The Cleveland Browns have a few of their own players hitting free agency. Today we breakdown pending free agent M.J. Stewart, and if the Browns should be interested in bringing him back.
How Stewart’s NFL journey began
For those that view football through a Cleveland Browns lens might not realize that M.J. Stewart did not begin his NFL journey in Cleveland. In fact, Stewart was a highly touted cornerback prospect who played collegiately at the University of North Carolina. After four years in Chapel Hill, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Stewart in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft.
Following a slow start to his professional career, the Buccaneers released Stewart after only two seasons with the team. It was at that time that the Browns claimed Stewart off waivers. Brought in as competition for depth at cornerback, Stewart was able to make a strong account for himself and make the final 53-man roster.
Stewart’s time with Cleveland Browns
Stewart spent 2020 as the last cornerback on Cleveland’s active roster. However, fans will remember Stewart for how he finished 2020. Stewart proved to be ready when his number was finally called upon and stepped up in a big way to record two interceptions in back-to-back games with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The second of which came in a Wildcard victory at Heinz Field.
In 2021, Stewart’s role expanded as he became the team’s swing defensive back. Stewart was both the Browns’ fourth safety as well as the fifth cornerback. Providing that versatility allowed the Browns roster flexibility that the coaches and front office coveted.
Just as it had the previous season, Stewart’s number was called upon again as the team battled injuries and covid outbreaks. Stewart started at safety for three of the Browns final four games of the season. Not only did the four-year veteran prove that he could hold his own at his new position, but in fact displayed a starting-caliber level aptitude in those three games.
The case for resigning Stewart
The Browns have some difficult decisions looming at several position groups but retaining Stewart’s services is not one of them. This is a no-brainer if you are Andrew Berry. In Stewart, you have a player who turns 27 at the start of the season and who is just coming into his own. They would essentially be locking up Stewart’s prime physical years.
Stewart is a solid tackler who is a more than willing participant in the run game. He is comfortable both playing in the box and lining up as a traditional strong safety. While Stewart doesn’t have elite top-end speed in the deep third, he does not panic and trusts his technique when the ball is in the air. The Browns play a majority of zone coverage, primarily cover three and cover four, and Stewart’s ability to stay assignment sound make him a perfect fit for Cleveland.
Stewart’s versatility alone rounds out both the safety and cornerback rooms. His ability to line up everywhere from the deep third to dropping down inside to play nickel corner gives defensive coordinator Joe Woods the ability to be multiple in his calls. Given Woods’ proclivity for wanting five defensive backs on the field most of the time, a player with Stewart’s skillset could prove invaluable.
Don’t be surprised if Stewart is one of the first players that Andrew Berry locks up. While it is not a splash move, it could prove to be the most impactful move the Browns make in their defensive back rooms.