BEREA—In the old days, the Browns Dawgs were in the secondary.
In 2010, some of the key Dawgs are just pups.
The Browns made no secret during the off-season that they targeted the secondary as an area they wanted to upgrade. They drafted three defensive backs with their eight choices—using a first- second- and fifth-round choices on defensive backs.
Besides the draft choices, they also traded for Sheldon Brown.
Two of the draft picks-- T.J. Ward and Larry Asante—are being counted upon to contribute quickly. They were both given a lot of opportunities during the OTAs and the minicamps. Ward was considered by some experts to be a risk because of his injury history, but the Browns were not scared off by him and are counting on him to help immediately.
Both Ward and Asante were known in their college game as hard hitters and having strength against the run. Both have questions surrounding their pass coverage skills.
Besides the two rookies vying for a starting spot, Abram Elam returns for his second season with the Browns after leading the team in tackles in 2009. Elam was a restricted free agent and was hoping for a long-term contract, but after skipping the OTAs and minicamps, Elam signed his second-round tender and will be a training camp on time.
Veterans Nick Sorenson and Ray Ventrone lined up with the starting unit during minicamp in Elam's absence and while Ward and Asante sat out with minor injuries. However, both have played almost exclusively on special teams in their careers and are not being counted on to play safety on a regular basis.
DeAngelo Smith was picked up off waivers from the Lions and could compete for a role at safety.
Free safety Brodney Pool was allowed to leave as an unrestricted free agent after finishing last season on injured reserve with a concussion. Mike Furrey finished the season as the starter opposite of Elam and he was allowed to leave as a free agent, as well.
Clearly, the door is wide open for either Ward or Asante to step into the starting role. If neither is ready for the start of the regular season, don't be surprised if Mike Adams is the starter opposite Elam. The versatile Adams started three games in place of Pool in 2009 before starting the final six games at right cornerback replacing Brandon McDonald. Adams might be the best cover safety on the roster.
Here are the candidates for the safety spot:
Abram Elam (6-0,207) – Elam started all 16 games at safety in 2009 for the Browns after coming over in a 2009 draft day trade. Elam led the Browns in tackles with 88, including a sack, a fumble recovery, a forced fumble and two passes broken up. Elam was a restricted free agent and did not participate in OTAs and minicamp, but signed his tender agreement and said he will not harbor any ill-will toward the front office.
Mike Adams (5-11, 200) – Adams has played mostly at cornerback in the OTAs and the minicamps, but could be the best pass defender at safety. Versatility is one of his greatest assets as he started six games at cornerback and three at safety in 2009. Adams registered 61 tackles with a sack a fumble recovery and eight passes broken up. He is starting his seventh year in the NFL and fourth with the Browns.
Nick Sorenson (6-3,210) – Sorenson is entering his 10th NFL season, mostly as a special teamer. He joined the Browns as a free agent during the 2007 season and is in his fourth season with the team. Sorenson had three tackles in a reserve role in 2009 and has just 27 tackles on defense in his first nine years. Meanwhile, during the same time period, Sorenson had 119 special team tackles.
Ray Ventrone (5-10, 200) – Ventrone, like Sorenson, is primarily a special teams player. He joined the Browns during the 2009 season and played in 14 games with 12 special teams tackles. He had three tackles on defense. In his four year career Ventrone has three career tackles on defense and 18 special team tackles.
DeAngelo Smith (5-11, 200) – Smith played cornerback and free safety in college at Cincinnati and could help at both positions with the Browns. He was originally a fifth-round draft choice by the Cowboys in 2009. The Browns claimed him but after waiving him the Lions signed him and he played the final seven games. When he was waived by the Lions in April, the Browns re-signed him the next day.
T.J. Ward (5-10, 200) – Ward was taken with the 38th pick in the draft, high in the second-round and the Browns are counting on Ward to be able to step in and contribute very quickly.
Larry Asante (6-0, 210) – Asante was drafted this year in the fifth-round out of Nebraska. Known as a hard-hitting safety against the run, Asante will challenge for playing time if he can prove to not be a liability in the passing game.
(Next: In the final positional preview of training camp, we'll preview the specialists).