Cleveland Browns: The Safety spectrum

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 07: Jabrill Peppers #22 of the Cleveland Browns celebrates an incomplete pass against the Baltimore Ravens at FirstEnergy Stadium on October 7, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 07: Jabrill Peppers #22 of the Cleveland Browns celebrates an incomplete pass against the Baltimore Ravens at FirstEnergy Stadium on October 7, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) /

The Cleveland Browns trade for Odell Beckham Jr. helps elevate them into potentially contending now, but the move created a hole to address at safety.

Trading away Jabrill Peppers is interesting on a number of levels, not the least of which is it doesn’t seem like it was the plan initially and now that he’s a New York Giant, the Cleveland Browns have options on how they want to replace him. One major factor that will have an impact on the decision is the preference of new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks. Another could be the presence of Derrick Kindred, whose role in this scheme is yet to be determined.

When Wilks was hired and his had his press conference, one of the players he seemed excited about having was Jabrill Peppers. At that point in time, it did not seem as though the Browns had plans on moving him. Or if they did, WIlks didn’t seem to know about it.

It really does seem as though the rumored attempt to trade for Beckham initially probably did not include Peppers and only after getting Olivier Vernon for Kevin Zeitler and likely being unable to convince the Giants to take a package of picks and Emmanuel Ogbah, they made the decision that they could move Peppers. The Giants having just let Landon Collins leave in free agency, targeted Peppers as an excellent replacement.

The calculation to include Peppers in the Beckham trade may well be on the strength of the options in this draft class and perhaps Wilks is versatile enough that he doesn’t have to have one specific type. He’s someone that seems far more inclined to scheme to the strengths of his players as opposed to fitting players into his specific system.

On a basic level, Wilks wants to run a heavy Cover-3 scheme. That’s what he did when he was the defensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers and what he did as the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. The differences are what he had in personnel and how he utilized them.

In Carolina, he had arguably the best set of linebackers in the league, so he used them, keeping them on the field more than any team in the league. In Arizona, his linebackers were not on the same level, so the Cardinals used far more defensive backs, mostly opting to have at least five on the field at a time.

So as the Browns look to fill the substantial void left by Peppers, who had a fantastic sophomore season, they have a spectrum of options in terms of how they want to address the position. One end of the spectrum has strong safeties that are closer to linebackers; the other, safeties that are practically corners.

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As it so happens, arguably three of the top safety prospects that could be in the conversation for the job have one prospect at each end of the spectrum and one who’s pretty much smack dab in the middle. The linebacker is Johnatham Abram of Mississippi State, the corner is Juan Thornhill of Virginia and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson of Florida is the mix of both.

All three are excellent prospects, have terrific production and athleticism for the position. One or all of them could theoretically be off the board before the 49th pick. Even if they all are selected, the discussion still applies to the style of the safety Wilks could want.

Abram is a player that excels in the box, can fly around and is an intimidating tackler and hitter. He’s 205 pounds that plays like he’s 220 in terms of physicality and power. Abram offers the least in terms of raw coverage ability. He’s certainly not incapable by any stretch but he’s better playing down hill than dropping back.

In a Cover-3 scheme, he’s the type of player that can be effective covering the flat, disrupting crossers or hopefully being able to jam and carry a tight end or slot receiver, even if it’s just to additional help. Abram can also blitz well.

Thornhill is a safety with corner skills. His physicality is at the opposite end compared to Abram. It’s unclear if he’s unwilling or simply how he was coached. Either way, he looks like he went to the Gregg Williams school of tackling, opting to attack with his shoulder and too often giving up his feet. The flip side is he can play deep and can cover players in the slot at an incredibly high level, able to locate and play the ball.

Relative to Cover-3, Thornhill offers a number of options. He can be one of the three dropping into thirds, play a slot receiver in man coverage or employ a robber technique. The hope is that he can also play most tight ends in single coverage. It makes it very easy for the Browns to show three and then drop to two dividing the field in half between Thornhill and Damarious Randall.

Thornhill does have experience playing up, even lining up as a linebacker quite a bit for Virginia. He may be more suited to play deep and come forward, not likely to factor much in the box. However, he is someone that can line up tight over the slot and potentially blitz or drop.

Chauncey Garnder-Johnson has a mix of both and he’s really the player that looks the most like what the Browns had with Peppers. He’s got experience in the box and the slot. Playing deep is something he would need to get more comfortable like Peppers did coming out of Michigan where he spent so much of his career playing  a linebacker position that is sometimes to referred to as an ‘X’.

Gardner is big and extremely physical, showing ability to play the ball and in coverage but he’s raw in this area of his game. He has made some remarkable plays causing turnovers and getting to the football, which only serves to encourage the feeling that he has high potential.

With Abram, they get a genuine linebacker in a safety’s body that needs to continue to evolve in coverage. In that sense, he’s similar to Derrick Kindred, who is already on the roster. In fact, the two are eerily comparable by the numbers. Both are basically 5-10, 205 pounds with athleticism and some ability in coverage.

The Browns may feel Abram is redundant as a result. It’s also possible the front office thinks Abram will simply be much better than Kindred or they like Kindred, want to have less true linebackers on the field and would like another player like Kindred to accomplish it.

Wilks may also look at as having Kindred means he’d like to have someone that is better in other areas like Thornhill. Kindred to this point in his career plays forward at a reasonably decent level but can get exploited in coverage. Wilks may like what he offers against bigger offensive personnel groups or shorter yardage. Thornhill is more suited to play in more pass heavy situations or formations with more receivers. It’s effectively going from a linebacker to another corner on the field. If stopping the pass is at a higher premium, Thornhill may give them the most to stop it.

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And if they loved what Peppers offered, but simply felt Beckham was too good not to grab, Johnson gives them the ability to do many of the same things. Additionally, they felt confident enough to get a reasonable facsimile. The obvious argument against a player like Johnson is they had Peppers and dealt him.

It comes down to which players will be available to the Browns in the draft this year and which Wilks prefers, be it a matter of style or sheer talent. Jabrill Peppers is likely to be the best of what the Giants got in return for Odell Beckham, but the Browns should be in position to find a talented replacement. If they can find a way to the same kind of impact Peppers brought to this defense by 2020 or 2021, the trade will more than pay for itself as well as putting the Browns another step closer to winning the Super Bowl.