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Cleveland Browns Film Room: What to do with Ronnie Harrison?

Cleveland Browns safety Ronnie Harrison will be a free agent this offseason. Should the team re-sign him after a down year, or would it be best to move on?

Following the 2020 season, safety Ronnie Harrison appeared to be a long-term component of the Cleveland Browns defense. A year later, his future with the team is now in doubt.

Originally a third-round pick out of Alabama by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2018, Harrison spent his first two campaigns with the Jags before being traded to the Browns in exchange for a 2021 fifth-round pick just before the season began. 

It took until Week 5 for Harrison to play a meaningful number of snaps, but once he did, he proved to be one of the team's top defenders and helped to fill the massive void left by the injury to rookie Grant Delpit.

A full offseason to acclimate to Joe Woods' system and gel with his teammates in the secondary was expected to lead to a step forward for Harrison, but that did not happen. His season got off to a rough start after he was ejected on his fifth snap in Week 1 against the Kansas City Chiefs, and he was banged up all season amid inconsistent play.

Harrison is a talented player and can be effective against both the run and the pass, but the struggle is getting that effectiveness out of him on a consistent basis. It is not his strong suit to be used as a single-high safety, and while that was typically not how he was deployed, it did happen at times.

He's much better playing the strong/robber role in a two-high look, but he's at his best when he's functioning as an extra linebacker in the box, adding speed, coverage ability, and the potential to knife in and make a stop behind the line of scrimmage.

Having a guy like Harrison who can play the role of an LB with the majority of his snaps coming in the box is very valuable in a modern defense where speed is so important, especially considering the offenses that the Browns will be competing with for playoff supremacy.

The problem is that Harrison's talent is only useful when he's playing his designated role, and there were plenty of times when that didn't happen. The Cleveland defense as a whole struggled with communication early on due to the high amount of turnover from the season before, and Harrison was a part of that. Many coverage busts that led to big touchdowns seemed to be his responsibility, and he also had a tendency to drift into his teammates' zones in an attempt to freelance and make a play, only to leave his area open for the opposing quarterback to exploit.

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After finishing with a 76.6 overall grade from Pro Football Focus in 2020, which ranked 9th among safeties, Harrison fell to 60.8 and 61st in 2021. His performance did improve some as the season went on, but he was unable to reach the same level of play as in 2020.

Furthermore, he was flagged for seven penalties on the season, which ranked second on the defense only to Malik McDowell's 11. Harrison's 584 defensive snaps ranked 12th on the team, so that's not a great ratio. Boneheaded late hits and blatant pass interferences were not uncommon occurrences with him.

Harrison's last action came in Week 12, and it was after this point that M.J. Stewart began to see the field a lot more. Perhaps not exactly in Harrison's exact role, but at the expense of him and slot corner Troy Hill, who also dealt with injuries late in the year.

Stewart played extremely well, which was a pleasant surprise, and he provides superior coverage ability as well as the versatility to play any safety role as well as slot CB.

Both Harrison and Stewart are free agents, and it seems unlikely that both will be returning. When he's playing well, Harrison warrants a role. But when he's making dumb decisions and off doing his own thing, he's a net negative.

Friend of the site Jack Duffin predicts a one-year prove-it deal for Harrison to fall in the range of $4M to $6M. If that is Harrison's market value, it would likely be better for the Browns to move on, whether that's sticking with Stewart, or finding a rookie in the breed of the modern money backer to fill that role.

While it's disappointing that Harrison was unable to continue his upward trend from 2020, he still ended up playing an important role for two seasons, and that's good value for a fifth-round pick from a playoff contender.

The thing to remember about Harrison and his potential departure is that it's less about the specific player and more about the skillset. Harrison is not a cornerstone of the defense, and his skillset (bigger body, physicality, speed, coverage skills relative to a LB) can be replaced, and that seems to be the most likely outcome.