The most important position battle for the Cleveland Browns is going to feature two players who will both contribute for this team and likely be considered starters. It's the corner that starts opposite Denzel Ward on the situations where they only have two corners on the field. For teams that have very defined roles, that likely isn't a big deal, but this will have meaning for the Browns.
Greedy Williams is entering his second year and will be competing with Kevin Johnson, who was signed on a one-year deal that could be worth up to $6 million. When the Browns have three corners on the field, Johnson will play in the slot and Williams will be on the boundary, but Johnson could certainly play on the boundary if there are only two corners on the field.
Williams struggled as a rookie. He was a better than expected tackler and battled through to make some tough plays. There were also some ugly whiffs along the way. He struggled in coverage and a hamstring injury likely contributed, not only to physical limitations but impacting his confidence.
At LSU, Williams was a man corner and he struggled playing off in Cover-3 three last year. Reading routes and adjusting to certain cuts were incredibly difficult for him. Later in the year, teams were going after him, unafraid to throw deep against him because he didn't trust his technique, got out of phase and then struggled to find the ball, instead running through receivers. It snowballed.
Corner is an incredibly difficult transition to the NFL. Williams had a rough year, which is hardly uncommon for rookies. Healthy, first and foremost should help. He needs to improve in coverage, improving his ability to drive on the ball.
Kevin Johnson is a very credible corner. He had a good year with the Buffalo Bills before signing with the Browns. His issue has been staying healthy. After five years in the league, Johnson has only played all 16 games twice - his rookie season and this past year.
Johnson offers less as a run defender than Williams did last year but he excels in coverage. And while corners need to make tackles, if they can't cover, they aren't going to play. Johnson's ability to play in the slot is something Williams can't do, but he has the length to play on the boundary as well.
The bet the Browns are making is that if he can stay healthy, Johnson will continue to resemble the player that was drafted in the first round in 2015.
There's little doubt the Browns are hoping for Williams to win the job and if it's a tie, it will almost certainly go to Williams. It's the best case scenario for the team. Williams is on a rookie contract and costs next to nothing for until after 2022. Johnson, meanwhile, is a free agent at the end of the year. The Browns could opt to keep Johnson on what he hopes is a long term deal.
If Johnson wins, the Browns aren't done with Williams. Teams simply can't have enough corners and they need at least three good ones and most would hope for four. It would, however, open the door to the possibility the Browns re-sign Johnson as the full time starter. Whether it's free agency or the NFL Draft, the Browns would be in the market to continue adding corners. And that would still happen if Williams with the job.
The key difference is if Williams wins the job, he beat out a credible, starting caliber NFL corner. That would be great news for the Browns and while they would still be in the market for corner help, they could see a path where Williams is the starter opposite Ward at least through the length of his rookie deal.
Ward is set to start extension talks in 2021 and assuming the two sides can get a deal done, cost effective corners become an important consideration. They can afford another starting corner contract, but if they don't have to go that route, it frees up money elsewhere to be spent elsewhere.
The Browns almost certainly view the top three corners as starters unless they are so confident enough in their safeties they view the third safety as a starter. With nickel increasingly becoming base in the NFL, they are constantly on the field. Nevertheless, the winner of this battle could ultimately dictate how the Browns choose to address this position as soon as after this season.