Outside of the quarterback position, there is maybe no position and no player that has been more scrutinized and criticized than cornerback Buster Skrine. Since he was drafted as a fifth round pick in 2011 out of Chattanooga, fans and media in Cleveland have been trying to get rid of him. Despite being put in some bad positions, Skrine has never complained and just kept getting up and going back in and tried to do the job. He has had some struggles but he just kept trying to get better. This season, that work has paid off and while Skrine still does not get the respect he deserves from local sources, some of which will never be convinced he can play, national ones are noticing his play and last night, Skrine made a statement and actually outplayed Joe Haden. NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks, in analyzing the Browns defense coming into this week wrote that he was reminded of Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield in watching Haden and Skrine.
Part of why Skrine has been so highly scrutinized is because of the nature of the position. Unless a corner is breaking up a pass or getting an interception, the only time people tend to focus on them, especially on television, is when they fail. Blanket coverage, unless analysts go out of their way to notice on the broadcast, is not shown often. Meanwhile, for a linebacker or a defensive lineman, their failures tend not to be noticed while their success gets a ton of run on air. A sack, a big tackle or pass deflection; the camera is on them and replays highlight them.
It is easy to forget that Skrine was drafted basically as a track athlete who played a little corner. He was extremely athletic and had incredible straight line speed but he had no clue what he was doing as a corner as he moved onto the NFL. There were some articles that projected based on certain athletic traits, that Skrine could become a great corner, but it was going to take time. It has.
So when the Browns were short on corners, Skrine was put into awkward situations. He had some success as a slot corner but was not ready to play on the outside. Unfortunately, injuries forced him into that position in the worst game of Skrine’s career against the Dallas Cowboys. Skrine simply had no business being put in that position and he was destroyed in that game. About the only thing that could be said for Skrine is he just kept trying. That game and that segment of that season could have broken Skrine, but he never backed down and never stopped stepping up and taking the assignments.
The corner position is so much about confidence and there is talk about being able to have a short memory when it comes to giving up a big play. That is the reason. During the week, a secondary coach does everything they can to coach players up and iron out details and while that does happen during the game, so much of their job is just keeping their guys feeling confident and not letting them get down when there is a setback. In a game like Dallas where the team is shorthanded, that is all that coach can do.
This is the second coaching staff that has loved Skrine. One of the reasons is that despite only being 5’9”, Skrine is a tough guy who can really make an impact as a run defender. He is not afraid to take anyone on and those who underestimate him can end up getting popped. So much focus goes on the front seven and deservedly so with how strong they have been in stopping the run, but Skrine is still active in run defense and looks to make an impact whenever possible. Combining that with his incredible speed and agility, he makes for a player that teams are going to want to succeed. Tom Heckert obviously liked him and Joe Banner and Ray Horton obviously came in and liked what they saw in Skrine at least from a potential standpoint.
After coming out of his second season, most fans and local media simply wanted no part of Skrine. So when it was announced that Skrine was in the competition for the other corner job across from Haden, there were people up in arms over it. When he won the job, people were irate. And any time Skrine gave up a play or had a penalty, there were critics ready to pounce. The fact was that Skrine was playing significantly better and some refused to see it.
Last week, Skrine had a great game against the Bengals. He had a couple of pass deflections and the interception that sealed the game. There were still those that focused on the penalty he had, which in reality, saved a touchdown. Had he not been there, no one was stopping that play from going all the way. T.J. Ward was back there and simply had no chance to make up the distance. Skrine could have potentially made a better play but the pass was so underthrown that he ended up running into Mohamed Sanu slowing down to adjust. The flag was thrown, the Bengals got a first down and the drive continued. The possession resulted with a field goal as opposed to a touchdown.
This week against the Buffalo Bills, it really came together for Skrine, everything he brings to the table was on display and he ended up outplaying Haden. Haden is a great, great corner and had an off night by his standards while still being quite good. Skrine picked him up on the other side. He had a sack on E.J. Manuel, two pass deflections and six solo tackles in all. He just made it extremely difficult on the Bills to make plays on his side of the field. It was the most complete game of Skrine’s career in Cleveland.
Whether critics realize it or not, Skrine has changed the conversation about the need for a corner in Cleveland. His play last night was impressive and verged on dominant, but he does not need to play that well to really establish himself as a long term fixture across from Haden. The Browns certainly would not complain if Skrine can bring that type of effort every week as they would have two dominant corners which allow Horton to be extremely aggressive with blitz packages. The Browns do not need an outside corner to take the starting job for Haden; they have found their guy in Skrine.
The Browns still have Leon McFadden and they are going to continue to draft corners, because a team can never have too many. They will bring in guys and have them compete and if someone can outplay Skrine at this point, they must be terrific. The Browns approach for the corner spot was always going to be a nickel and dime approach in the draft, because Horton’s history is one that simply does not put a ton of value on corners and especially not the second corner. They put more value on the front seven (which has clearly been the case here) and the safety position.
Look for the Browns to bring in a corner anywhere from the third to seventh round likely on a yearly basis, but it would be a huge surprise if they use any real free agent capital or higher picks on a corner at this point. They have to resign Haden to what will be a huge contract and it would not be a surprise if they tried to lock up Skrine early to reward him now, but also to avoid having to pay a second huge contract to that position. If they operate anything like the Steelers, the Browns will simply let Skrine walk if they think he is going to get paid too much and look to fill in with those corners like McFadden and others.
The potential seen in Skrine that had him drafted in round 5 out of tiny Chattanooga has been realized. Skrine is good and appears to be getting better. Just how high he can go remains to be seen, but he has definitely locked down the spot from Haden and taken that spot from a question mark to a strength. The Browns do not need to find a starting outside corner. They have their duo and while they will still bring in corners, it will be for nickel and dime as well as depth and development going forward. The Browns have an extremely strong front seven and now, they also have two good corners. Unlike the front seven, the corner position has no depth and if either corner is hurt, the Browns are at an immediate disadvantage. Skrine’s toughness, resilience and hard work should be embraced by Browns fans and even Skrine’s harshest critics. The kid can play and he has gone through hell to get to this point; he has earned it.