Cleveland Browns 2015 position preview – Defensive Backs
By Mark Riley
Oct 19, 2014; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers cornerback Tramon Williams (38) defends a pass intended for Carolina Panthers wide receiver Brenton Bersin (11) in the second quarter at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
The defensive secondary position group could be the deepest on the entire Cleveland Browns team in 2015, but that depth will be contingent upon the ongoing development of at least two players.
I am speaking of course two draft picks from 2014 NFL Draft – Justin Gilbert (eighth overall) and fourth-round selection Pierre Desir. Gilbert’s rookie season was an disaster, but we’ll get back to him in a second.
Desir showed some flashes of quality play as a rookie, but lacked the consistency needed to excel at such an important position. The fourth-round pick out of tiny Lindenwood University, Desir could be forgiven for not quite measuring up to the speed and overall demands of the cornerback position at the pro level, as I believe he was overwhelmed at first.
Dec 21, 2014; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin (13) and Cleveland Browns cornerback Pierre Desir (26) fight for the ball in the third quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
When Desir replaced Gilbert for playing time, he would flash greatness and then would lose focus and fail. By all reports though, Desir spent much of the off-season developing not only his speed, but his footwork, which while it was OK, lacked the extra burst and rapid opening of the hips necessary to really cover the speedy receivers found in the NFL. Desir was caught chasing wideouts and just throwing up his hands in an effort to cover. As a result, he got flagged for pass interference far too often.
Related: Joe Haden at No. 23 on NFL’s Top 100 List
As someone who has coached defensive backs for years, I often wonder why is it that cornerbacks can’t remember to look for the ball when the reciever does? Lets face it, no receiver looks for the ball when it’s not coming to him. “When the receiver looks, you look” is what I have always taught my defensive backs. “You have as much right to the ball as they do, go get it!”
If Desir has learned this lesson, and has increased his speed as reported, he could be a budding star.
Gilbert spent as good portion of the winter in Florida working out with All Pro cornerback Joe Haden. Gilbert’s biggest problem as a rookie was immaturity and a total lack of focus for the pro game. I believe that Haden’s instruction over the winter, helping Gilbert develop from a child into a man, and working to hone Gilbert’s undeniable talent should Gilbert the player that head coach Mike Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer believed they were selecting.
Nov 6, 2014; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns cornerback Joe Haden (23) against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium. The Browns won 24-3. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
Now that we’ve looked at the Gilbert and Desir, let’s take a look at the anticipated starters in the defensive backfield.
One cornerback slot will be manned by the aforementioned Haden. What can one add about the sixth-year veteran? He’s a star, plain and simple. He is a leader, loves Cleveland and embodies all of it on the field. Haden will again be the backbone of the defensive backs.
Safety Donte Whitner, or “Hitner” as his teammates like to call him, is a steady as they come. He still reads and reacts well to offensive formations and finds the ball quickly. He still hits like a locomotive, too, inciting fear in those who would dare cross the middle of the field.
Related: K’Waun Williams a PFF Secret Superstar
Lining up next to Whitner will unquestionably be Tashaun Gipson, the fourth-year safety out of Wyoming. Gipson lit up defenses last season with a haul of six interceptions, leading the NFL for much of the year even though he only played 11 games due to an injury. He had 52 tackles in those 11 games, too, and is an absolute star in the making, assuming the Browns can keep him around with a long-term contract.
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The second cornerback slot will definitely go to Tramon Williams, formerly of Green Bay. Williams is older at 32, but his skill set remains viable. A ferocious tackler, Williams’ eight-year career has been marked by only one missed game, meaning he avoids injury. He does not avoid contact, though, as on top of his 28 career interceptions, Williams has 373 career tackles, 115 passes defensed, five forced fumbles and eight fumble recoveries. His 82 passes defensed since 2010 is eclipsed only by Haden.
“He is a good fit for any defense because his impressive ball skills have made him an accomplished playmaker,” Pettine said of Williams. “He can play man, press or play off and be successful. Those are attributes that are very important for our defensive backs.”
Williams joins a Browns secondary that was among the NFL’s best in 2014 as the unit placed Haden, Whitner and Gipson in the Pro Bowl; led the league in opponents’ quarterback passer rating (74.1), completion percentage (57.1) and passes defensed (99); and finished second with 21 interceptions.
The remaining defensive backs and safeties (there are an additional nine more players currently on the roster) will find work as backups and special teamers, giving them a chance to help the defense while mastering their craft.
The Browns look to have one of the finest defensive backfields in the NFL and this is going to be imperative if they are going to compete for a playoff spot, especially in the crowded AFC North.
How do you see the Browns secondary lining up in 2015?