As the Browns prepare to embark upon their second season under Pat Shurmur there are many questions that remain. With training camp opening this coming week, we’re going to take a position-by-position analysis of the current roster as the team heads to camp over the next two weeks.
This is the last on the defense and now in part nine we look at the secondary.
Candidates: Sheldon Brown, Ray Ventrone, Usama Young, Dimitri Patterson, Joe Haden, T.J. Ward, Buster Skrine, Eric Hagg, James Dockery, Antwuan Reed, Trevin Wade, David Sims, Johnson Bedemosi, Emanuel Davis, Tashaun Gipson.
With the exception of Mike Adams, the Browns secondary returns from a year ago. Joe Haden and T.J. Ward enter their third seasons and are counted upon to be the anchors of the group. Besides Haden and Ward, the other two positions appear to have training camp battles.
Sheldon Brown returns for his 11th season and he is expected to battle Dimitri Patterson or Buster Skrine for the starting cornerback spot. Patterson was re-signed as a free agent in the off-season and the Browns paid him as if he was a starter. Despite starting just one game, he broke up 12 passes without an interception.
Usama Young and Eric Hagg are expected to compete to be the starter at free safety. Young was signed as an unrestricted free agent in 2011 and expected to be the starter. However, Young was not able to unseat Adams in 2011 after starting slowly with an injury. Meanwhile, Hagg impressed the coaches enough to create a preseason battle.
Sheldon Brown (5-10, 200, 11th year, South Carolina) – Many followers thought the coaching staff might move Brown to safety as there is not many 33-year old cornerbacks in the NFL. However, Tom Heckert and Pat Shurmur both said Brown will play cornerback. The Browns paid Dimitri Patterson starter-type money to re-sign him and he might unseat Brown opposite Haden. Brown had 48 tackles, with 13 passes broken up, two interceptions and one fumble recovery. Brown most likely will start, but if he doesn’t he will be the third cornerback.
Ray Ventrone (5-10, 200, 7th year, Villanova) – Ventrone has defied the odds, having played six NFL seasons almost exclusively as a special teams player. Ventrone had three special teams tackles last year and will be in a battle to keep his spot with several young defensive backs battling him.
Usama Young (6-0, 200, 6th year, Kent State) – Young was signed as an unrestricted free agent prior to the 2011 season, but he was unable to unseat Mike Adams at free safety. Young took over when Ward went down, but he never played over Adams. Young is in a battle for the starting free safety this year with Hagg Young had 66 tackles in 2011 in eight starts, with one interception and one pass broken up.
Dimitri Patterson (5-10, 200, 6th year, Tuskegee) – Patterson had 26 tackles, starting just one game. He broke up 12 passes and after re-signing as a free agent, he is expected to compete with Brown for the starting cornerback position opposite of Haden.
Joe Haden (5-11, 190, 3rd year, Florida) – Haden broke up 19 passes last season and had no interceptions after having six as a rookie. He had his hands on several passes, but couldn’t hang on to any of them. Haden had 65 tackles and a fumble recovery.
T.J. Ward (5-10, 200, 3rd year, Oregon) – Ward missed the final half of 2011 with a foot injury. In the eight games he played, Ward had 38 tackles, three passes broken up and a forced fumble after having 105 tackles, 10 passes broken up and two interceptions as a rookie. The Browns are expecting him to return in 2012 at a high level.
Eric Hagg (6-1, 205, 2nd year, Nebraska) – Hagg got off to a very slow start as a rookie after being a seventh-round draft choice from Nebraska. He suffered a knee injury and had minor surgery at the start of training camp. However, rather than placing him on injured reserve, the Browns kept him on the roster until he was able to play. He played in 10 games and had 11 tackles with a fumble recovery. Hagg was the MVP of the Cornhuskers defense in 2010, leading the team with five interceptions and the Browns hope he can bring his ball-hawking abilities to the Browns.
Buster Skrine (5-9, 185, 2nd year, Chattanooga) – Skrine was drafted in 2011 in the fifth-round. He played in all 16 games with 10 tackles, two passes broken up and an interception. He also added 9 special team tackles. He is clearly one of the fastest players on the team and could be a key contributor in nickel and dime packages. Skrine also averaged 24 yards on kickoff returns.
James Dockery (6-1, 185, 2nd year, Oregon State) – Dockery overcame big odds to make the roster as an undrafted rookie free agent a season ago. He played in 12 games, mostly on special teams with five tackles. He has good size and could be in the mix for playing time this season. On the down side, Dockery was inactive for the final three games.
David Sims (5-9, 204, 1st year, Iowa State) – Sims is not as tall as most of the players in the secondary fighting for a roster spot. He will have to have a great training camp to catch the coaching staff’s attention.
Trevin Wade (5-10, 190, Rookie, Arizona) – The Browns selected Wade in the seventh-round of this year’s draft and he looked good in the OTAs and minicamps. He has a better shot to stick on the roster or on the practice squad than the undrafted rookie free agents because of that.
Antwuan Reed (5-10, 190, Rookie, Pittsburgh) – Reed is one of four undrafted rookie free agents trying to impress quickly.
Johnson Bedemosi (6-0, 200, Rookie, Stanford) – Bedemosi is a little bigger than the other rookie defensive backs and he’s trying to show he belongs in the NFL.
Emanuel Davis (5-10, 195, Rookie, East Carolina) – Davis flashed a little in the rookie minicamp and in the OTAs. He’s still fighting numbers as an undrafted free agent rookie.
Tashaun Gipson (5-11, 205, Rookie, Wyoming) – Like Davis, Gipson made a couple of plays in spring practice as an undrafted rookie free agent.
Better than 2011?: If Hagg wins the free safety job, the Browns will become much younger in the secondary. Haden and Ward are expected to continue to develop into top-level players in just their third seasons. At safety, Ward returns after missing the final half of the 2011 season with a foot injury, and is hoping to return to the form he showed as a rookie.
The Browns chose to let the versatile Adams leave in free agency, putting the pressure on Hagg to step up and contribute in just his second-season. Patterson had a very good season in 2011 and gives the Browns some depth if he doesn’t end up starting over Brown.
Over half of the Browns games this year are against teams whose quarterbacks are elite or near-elite players and the secondary will have to play well. The Browns passing defense was ranked second in the NFL in 2011, but it might be because opponents’ offenses were able to run at will against the Browns, keeping their passing numbers down.