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Browns DB Buster Skrine a marquee free agent after career year


If Browns defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil had his way, unrestricted free agent to-be Buster Skrine would be in Cleveland for the duration of his career.

"Buster is one of my favorite guys on the defense," O'Neil said back in December. "He embodies 'Play Like a Brown.' I don't ever want to let good players walk out the door."

The NFL is a business, and transactions make any business run. Buster Skrine and his four interceptions from the 2014 campaign will be a coveted prize on the open market.

After openly admitting last offseason he needed to make strides as the cornerback opposite the elite Joe Haden -- a position that receives a hail storm of passes its way -- Skrine might've grown more than any player on the Browns' defense.

Skrine's career year started before the season began. When first-round draft pick Justin Gilbert walked into the building, many in the media cast a large shadow on Skrine and predicted a diminished role for the 25-year-old.

But Gilbert needed more seasoning, and Skrine's improvements were apparent in training camp and the preseason. He was less hesitant. He was tracking the ball in the air with ease, defending the deep ball like Haden. He was popping ball-carriers with hard hits.

The transition into a pivotal player on Cleveland's roster carried over into the regular season. In the two most decisive Browns victories of the year, Skrine was the star on defense.

Against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Oct. 12, Skrine was a hefty reason why Ben Roethlisberger posted his lowest quarterback rating of the year (64.4). Skrine blanketed Markus Wheaton and limited him to four catches and 33 yards. In the fourth quarter, Skrine showed how his football reaction skills have developed, fully extending his body to pick off a tipped pass near the line of scrimmage.

A month later on the road in Cincinnati, Skrine was at it again. Cleveland's defensive scheme made Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (10-for-33, 86 yards) look like a deer in headlights for the entire evening -- so much so that he was benched for backup Jason Campbell. Skrine added two interceptions in the game, the latter serving as arguably the most athletic play of the season and catapulted him near the top in fan voting for the Pro Bowl.

"What helped Buster was the technique that we teach in this scheme, it really allowed him to play to his strengths," secondary coach Jeff Hafley said. "He was up on the line pressing, which is his bread and butter."

Skrine's detractors will point out he was among the league leaders in penalties -- 15 in 16 games. But because of the physical nature the Cleveland coaching staff asks from their cornerbacks, the penalties aren't alarming. Hafley argues if the Browns didn't play this aggressive style in the secondary, Skrine wouldn't have reached his potential. 

"Buster grew a ton -- a ton," Hafley said.

Physical cornerbacks are a luxury item in the NFL, and there are franchises willing to break the bank to get their hands on one. The Falcons, Eagles, Bears, Cardinals and Buccaneers are the teams who finished in the bottom five in passing yards allowed.

What makes Skrine more valuable than most is his ability to play both outside and at nickel cornerback. Coach Mike Pettine said that's essentially like an offensive linemen being able to seamlessly transition from playing guard to tackle.

The Browns definitely love Skrine. It's likely other teams feel the same way, making him one of the most intriguing free agents from Cleveland's 2014 roster.

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