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Browns Offseason Pivot Points: Free Safety

One of the more impactful decisions the Cleveland Browns make this offseason will be the starting free safety. Do the Browns continue with John Johnson III or go in a different direction?
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When John Johnson III signed with the Cleveland Browns as a free agent, the hope was that he and Grant Delpit would become a formidable safety pairing that offered talent and flexibility. It's still possible these two could be the starting safeties for the Browns in 2023, but the defense that will now be run by Jim Schwartz could opt to go in a different direction, perhaps preferring a purer center fielder over a combo safety like Johnson.

Johnson has been one of the most frustrating players on the Browns. In his two seasons with the team, he has shown the ability to take over games and he desperately wants to be a vocal leader and often had the right message. However, rabid inconsistency on the field has undermined his talent and his voice. Johnson's peaks and valleys have closely mirrored the performance of the defense as a whole.

At his best, Johnson is someone that can play split-high safety as well as man coverage, though he has been a decent true free at times. Schwartz has often preferred to play more of a one-high look, opting to use his second safety to take away the middle of the field, often in a robber look.

That could play to the strengths of Delpit, but might be a questionable fit for Johnson. However, Schwartz could adapt his scheme to the talent the Browns have as he should if that's the direction they choose to go. If the Browns make the decision that Johnson no longer fits and either trade him or cut him, it opens up their options, but might be at the expense of talent.

Johnson's play has been an issue in a vacuum. However, it is worth pondering if some of the issues Johnson had were more emblematic of the defense overall as opposed to him specifically. To his credit, the Browns defense was better when he had the green dot for example. Better coaching and a clearer direction could benefit him and result in a higher level of play.

One of the other issues Johnson has had is tackling. He's hardly alone in that issue, but it's another area where he often left a lot to be desired. It's a similar issue with corner Greg Newsome.

It's worth considering that because of talent deficiencies on the Browns defensive line, which caused problems for the linebackers as well as schematic choices, defensive backs were asked to do too much. There are multiple areas where improving the Browns at the line of scrimmage would make a dramatic difference for the back end of the defense. 

First, if the Browns are stout up front and able to properly make run fits, Johnson would not have to make as many tackles and the ones he does make might be easier because they are more effectively leveraged. Additionally, that might protect some of the defensive backs at times, putting them in a better position to help with run support. Newsome wouldn't be put in so many situations where he's asked to play a major role in run defense from the slot.

Second and more importantly, if the Browns are more effective up front, they can put opponents into more predictable passing situations. If it's 3rd-and-long as opposed to 3rd-and-short or medium, Johnson isn't as worried about making a run read, which could potentially delay him in getting to his pass responsibility.

There is definitely upside with Johnson if the Browns get other key elements in their defense corrected. Nevertheless, the Browns have to determine if Johnson is worth the $9.75 million he's due to be paid this season. And if they decide he isn't, the Browns front office will then need to come up with an alternative plan at that position, which is not currently on this team. That player would likely come in free agency.

The decision on Johnson has a soft deadline of March 19th when the team owes him a $1 million roster bonus. That's four days after the official start of free agency. Ideally, the Browns would have come to an agreement with a replacement ahead of that deadline.

As it stands now, there are an interesting list of pending free agent safeties the Browns could sign if they choose to go in a different direction. It largely comes down to three categories. Older but perhaps cheaper, younger but perhaps more expensive or younger, inexpensive but unproven.

The presence of Schwartz may help the Browns with some of the more veteran options that have been around the league and have a good sense for how he operates. It may feel less like they are gambling their career on him and the Browns.

It will be worth monitoring to see if some of the potential free agent options end up signing extensions with their current teams, avoiding free agency altogether. Juan Thornhill of the Kansas City Chiefs and Duron Harmon, currently with the Las Vegas Raiders stand out as players that could end up re-upping with their current teams before free agency starts.

For their part, the Browns may end up extending Grant Delpit, which could impact the type of player they pursue to play free safety. The Browns might be more inclined to sign an older veteran as they work to find someone in the NFL Draft that could be a longer term answer. That might take multiple seasons, however, which could lead to further turnover.

Even if the Browns stick with Johnson, they must improve their depth. They were fortunate to be as healthy at safety as they were this past season. Their next man up was Ronnie Harrison, who is also a free agent and appears unlikely to re-sign. The Browns would want to get an option behind Johnson and Delpit that can function as a free safety as well as fit Schwartz's vision for the position within his defense.

It sounds easy to simply move on from John Johnson III. Maybe it will be, but the Browns may not even know how they will proceed at this point. The Browns could go after a replacement in free agency with Johnson as their backup plan. That happened in 2020 when the Browns pursued Jadeveon Clowney in free agency with Olivier Vernon under contract. Clowney signed with the Tennessee Titans and the Browns went through the season with Vernon.

With a soft deadline on March 19th, it shouldn't take long to get an answer on who the Browns will pair with Grant Delpit next season. It will be one of bigger decisions the Browns will make in determining the direction of the defense under defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.