The Cleveland Browns have one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL in Denzel Ward, but the starting spot opposite Ward is entirely up for grabs. Rookie Greg Newsome II and third-year man Greedy Williams will battle each other for the job, and while Newsome is a first-round pick of the current regime, Williams is the incumbent starter, and shouldn’t be counted out in the slightest.
Williams was considered by many to be a steal when he fell to the middle of the second round, where the Browns moved up a few spots to take him. Cleveland needed a cornerback, and Williams was often ranked as the best in the class. He was tall, fast, and skilled in man coverage. His 2017 campaign was exceptional, but he took a step back in 2018, possibly due to wanting to protect his body, having thought his draft position secured.
He beat out Terrance Mitchell as the starter opposite Ward in 2019, and missed four games to injury. He earned a rough 53.6 coverage grade from Pro Football Focus, but his tape shows a player who typically did his job, and this writer feels he performed quite a bit better than most remember. Consistency was an issue, but he displayed a surprising feel for zone coverage, which was far from his strength in college.
The Browns should be able to play more press-man this season with a stronger pass rush and quality safety play, so both Ward and Williams should be better utilized.
Williams is the incumbent starter, but he’s more than a calendar year removed from game action because of the nerve injury he suffered last training camp. He was only just cleared in March, and going that long without playing, practicing, or perhaps even lifting weights gives him an uphill battle to earn his spot back.
His arm and shoulder will likely never be back to 100%, and nerve issues are nothing to mess around with, but a return to around 80% shouldn’t give him any noticeable issues.
It’s an unwritten rule that players shouldn’t lose their jobs to injury, but Williams’ starting role is not guaranteed in the slightest. Free agent addition Troy Hill has plenty of experience on the outside, but is significantly better when playing in the slot, so that is where he should stay.
Rookie Greg Newsome II is a serious threat to Williams, and will be playing quite a bit. The question is whether he’ll buck the trend for rookie corners.
Over the past five years, among 86 cornerbacks who met the 20% qualifier as rookies, only 46 earned PFF coverage grades of 60.0 (average) or higher. It is very difficult to play cornerback as a rookie, and thankfully Newsome is not being counted on to function as the team’s CB1. He can be brought along slowly, truly earning his role.
That said, he is an excellent prospect with an extremely bright NFL future, as long as he can stay healthy. As a prospect, his three main flaws as a prospect were lack of experience, injury history, and a tendency to be too grabby at the top of routes. Other than that, he has everything required to be a perennial All-Pro.
Newsome is fast and ridiculously fluid and twitchy. He moves with ease and the only acceptable response to some of his breaks is to stand up in excitement.
He is instinctive and physical, able to stay in phase with anyone. Like most rookie corners, he’ll need to improve at the catch point, but the important part is sticking with his man. He has the quickness and eyes to bait quarterbacks into throws that aren’t necessarily bad, but that can be capitalized on.
He may begin the season behind Williams on the depth chart, but make no mistake; Newsome is the future at CB2. If they can both stay healthy, he and Denzel Ward can form one of, if not the best CB tandem in the entire league, and their playstyles are remarkably similar.
So, who should start opposite Ward? That question depends a lot on how well Williams returns from injury, and whether Newsome can prove to be an exception to the rule of how rookie corners fare. With how many nickel and dime looks the Browns are expected to deploy, both will see their fair share of snaps. Matchups will also likely play a factor, with Newsome being deployed against smaller, quicker receivers while Williams deals with the taller, more physical ones. Both have concerning injury histories, so hopefully a snap share will keep them healthy.
Both Williams and Newsome offer intriguing skillsets along with injury histories, but neither is being absolutely relied upon, and a team can never have enough quality corners. In regard to who ends up starting, it may not matter all that much. Both will play, but the better player in 2021 could very well prove to be Newsome. That isn't a slight to Williams, who should be solid, but rather a testament to the type of prospect that Newsome is.