The cornerback position on the Browns was the most scrutinized position on the team last year other than quarterback. A combination of suspension, injury, and youth combined to produce some ugly results at times. At the same time, unless a corner makes a play on the ball, the good plays are rarely noticed, so some players are only noticed for poor play and rarely the good. There will be a competition at the corner spot opposite of Joe Haden, but fans need to brace themselves for the possibility of a familiar face potentially starting on the other side and it would not be a disaster if he does.
Haden is a stud and one of the best young corners in the NFL when he is on the field. Whether the suspension for Adderall was a stupid mistake or part of a larger trend in the NFL in recent years with players trying to gain an edge, particularly at corner, is up for fans to decide for themselves. The bottom line is that it cannot happen again, not only for Haden personally, but also for the Browns defense. When Haden was out, the defense looked lost and confused because they had a lot of ground to cover and lacked the talent to do it. Haden gives them a player who can play the run as a strong side corner and allow the team to shift their coverage to protect the other corner over the top. Haden’s play was good last year but it would not be a huge surprise if he has a little extra motivation to redeem himself after last season’s mistakes.
The other corner spot is a big question mark at this point. Most assume the team might as well hand the job to third round rookie Leon McFadden, but the Browns are going to make him earn the job. McFadden is slightly undersized but plays extremely tough and is not afraid to mix it up as a tackler. He has good body control with the ability to flip his hips and stay with receivers. His lack of height could be targeted early by opponents who have receivers with size. McFadden brings some talent out of San Diego State but it would be a mistake to assume he will automatically start.
This is the second coaching staff and front office that likes Buster Skrine. Fans assume he is terrible but he was good when he was within the script they had written out for him. Skrine was a project coming out of Chattanooga much like Jordan Cameron was out of USC with a long term focus on his development and a step by step approach. Athletically, he had it all coming out of college but he was more or less a track athlete that really needed technical development in the NFL. When Haden was playing and Skrine had a smaller role, he was effective and played physical, which is why NFL people like him. When Skrine was forced to play above his head, he struggled and really had trouble maintaining his confidence. That is going to be something to keep an eye on as he competes this year in camp, but more development as a player and a fresh start this year could help. This is the year where Skrine was supposed to come into his own, so fans should not be panicked or worried when Skrine gets first team reps or if he earns the job. He had putrid stretches at times last year such as against Dallas, but that was not indicative of his play for the whole year. Hopefully, Skrine is using all of that as motivation and he has a chance to be a nice surprise this year.
Johnson Badmosi is likely going to get a look at both corner and at safety because of his length, athleticism and his value on special teams. Bademosi enters his second year out of Stanford and was a good performer on special teams but had limited opportunities to play in the defensive backfield. Like with Skrine, this regime seems to like Bademosi just as the last one did, so he could be a wildcard somewhere.
Chris Owens was a free agent from the Atlanta Falcons and actually enters camp as the cagy veteran entering training camp. Even though he is only 26, he is the elder of the group. Owens might be a guy who has to prove himself to be able to play on the outside or he may not make the roster. If they were honest, the Browns front office would likely prefer that Owens is beat out and is unable to make the roster because the other players are simply too good for him. His value is much like Sheldon Brown’s was in that he is not a guy who is going to get shaken up by a few miscues but he is not likely to get much better either.
While the assumption is that whoever finishes second in the battle for the starting corner spot will automatically play the nickel, the Browns drafted a specialist for that role last year in Trevin Wade, who played well when he had opportunities. That was the prescribed role for Wade when he was drafted and so far, so good. With a year of experience, he could be a player who comes into camp with more confidence and really takes control of that spot. With so many teams that run three receiver sets, the role of a nickel corner has become almost a starting caliber position and the early returns on Wade suggest he was a nice value pick in the seventh round. If he can come in and lock down the nickel spot, the loser of the battle for the outside corner spot, like McFadden or Skrine, drops down to the dime spot.
The Browns have brought in a few undrafted free agents to come and compete for a roster spot. One of the more interesting might be Vernon Kearney out of Lane because of his length. Kearney is listed at 6’2” 185lbs and while he is thin as a rail, he could offer long term potential as someone to hold onto for the practice squad or if he plays well, even make the final roster. In the system Ray Horton runs, having long corners on the outside that can play physical tend to be the goal, though obviously McFadden goes against that idea.
And along with that, the presence of Horton is part of the reason they did not draft Dee Milliner and short of a phenomenal value, will likely hold off on taking a corner in the first round this coming year if they feel they need to get another one. Horton’s history as well as that of the Steelers (where he learned to be a coach) has never put a ton of value on the second corner spot. Pittsburgh continually lets corners walk in free agency like they did this year with Keenan Lewis going to the Saints. When Horton was in Arizona, they had Patrick Peterson and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie for what felt like 20 minutes before they shipped Cromartie to Philadelphia in an ill fated deal for Kevin Kolb.
While it would be fun to have Bradley Roby or Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, it is probably more likely the Browns could be looking at players like Ross Cockrell or Andre Hall. Horton has put more emphasis on the front seven and the safety position, so if the Browns are going to draft more defense in the first round, it would likely be a safety to pair with T.J. Ward. It seems unlikely they would look at a corner before round two unless the value is too good to pass up, but more than likely later in the draft than earlier, much like the model the Steelers have had at that spot.
The Browns corner spot opposite of Haden is definitely one that is likely to be discussed at length during training camp and the preseason because it is one of the few spots still not decided already. While it remains to be seen if the answer to that spot is there yet, Haden being available for every game would go a long way in helping. The other thing that will help and has to be there for this year is an improved run defense and pass rush, which were the two biggest focuses of this offseason. Being in more predictable passing situations and getting more pressure on opposing quarterbacks makes the life of a corner significantly easier and could enable one of these guys to have a really nice year at that spot. This could be a turnaround year for the corner position but much of it will have little to do with the person playing corner, though it would certainly help. While most people are going to be rooting for McFadden because they are convinced Skrine is awful, they should let him sink or swim based on this year rather than what he did last year.