Less than week from the start of training camp, three Cleveland Browns defenders stand out as players to keep an eye on as the team prepares for the 2021 season. Takkarist McKinley and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah were acquired ahead of this season while Grant Delpit was acquired by the team last year, but missed the entire season due to injury.
None of these players is likely to be a starter, but they could all find themselves in important roles, which could shape the way this defense is able to play this year. All three fit where the Browns see themselves heading on that side of the ball, enabling them to shape their defense to how best matchup as well as attack opposing offenses this year.
1. Takkarist McKinley, Edge
Of the three, McKinley has the most defined role in terms of what the Browns want him to do, but it still remains to be seen how effective he can be. On the surface, McKinley was signed to be a sprinter off the edge to attack the quarterback. His athleticism and skill set work against any quarterback, but a big reason they liked McKinley is because he doesn't become less effective against passers who can create or extend with their legs.
A big focus for the Browns in the offseason was transforming their defense to be more effective against athletic quarterbacks. Undoubtedly, Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens was part of the thought process, but aside from Ben Roethlisberger, everyone can at least extend a play with their legs in the AFC.
From favorites to win the conference including Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills and Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs to Ryan Tannehill of the Tennessee Titans and Justin Herbert of the Los Angeles Chargers, all of them can get outside the pocket or pick up yardage with their legs. Despite coming off a major knee injury, Joe Burrow of the Cincinnati Bengals is also mobile and the Browns see him twice per season. That makes McKinley incredibly important to what the Browns want to do.
Much of the time, McKinley is likely going to be lined up wide. He can either try to take away the ability for a quarterback to roll to their throwing hand or chase them down from the backside if they work to the sideline, representing an ever present threat. It should prevents those quarterbacks from scanning the field endlessly and picking the defense apart.
Even if opponents try to cheat outside in their protection, that could potentially open an inside rush lane or a blitzer. The fact they would have to account for McKinley would make an impact. It's worth pointing out that McKinley flashes the ability to convert speed to power, flattening out to collapse the pocket.
The Browns don't need McKinley to be an every down player. They just need him to excel in that edge rushing role. If he can do that, it adds an element the team did not have last year, giving the Browns more depth in their pass rush and freeing up Jadeveon Clowney to attack from the interior where he's been more effective generating pressure.
2. Grant Delpit, Safety
Delpit is a mystery since he has yet to play a down in a regular season game after sustaining the Achilles' injury that ended his season last August. At the time, he was expected to be the starting free safety. Since that injury, the Browns traded for Ronnie Harrison and signed John Johnson III, who at least project to be the starters at safety this year.
Where does leave Delpit? Certainly, having someone of that caliber is a luxury as a backup as he works to be fully recovered from his injury, but Delpit can still contribute as a third safety in this defense.
Just how that looks could be interesting because the Browns are so versatile on the back end. Harrison, Delpit and Johnson all have experience playing deep as well as in the slot. They want to be able to disguise their coverages, try to confuse opponents with player roles on particular plays. All of them can potentially play all three spots.
So Delpit has to prove he's healthy, which may be a matter of degrees. He's healthy enough to be out there and practice, but the team also had him out the day after out for precautionary reasons. It's really difficult to pinpoint when Delpit will truly be back to 100 percent, which might not be until 2022.
Then it becomes about fit where Delpit is not only competing against Harrison and Johnson for a starting safety spot, but he's also competing against slot corners and linebackers for snaps as the 11th defender on the field. If the Browns trust his health and believe he's one of the best 11 players on defense, he will play. He might have some added flexibility and be used more as a matchup player than one true spot, but Delpit would absolutely be a factor.
3. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Linebacker/Safety
As much hype as there is around the second round rookie, it's not clear what he's really going to do and where he's going to play to do it. The Browns don't need JOK in order to be an effective defense this year. JOK fell into their laps and they were all too happy to select him. He's got the potential to be a tremendous weapon that could operate as a key role player. That could be as a slot defender or a linebacker.
Maybe he's going to be primarily focused on coverage or they could utilize him as an edge blitzing threat who can play in the flat. One of the reasons that JOK stands out as an intriguing player is because of what he can do in combination with McKinley.
If the Browns are able to accomplish what they hope on defense, teams will be put in obvious passing situations. So whether it's 3rd-and-8+ or potentially 2nd-and-10+, the Browns could put in a package that sees McKinley on one edge with Myles Garrett on the other with JOK lined up outside of Garrett. Jadeveon Clowney and Malik Jackson would man the interior.
The Browns then send McKinley and JOK up the field to contain the quarterback and pinch Garrett inside, potentially leaving Garrett, Clowney and Jackson all facing one on one matchups, overwhelming the protection with their athleticism.
Likewise, the Browns could have JOK lined up outside Garrett to the quarterback's throwing hand and then drop into the flat, defending short passes to that area of the field and then possessing the speed necessary to go make a play on the quarterback if they try to scramble to that side.
JOK could also simply be put at inside linebacker and either blitz or drop into coverage. None of these roles may add up to a starting role in his rookie season, largely operating as a package player. That doesn't mean he couldn't have a major impact on the Browns defense, not unlike how some of the rookies did last season.
Donovan Peoples-Jones, Harrison Bryant and Jordan Elliott were certainly factors for the Browns, but only Bryant exceeded 30 percent (30.12%) of snaps for their respective sides of the ball. That could be the neighborhood that JOK finds himself this season. A clear role that helps the team, but he's also not making or breaking that side of the ball.
There's so much JOK could potentially do and now it's time to finally find out how the Browns see him.