are Jason Sehorn and Anthony Dorsett, both known for their liabilities against the run. The onus will be on guys like Michael Jameson to finally elevate his game after years as a fringe player here, and Chris Crocker to show the world why Butch Davis horrified personnel guys all over the league by taking him in the third round.
Another couple of names to remember are Josh Buhl and Kentrell Curry. Buhl led all of Division I-A in tackles last season as an outside linebacker for a very talented Kansas State team. He went undrafted due to his tweener size (6'1, 210 lbs.) and was immediately signed as a free agent after the draft by the Browns. Curry played with Sean Jones at Georgia, but missed almost all of last season with a stress fracture. However, in 2001 as a junior, he was second team All-SEC, and was regarded as one of the nations top safety prospects heading into his senior season. He too went undrafted, and was claimed by the Browns post-draft.
With little potential solutions on the horizon, the Browns will have to depend on young players elevating their game as well as coaching if they want more help from the safety spot against the run game in the wake of Jones loss. As training camp looms, the safety position, as well as offensive guard and defensive end, are the areas I'll be watching closest.