The Cleveland Browns left plenty to be desired in 2021, but their past offseason investment in the secondary paid off.
Heading into this past September, who could’ve realistically predicted the Cleveland Browns to not make the postseason? Come on, I get it’s the Browns, but don’t tell me you did.
The Browns were coming off their best season (11-5) since they came back, and the team seemed primed for a deep run in the postseason under head coach Kevin Stefanski and company. Cleveland had its first playoff victory since 1995 in January of 2021, too, which was at their nemesis, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Unfortunately, because of a variety of factors, things didn’t work out this season for Cleveland. Whether it was Baker Mayfield’s injury issues, inconsistent tackle play, partly due to Jack Conklin often out, previous drama with Odell Beckham Jr., or lack of wide receiver production, the team underwhelmed.
8-9? With that roster? Regardless of circumstances, nobody could’ve honestly have thought that’d be how 2021 would play out for Cleveland. But it did.
That said, there were still some positives, such as the play of the interior o-line still, Nick Chubb’s work, Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney on the edge (the latter of whom should be re-signed), and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah’s job well done.
One unit was likely Cleveland’s best one, though, and that was the secondary, as was demonstrated by Pro Football Focus recently. The Browns secondary ranked as the fourth-best in the NFL in 2021, per PFF’s Anthony Treash.
Here was more from Treash in that realm.
"“Opposing quarterbacks netted a 71.8 passer rating when throwing at one of Cleveland’s outside cornerbacks this season, the lowest among the 32 defenses. Led by Denzel Ward, Greedy Williams and rookie Greg Newsome II, the Browns’ cornerback grade finished with the third-best coverage grade in the NFL.Wade and Newsome, in particular, produced top-10 coverage grades when in single coverage. Cleveland also received some sneaky high-quality play from 2020 undrafted free agent A.J. Green, who posted a 90.3 coverage grade across his 116 coverage snaps. Green allowed only six receptions for 70 yards on 22 targets while breaking up five and picking off one. This group should contend for the top spot next season.” — Treash, PFF"
The Cleveland Browns secondary was likely its top unit this season, as PFF relayed.
The Browns invested heavily in the secondary this past offseason, given its inconsistencies in 2020 holding the club back, to some extent.
They signed the likes of John Johnson III and Troy Hill from the Los Angeles Rams in free agency, Cleveland drafted Greg Newsome II in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, and Johnson and Newsome proved to be impact contributors as the year progressed, even more so. Hill was up-and-down, but I’d imagine will be better in 2022 with Cleveland.
Now, it did take time for Cleveland’s fairly new-look secondary to gel, and there were admittedly some rough games for the defense early on, and the 45-7 loss at the New England Patriots for the team overall was about as awful as it gets.
However, the pass coverage from the Orange and Brown seemed to get better as the season wore on, at least secondary-wise, as the aforementioned Treash noted, especially outside the numbers. And generally, the secondary play was a key bright spot for the team this season.
Newsome and Denzel Ward excelled on the perimeter, and M.J. Stewart, more so playing safety this go-round did a solid job in his own right when called upon, along with the aforementioned A.J. Green. Newsome and Ward (who I’d imagine should stick around) need to stay healthy, as an aside, but they’re invaluable.
From there, we’ll have to see what plays out involving Ronnie Harrison Jr., who seems likely to be playing elsewhere, as DPD’s Greg Newsome alluded to. Although to reiterate in general for the unit, in a disappointing season for the Browns overall, especially offensively, the secondary was one of the clear positives.
That unit placing fourth in PFF’s secondary grading was a welcomed sight. Hopefully, Cleveland can get better on the interior d-line and at wide receiver leading into next season, and regarding Mayfield, well, that’s a conversation for another day.