One of the ancillary effects of J.J. Watt's decision to sign with the Arizona Cardinals is it frees up the Cleveland Browns in terms of their strategy for free agency strategy, particularly as it relates to where they want to spend money. Not getting Watt may allow them to add premium safety help as the Browns transition to a team that consistently has three on the field.
If the Browns go this route, it could have a major impact on their draft outlook this year. Two players that scream out as great fits for the Browns in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft are Trevon Moehrig of TCU and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah from Notre Dame.
Moehrig is a true top down safety that could play both strong and free safety as well as contribute as a slot defender with a tremendous combination of size and athleticism. Koramoah is the ultimate rover, which should be a focus for this offseason. Able to cover in the slot, make tackles like a linebacker and blitz, Koramoah would play the same position he did for the Irish defense.
However, the Browns can't bank on the fact that either player will be available at their pick and free agency comes first, so if they love a player, they won't hesitate to go after them and then adjust their draft strategy as necessary.
Both Grant Delpit and Ronnie Harrison offer the Browns some flexibility in terms of how they address the position. The recovery from the Achilles' Delpit suffered is an underlying factor where it's just difficult to know what he will offer the Browns this year, but he can play both strong and free safety. He also has experience operating in the slot from his time at LSU.
Harrison is a strong safety by trade but he excelled when he played around the line of scrimmage and he offers the ability to cover tight ends. He could transition to the rover position, so the Browns aren't restricted in what type of safety they target. They can adjust their personnel as needed.
Marcus Williams, New Orleans Saints
Perhaps if not for the presence of Justin Simmons, who is likely to be tagged and re-sign with the Denver Broncos, Williams would be a much bigger deal. Williams is one of the best free safeties in the NFL and he's still just 24 years old, younger than even Myles Garrett.
The Saints are hoping they can find a way to unload over $70 million in salary so they can find a way to keep Williams in New Orleans. If he does change teams and ends up on a contender, he's the type of player that can shift the balance of power in a division or a conference. The Browns could make an enticing pitch for him to continue going after a championship while cashing in with a sizable contract.
6'1" and around 200 pounds, he has great size and he thrives in both man and zone coverages while still contributing against the run. There's not much he can't do, which would allow the Browns to disguise more of their coverages and swap roles on a given play. Especially if Delpit was to move to strong with free safety ability, the offense should be kept off balance trying to determine where the Browns safeties are going on a given play.
Pro Football Focus projects Williams to get a 4-year deal at an average of $14.25 million with $30 million guaranteed.
John Johnson III, Los Angeles Rams
Johnson's breeding at Boston College seemed to conducive to NFL success. He was a slot corner before he was a free safety for the Eagles because they had Justin Simmons. After Simmons went to the NFL, Johnson took over and became the last line of defense.
In the NFL, Johnson has been terrific in coverage, which is obviously a huge draw for the Browns. Like with Williams, the Browns could put him at free safety but the Browns would effectively have two. And it just becomes a question of their roles on a given play.
Johnson is 26 years old and it'd be easy to figure him to be around for four years if the Browns get him. The Rams are cash strapped and haven't necessarily acknowledged that they are losing Johnson, but that appears to be where it's headed.
Pro Football Focus projects Williams to get a 4-year deal at an average of $13.75 million with $26.5 million guaranteed.
Keanu Neal, Atlanta Falcons
The Browns could re-sign Karl Joseph to play the rover position. After initially signing to be a strong safety, the Browns started utilizing Ronnie Harrison in that role. Later in the year, Joseph started playing in the box, where he was effective. Much would depend on if Joseph would embrace that role or if he's intent on playing a top down safety.
Enter Keanu Neal, a former first round pick just like Joseph has been a box safety his entire career. The question with Neal has been injuries, which impacted both 2018 and 2019. But when he's been on the field, he's excelled near the line of scrimmage and the Browns could opt to sign him and make him a full time rover.
At 6'1" and around 215 pounds, he's got the size for it and could help the Browns keep more speed on the field while not losing their physicality to make tackles and defend the run. He is also someone who can blitz effectively.
Pro Football Focus projects Neal to get a 2-year deal at an average of $5 million with $6 million guaranteed.