5 reasons the Browns defense underperforms expectations

Browns, Myles Garrett. Mandatory Credit: Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports
Browns, Myles Garrett. Mandatory Credit: Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports /
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Cleveland Browns
Cleveland Browns, John Johnson III. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images) /

1. Browns have strong safeties but need free safety help.

Cleveland has three very good safeties in John Johnson III, Ronnie Harrison, Jr., and Grant Delpit. All three perform better in the box and have the ability to stop the run. That’s awesome when the opposition wants to use two tight ends. Unfortunately, someone has to play free safety, and that means the Browns are playing someone out of position.

For the Rams in 2020, Johnson was stationed in the box for 408 snaps and played free safety for 351 snaps (box/free ratio: 1.16). Utilized in that way, he was outstanding, and the Browns rewarded him with a $33.75 million contract for three years.

Yet for the Browns in 2021, he was in the box for 132 snaps, and played free 652 snaps (box/free ratio = 0.20) In 2022, Johnson has been in the box for 168 snaps, and at free safety for 455 snaps (box/free ratio = 0.37). If you are wondering why there has been an obvious drop-off in performance since Johnson came over from the Rams, this is a possible reason.

Yet Delpit and Harrison also thrive in the box rather than at free safety. Both of them are big dudes (6-foot-3, 208 pounds for Delpit and 6-foot-3, 214 pounds for Harrison). Johnson is not as big (6-foot-0, 209 pounds) but doesn’t have the upper gear for a true free safety with a 4.61 Combine 40-yard dash time. Dang it, all three just grade out as run-stopping strong safeties. Unless the other team is playing two tight ends (hello Baltimore), whoever plays free safety is probably going to get picked on.

Likewise, rookie D’Anthony Bell, at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds is a big safety. He can play free safety, but probably grades out more as a box safety, strong safety, or nickel back.

Richard LeCounte was drafted as a potential free safety, but off-the-field injuries suffered in a dirt bike accident prior to the NFL draft may have cost him a few ticks off his sprinting speed. Ultimately, he became the first Andrew Berry draft pick to be waived. Ouch.

This is the classic case of the whole being less than the sum of the parts. Looking at the Browns’ safeties as individuals, the Browns indeed have talent at the position. However, the Browns are lacking a true free safety.

This situation, once again, is something that could well have been addressed via the waiver wire or by poaching someone from another team’s practice squad. Cleveland’s front office was unable to come up with even a stopgap answer this season, and it has cost them.