Free agent safeties for the Browns to consider in the 2021 offseason

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Jeff Risdon
·8 min read
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The Cleveland Browns have a roster hole at safety entering the 2021 offseason. Two of the primary safeties from the 2020 season are free agents after completing one-year deals, and no young depth has stepped up to prove they can handle bigger roles.

Grant Delpit will be back after missing his rookie season with an injury suffered in training camp. The team’s second-round pick in 2020 figures to be the top dawg, with help from Ronnie Harrison in his second year in Cleveland.

After that? The Browns need more talent to replace Andrew Sendejo, Karl Joseph and perhaps Sheldrick Redwine in the rotation.

Fortunately for the Browns, the free agent safety class is a good one. There are top-line starters, proven role players and some veterans who could be in line for better play with a fresh start in Cleveland.

Here are a few pending free agents for the Browns to consider. All listed here will be unrestricted free agents one the 2021 offseason begins.

Anthony Harris, Vikings

Harris was a coveted player last offseason by many Browns fans, as well as we here at Browns Wire. He elected to stay with the Vikings on a one-year deal instead of coming to Cleveland with new head coach Kevin Stefanski. Now he's a free agent again after a disappointing season where both his coverage and tackling reliability fell off. So did the Vikings pass rush and overall play in front of him, and Harris has earned the benefit of the doubt with several years of above-average play before 2020. Harris can cover in man or zone and make plays (10 INTs in 2018-2019). Harris turns 30 during next season but has not shown any real dropoff in speed or quickness. He's a Pro Bowl-caliber addition with familiarity for coach Stefanski and a style that should blend well in Cleveland. He will not come cheaply, however; Harris made over $11 million last year and figures to command at least that much per year on the open market.

Justin Simmons, Broncos

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Simmons has somehow flown under the national radar despite being one of the best all-around safeties in the NFL over the last few seasons. Unfortunately for Simmons, he's coming off his worst year as a pro in coverage just as he hits the open market. Simmons cut his teeth under Browns defensive coordinator Joe Woods in his Denver days, where Woods was Simmons' position coach and then coordinator. Woods will be eminently familiar with Simmons and his ability to tackle, make plays on the ball in the air, and even rush the passer. Now 27, Simmons is at his best in the centerfield safety role, single high or rotating deep. That's the one role the Browns did not have at safety in 2020 and don't appear to have on the roster going into 2021, either.

John Johnson, Rams

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Johnson was one of the most effective box safeties in the NFL in 2020 for the Rams. He led the team in tackles with 105, his second time in three seasons topping both the Rams and the 100-tackle mark. The 25-year-old improved in coverage in 2020, too. He can capably line up over the slot when tight ends or RBs flex out, and he does have some experience playing the high safety in coverage too. If he continues to grow in his range and man-coverage awareness, Johnson will cement himself as one of the best safeties in the league. He finished with the third-highest Pro Football Focus overall grade at his position last year and how he accomplished it is replicable. As such, Johnson doesn't figure to come cheap either. It's his first time hitting free agency and versatile safeties with his resume can command top dollar.

Marcus Williams, Saints

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Williams was the highest-graded safety in the NFL by PFF in 2020 in both run defense and tackling, with elite marks in both categories. He's fearless at closing on the run and at attacking receivers at the catch point and terminating plays. His coverage is a bit more adventurous. Williams can make the spectacular play (13 INTs in four years) but also the highlight-reel on the wrong end of the play, too. He was more reliable in coverage earlier in his career as the Saints second-round pick in 2017 and was asked to do more for the Saints in the last couple of seasons. There's almost no conceivable way the cap-strapped Saints can bring him back in 2021. Williams has the chance to be the best available player available in free agency this year regardless of position, but it's not a sure bet. It's a safe bet he will get paid on that potential, however.

Karl Joseph, Browns

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Joseph had some positive moments in his first and only season in Cleveland. In 14 games, starting eight, he racked up 67 tackles and picked off a pass. As has been the case for Joseph's entire career, his tackling is either amazing or awful — with no rhyme nor reason for the fluctuations. Looking for the big hit leads to some major slobber-knocking but also some painful whiffs. His red zone pass coverage was a liability but fared better in a robber role over the middle in the bigger field. He played better in a reserve/situation role behind Harrison, and that role is still open if Joseph can come back. He's not the top-end option but he's familiar with the scheme, the locker room and the coaches.

Malik Hooker, Colts

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Taking a chance on Hooker is betting on him doing something he has yet to prove he can do in the NFL: stay healthy. When he's been on the field, the 2017 first-round pick out of Ohio State has been very impressive for the Colts. The problem is that Hooker has played in just 36 of 64 possible games in his four seasons. Hooker has proven himself an effective run defender and very good open-field tackler, and he's got range and awareness in coverage. He will overshoot the target at times, but Hooker is a good starter overall. Because of the injury issues--he played just two games in 2020 and has never topped 14 games in a season--he's more likely to sign a short-term, low-guarantee "prove it" deal. And that could be exactly what the Browns are looking for...

Jaquiski Tartt, 49ers

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Tartt has connections with Joe Woods from the coordinator's one year as the DB coach with the 49ers. That was the soon-to-be 29-year-old's most consistent season in San Francisco. Tartt has a reputation for being a smart player who can make plays but also overthink things on the back end. He's also one of those players who seems to be perennially on the injury report; Tartt hasn't played in more than 12 games in a season since 2016. He's a good option as a depth safety who could step up into a starting role for a few games if needed. Because of his durability concerns, Tartt is likely one of the more affordable options here.

Marcus Maye, Jets

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Maye emerged from the shadow of Jamal Adams after the All-Pro was traded to Seattle, and Maye acquitted himself nicely. He's coming off a season where he bagged 88 total tackles, two sacks, four TFLs and 11 passes defended — all career-highs. The 2017 second-rounder from Florida is peaking at the right time to cash in on the open market. His coverage skills visibly improved in the last couple of seasons, showing a more disciplined and consistent approach. Maye is an impressive tackler in the run game, though he will occasionally dive at the receiver's feet after the catch as he did in the Jets win over the Browns late last season. He does appear to be at his best in the role envisioned for Delpit in the Browns defense, but Maye has proven he can capably play any role a safety will be asked to do.

Tashaun Gipson, Bears

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The former Browns Pro Bowler could make a return to Cleveland. Since leaving the Browns after the 2015 season, Gipson's career has been all over the map. He's trending back up after a solid season with the Bears. His tenures with the Jaguars and Texans weren't as rosy, in part because his propensity to gamble at going after the ball didn't fit the scheme as well. It's those ball skills that led Gipson to his Pro Bowl for Cleveland in 2014 and to cash in a year later, and it's also what would attract the Browns to the 30-year-old. Gipson's ability to make plays (25 career INTs) and his veteran leadership make him an appealing choice for the young Browns secondary as a capable reserve safety. If Cleveland is confident in Delpit and Harrison as the top duo, Gipson could be a nice, affordable No. 3 roaming the back end of the defense behind them.

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