Browns training camp preview: Cornerback and safety

Editor's note: Tony Grossi covers the Cleveland Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR.

One of a series previewing Browns position groups leading up to the start of training camp …


Projected starters: Denzel Ward (r), T.J. Carrie.

Others returning: Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Mike Jordan.

Newcomers: E.J. Gaines, Terrance Mitchell, Simeon Thomas (r), Denzel Rice.

Analysis: Browns cornerbacks were judged so badly by coordinator Gregg Williams last year that he played a safety 25 yards off the line of scrimmage to guard against deep balls.

Cornerbacks were viewed so badly, the Browns unloaded both starters for virtually nothing.

Cornerbacks were so bad, the Browns added three veterans in free agency, and then used the fourth overall choice on the top press-cover corner in the draft, Ohio State’s Denzel Ward, over the draft’s top pass rusher, Bradley Chubb of North Carolina State.

And then they drafted a 6-3 cornerback in the sixth round, Simeon Thomas.

And even then, they may have bid a future third-round pick in the supplemental draft for yet another cornerback, Sam Beal of Western Michigan, only to get aced out by the New York Giants, who had the draft position just ahead of them. The Browns declined to say if they bid on Beal.

So the Browns, at the behest of Williams, have totally remade their cornerback room. The lone survivor with the most play time, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, took snaps at dime safety in OTAs and minicamp.

Ward might be one of the smallest corners on the roster – 5-11 and 183 pounds – but he’s the biggest addition to Williams’ defense.

At No. 4 overall, Ward is the highest pick the Browns have ever used on a cornerback. He is also the first Ohio State player drafted by the Browns since receiver Brian Robiskie in 2009.

“He is one of the best press guys that I have seen in the last few years at this level,” Williams said in June. “He still has a ways to go, but coming in, he has a base of knowledge that is pretty good.

“Everything passed with flying colors on him. Denzel fits in with what we need to do, how we need to improve here and how we need to improve as a team here. It will all come out in the wash once you play the games and start to win games.”

Strengths: An elite athlete in Ward – 4.32 40 and 39 in. vertical jump at the NFL Combine – who comes from the Ohio State DB factory. Depth with veterans Carrie, Gaines and Mitchell.

Biggest questions

1. Can Ward survive a wide receiver gauntlet of Antonio Brown, Michael Thomas, Keenan Allen, Tyreek Hill, Julio Jones, A.J. Green, Mike Evans, DeAndre Hopkins and Demaryius Thomas?

2. Will Ward justify his selection at No. 4 ahead of Chubb?


Projected starters: Damarious Randall, Jabrill Peppers.

Others returning: Derrick Kindred, Derron Smith, Justin Currie.

Newcomers: Elijah Campbell (r), Montrel Meander (r), Micah Hannemann (r).

Analysis: Jabrill Peppers is the only returning starter in the Browns’ secondary, and he was moved to a new position. It’s a familiar position to him – in-the-tackle-box strong safety – at which he excelled his last year at Michigan.

was uncomfortable playing 25 yards downfield his rookie year as Williams’ deep “angel” safety.

He never complained and the coaches were largely pleased with his effort.

“He went back there and played free safety because he was the best guy on our roster to do that, and I thought did a really good job in his first year transitioning to that position,” said defensive backs coach Jerod Kruse. “He has done some really good things this spring.”

That’s because Peppers was back in his comfort zone closer to the line of scrimmage.

“Jabrill is really, really good around the ball and having a chance to make plays on the ball,” Williams said.

Taking over at free safety is Damarious Randall, whom the Green Bay Packers played out of position at cornerback. Randall said he welcomed returning to the position he played at Arizona State.

“He can cover space. He is smooth as an athlete. He has good instincts,” Kruse said. “I think one year in junior college, if I remember correctly, he had 10 interceptions.”

Strengths: Better fits at free and strong safety.

Biggest questions

1. Will the safety realignment result in more interceptions? No returning DB had more than one steal in 2017.

2. Will Peppers resemble the player he was at Michigan after being moved closer to the line of scrimmage?

3. What will Randall produce in his first NFL season at free safety?