Joe Woods and the Browns' defense never really had a shot to deploy a full arsenal of safeties during Cleveland's unforgettable 2020 season.
Now, with the addition of John Johnson III, the Browns are not only poised to break out a number of different looks from the back end of their defense, but also will do it with one of the best and most versatile players at the position leading the way.
Johnson was one of the best players and leaders on one of the NFL's best defenses last season, as the Rams finished the season No. 1 in total defense and pass defense. He can play center field, he can hit with the best of the league's strong safeties and he can cover like a corner in the slot. This is the prototype for the kind of safety the Browns covet, and now he's set to enter the prime of his career with them.
"John has a diverse skill set, so we're excited about his versatility," Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said. "He can do a bunch of different things, that will allow us to expand our packages to see where he fits in. Versatility is a big part of where we want to be."
The Browns battled and overcame injuries on both sides of the field all throughout the 2020 season. "Next Men Up" from all walks helped the Browns collect their most regular season wins in a generation and paved the way for the franchise's first playoff victory since 1994.
That very much included a safety group that played behind the 8-ball from start to finish.
Completely revamped from the previous year, Cleveland's safeties were poised for an open competition at training camp that would include second-round safety Grant Delpit. Everything changed, though, when Delpit went down with a season-ending Achilles tear, delaying his highly anticipated NFL debut for a full year and forcing Woods to adjust on the fly. The group would soon include Ronnie Harrison Jr., a talented, versatile safety from Jacksonville, but he would need a crash course to get up to speed with his role on the Browns' defense.
"Grant was ideal in terms of his versatility," Woods said at the time. "He could play strong, free or he could play the dime. That is kind of what I ran when I was in Denver. I still want to be able to run that package, but we are really going to have to evaluate where we are with our linebackers and with our secondary in terms of what we can do, but I believe I am going to try to do both."
Ultimately, the Browns had a hard time getting that kind of package on the field, largely because they rarely had a healthy enough of a group to pull it off. Veteran Karl Joseph was limited in training camp and missed a chunk of the first half of the season with a hamstring injury. Harrison became a full-go option by Week 5 but was sidelined for multiple games — first with a concussion and then with a shoulder injury that kept him off the field for most of December.
Joseph and Andrew Sendejo, who combined to play the most snaps at the position, are free agents. They helped the Browns hold their own in the face of adversity all season long.
Now, the Browns are poised to enter 2021 with one of the league's best at the position and two young, versatile options in Harrison and Delpit alongside him whose best football is ahead of them. Third-year safety Sheldrick Redwine has also proven to be a playmaker with a nose for the ball in his opportunities. Johnson's arrival eases the burden a bit on Delpit, whom the Browns expect to be back in full form but understand will be playing the first professional football of his career.
Johnson, of course, has already played the kind of football Delpit and Harrison will look to emulate. He's also proven to be the kind of leader on and off the field they can aspire to be.
Johnson was both a captain for the Rams defense and the on-field play-caller equipped with a headset in his helmet. This kind of role comes naturally for Johnson, who received those responsibilities in his fourth season even after he was limited to six games in 2019 because of a shoulder injury. His performance was exactly what you'd expect from the defense's quarterback, as he cracked 100 tackles for the second time in his career and played every single snap — one of just four safeties in the NFL to do so.
"I've always felt like the safety should be like the quarterback of the defense," Johnson told reporters in Sept. 2020. "Oftentimes it's the linebacker, the middle linebacker, but just for me personally, you know, high school, college, I was always the leader in the back of the defense."
He's poised to be the same for the Browns' group of safeties, which is set to grow and expand its reach in 2021.
Check out photos of safety John Johnson III