One of the positions the Cleveland Browns need to address this offseason is corner, but there's no obvious path to address it effectively through either free agency or the NFL Draft. As a result, the Browns may be forced to undertake more creative measures to address the issue.
The Browns want to get faster everywhere, but this is especially true on the defensive side of the ball and in the secondary. As it currently stands, the Browns need a starting boundary corner and slot defender.
If the Browns want to play more to the strengths of Denzel Ward as well as Greedy Williams, they will run more man coverage than they did in 2020. That also tends to cost more both in draft capital as well as money.
Free agency doesn't have great options right now for defending the boundary. Perhaps there will be some additional options as a result of cap casualties, but right now, the field is pretty thin.
The best option may well be Ronald Darby, who played all 16 games for Washington this past season. He's an excellent cover corner, who has been consistently effective throughout his career. The problem is in the three previous seasons, Darby missed a combined 20 games due to injuries. Combining that with Ward, who has had his own issues staying on the field, that's a precarious situation, especially as their depth at corner was pushed to the limit last year.
If the Browns are content to stay with a heavy zone defense, they could go after Chidobe Awuzie, coming off of his rookie deal with the Dallas Cowboys. He's coming off of a season where he missed a significant amount of time due to injury, but he's also going to be just 26 years old this season.
That's the problem in a nutshell. There just aren't many options to put opposite Ward that truly upgrade the position in free agency.
The NFL Draft is another option, but that would require the Browns to potentially allow a need to wait until then, which puts them at a disadvantage. Teams want to use free agency to address needs to provide as much flexibility as possible in the draft, enabling teams to add the best talent rather than chasing needs.
This year's class of corners have talent, but the pool is relatively shallow. Jaycee Horn of South Carolina might be someone the Browns would love to take with 26th pick. The first issue is that he has to last that long, unless the Browns are willing to trade up to get him.
Horn is a talented man coverage corner with excellent size, but he's handsy. He's thrived in press and prefers to stay in contact down the field. The Browns might embrace that about him, but if they want him to play more like Ward, that could be a significant adjustment.
Asante Samuel Jr. out of Florida State is a great corner, but everything depends on how the Browns view him in terms of his role. If they see a boundary corner, they might be happy to take him at 26 or even trade back a bit and then select him. If they view him as a slot due to perceived size limitations, even if he's an exceptional one, they may not prioritize him as much, unless the boundary issue is already addressed.
Greg Newsome of Northwestern is an intriguing option. He had a breakout 2020 season, even if it was abridged. Newsome excels at playing off coverage and playing down hill with the length teams seek. Some people think he warrants a first round pick, but that seems a little rich. Maybe if they move down?
Aaron Robinson, the Alabama transfer that finished his career at Central Florida has much of what teams would want in a boundary corner, but he exclusively played slot in college. That doesn't mean he can't be a boundary corner, but it is a projection.
Waiting for the NFL Draft just seems too risky, particularly this season. Last year, when the Browns were selecting 10th overall and there were four fantastic tackle options, they could afford to let the board fall to them. They selected Jedrick Wills, who had a solid rookie season. That's not a great option picking 26th with fewer options available.
The best path forward may be trading for a veteran, which could be a great option in this salary cap strapped environment. There are teams that need to dump salary as well as teams that are in a state of transition that have some veteran corners that aren't going to help them much right now.
The Saints are in the process of trying to dig out from their salary cap nightmare and have recently created $15 million in space. That only leaves with almost $50 million still to go. If they can't see a path forward that keeps Marshon Lattimore and his $10 million salary, that might be a dream scenario for the Browns if they can land him.
Stephon Gilmore of the New England Patriots could be a short term option. He will be 31 years old and is coming off a down year by his standards, but he was great in 2019 and could thrive opposite Ward with the Browns.
If the Patriots did move him, the salary for 2021 would only be $7 million with a $500,000 roster bonus. The Patriots would have to eat nearly $9 million to move him, which would likely be priced into the deal. That would address the boundary corner spot and leave the Browns with plenty of room to operate to add talent elsewhere. The Browns would then have to decide if they want to keep Gilmore beyond the 2021 season.
One of the benefits of making a trade is that it doesn't impact the compensatory pick formula. The Browns have a significant number of free agents that may end up signing elsewhere and if they make trades as opposed to signings, they could end up getting some later round picks in 2022 despite the fact they are adding talent.
Starting corner is one of the Browns biggest holes to fill this offseason, but it may be the most challenging. There are some options, but it may require a creative solution, such as a trade. It might even require the Browns send a relevant player to get a deal done.