Richard LeCounte III entered his final season at Georgia with the potential to become one of the top safeties of the 2021 NFL draft class.
He produced a combined 11 pass breakups and five interceptions in his sophomore and junior seasons and even led the defense with 74 tackles in 2018. LeCounte possessed all the traits safeties need to thrive at the NFL level, and if he could produce one more strong season, he could've boosted himself up to the top of safety draft boards around the league.
But his final year didn't go as planned.
LeCounte missed most of Georgia's final five games after he was struck by a vehicle while riding a dirt bike. He fortunately recovered from his injuries, which included a concussion, shoulder sprain and bruised ribs, in time for his Pro Day, but his numbers were below the standards for top-tier safeties in the draft.
The Browns, however, were thrilled to draft LeCounte with the 169th overall pick of the draft in the sixth round. They believe his tape and college numbers, which include 18 pass breakups and eight interceptions against the top talent of the SEC, provided enough evidence for LeCounte's abilities.
Dane Brugler, senior draft analyst for The Athletic, agrees.
"The Pro Day didn't quite have the numbers that teams are looking for," Brugler said in a "Browns Breakdowns" video with Nathan Zegura, "but anybody that watched LeCounte on tape knows that those numbers do not match what the tape shows when he was healthy."
The tape shows LeCounte as a hard-hitting, instinctive player who excels at reading the offense at the line of scrimmage and putting himself in position to make game-changing plays.
All those traits were still present in LeCounte's senior season tape. Despite missing the final five games, he finished the year with seven pass deflections and three interceptions and was on pace to build his best college season yet.
"It's not only about the finish, but the understanding of what the offense is going to do," Brugler said. "Instead of being overzealous and trying to fly downfield to make the play, he knows what the offense is doing, and he makes them pay."
The development on each of LeCounte's three interceptions last season put his quickness and instincts on full display.
Two of his picks came in Week 1 against Arkansas. The first catch was made after LeCounte followed a tight end and properly read an errant throw to make the pick, rather than gearing up for a big hit on the opponent. The second was made on a trick play by the offense where the pass came from a wide receiver, but LeCounte was never fooled and stood his ground in the backfield to make a tremendous one-handed catch.
The third pick was a bit different and was completed after Georgia defensive end Azeez Ojulari delivered a hit to Alabama quarterback Mac Jones. Jones couldn't complete his finish on the throw, which led to a high, wobbling pass set to land in LeCounte's vicinity.
After originally backpedalling to follow the receiver going deep, he changed gears and sprinted forward to make the diving catch.
Sure, the play was a bit easier to read, but LeCounte's ability to spring to the landing spot and get his hands beneath the ball still showcased his athleticism.
"He's field-fast and he's decisive," Brugler said. "(He has) that split-second awareness to see where the ball is going to be, make the interception, and then turn into an offensive player and make something happen."
So where does LeCounte fit with the Browns' safety group in 2021? That question won't be decided until training camp, at least — the Browns have three safeties in John Johnson III, Grant Delpit and Ronnie Harrison Jr. who are capable of carrying the bulk of snaps this season.
But LeCounte certainly has the potential to become a reliable backup or rotational player as a rookie if he can find ways to make the same plays he made at Georgia. The Browns believe LeCounte can outplay the standards that normally come for a sixth-round draft pick, and they're ready to give him every opportunity to show it in his rookie season.
"Because he has the instincts and he has the athleticism, there's a chance he's going to be too good to be kept off the field," Brugler said, "and he might be able to squeeze his way into early playing time on defense as well as special teams."