Along with the second cornerback spot and guard, the free safety position is among the positions that are not already decided as training camp approaches for the Browns. Not even the most diehard fan could pick the guys they have competing for the job out of a lineup, even if they were wearing their jerseys; the average Browns fan is not going to know a single one of their names. The front office seems to be hopeful for the position, but it could end up being a situation where they have to hope for the best until they can attack it more permanently next year. Nevertheless, the team does have some players that could make for an interesting competition for the starting spot this year and the loser could still have an important role on the team as T.J. Ward’s backup.
The strong safety position is set; Ward is a good player when he is healthy and he should be a terrific fit in Ray Horton’s scheme. He could be used up in the box, play in coverage, and be put in position to make some plays on his own instincts. They key for Ward is when he is on the field. He has battled injuries and missed time, which has really put the Browns into a tough situation at times. The difference for when he is out there and playing well versus the drop off to the depth behind him was painfully obvious. As a result, it puts a more emphasis on having depth behind him. One of the guys on this roster needs to able to fill in should Ward get hurt and miss time this year. To this point, Ward has only played a full season his rookie year while missing a combined 10 games the past two seasons.
Too often, the play of the free safety next to Ward was so bad that Ward had to play the role of free safety, which he can do, but there is a reason he is a strong safety. When the Browns were blitzing a safety, they would usually have someone like Usama Young do it while Ward was responsible for playing deep coverage. That is not an endorsement of the free safety’s ability to protect the deep part of the field. There were a lot of opportunities for plays to be made and situations where coverages were blown, especially deep, which highlighted how big of a hole that position was. If they can get good play out of that position, it will completely change the complexion of what he is able to do in the defense, play more to his strengths and make more plays as a result. Ward is far more comfortable patrolling up in the box than he is playing deep and he has good instincts as a run defender as well as being able to slide around and make plays when he is closer to the line of scrimmage. He is also the best option in man coverage against tight ends, which is a huge issue in the AFC North with every team in the division having at least one if not two viable targets at that position.
The favorite entering camp appears to be Tashaun Gipson, the second year player who was brought in as an undrafted free agent last year out of Wyoming. Gipson is such a well-known entity that ESPN lists him as a guard on the Browns roster. Gipson appeared in 10 games last year but his opportunities were limited. The new regime seems to like him if reports are to be believed, so he could have significant opportunity in training camp to take the job and run with it.
The main competitor to go against Gipson could be free agency. Depending on how training camp goes and the early returns on the position, it would not be a shock if the Browns placed a call to Kerry Rhodes and he is brought in as a late signee. Horton knows Rhodes from his years in Arizona and Rhodes knows his role in the scheme, so while a full training camp would be helpful, it is not the end of the world if he is brought in later. As long as Rhodes is in shape, he should be fine. If they do go that route, it is a total stopgap move and putting up the early signs they will be attacking the position in the draft.
The wildcard in the safety battle is Jamoris Slaughter. Slaughter fell in the draft due to recovering from an Achilles’ injury he suffered his senior year at Notre Dame. It is believed he would have gone several rounds earlier if he were healthy. He is supposed to be ready to go for camp, so the Browns could have a nice player at a good value. Slaughter has experience playing free safety and covering the deep part of the field as well as playing as a third safety in Notre Dame’s big nickel look, so he is comfortable playing up in the box. As a result, Slaughter could be a factor in the free safety battle, but he might be the guy who would be the best fit to play behind Ward. In the event that he would win the starting free safety job and Ward were to get hurt, he might slide over to the strong safety spot with Gipson at free safety.
Johnson Bademosi is a player that could be getting a look and reps at both corner and safety. His value has largely been on special teams and that is why the Browns would like to hold onto him, so they are hoping he can do enough to be viable at one of those spots. He may have a difficult time making the roster, but his best shot is likely as a safety based on the depth chart. Bademosi may be eligible to go on the practice squad and that could be where he ends up when all is said and done.
The Browns have a couple of undrafted free agents in for tryouts and the guy who might have the best chance of sticking on the roster is Kenronte Walker out of Missouri. This is based purely on the fact that he is a strong safety and the Browns do not have a pure strong safety behind Ward. He will need to prove he has value on special teams but if the Browns decide they want to keep another strong safety, he could be the guy. The front office could also be keeping an eye out on the waiver wire and seeing if they like any young safeties that teams try to get onto their practice squad and grab one of them.
If no one on the roster can really lock down the free safety position, the next stop would be the NFL Draft and they could target that position early in the draft; even the first round. Horton has put a lot of value on that spot and to this point, the best guy for the job could be Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix from Alabama in terms of how he would fit within the Browns scheme. Even if Gipson or Slaughter is ultimately able to lock down the position, the Browns should probably look to draft some depth at the safety position to be developed going forward. In that capacity, the Browns could look to a player like Ryan Shaw from Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
The rumblings coming from the Browns seem to be positive, especially when it comes to Gipson. Whether that comes from a place of real confidence or hope he steps up in training camp remains to be seen. The free safety position has been a problematic area and the last ones who held down the job well were Brian Russell and Sean Jones. It could really make a difference in terms of what they can do with their coverages as well as their ability to cause turnovers and what Ward is able to do. Looking forward to next year, free safety is one of the positions that look to be at or near the top of the list of needs right now, but hopefully that will change by the time training camp ends.