Jeff Howard can count on one hand the amount of days he's been able to coach a full-strength Browns secondary.
The Browns' pass game coordinator and defensive backs coach worked with a fully healthy secondary for just five days in 2020. None of those days occurred during the regular season.
Slot cornerback Kevin Johnson went down first with a lacerated liver in the first week of training camp and didn't return until Week 3. Four days after Johnson's injury, second-round rookie Grant Delpit tore his Achilles and was ruled out for the season. Starting cornerback Greedy Williams went down during the same practice with a shoulder injury that ended his season, too.
The secondary had plenty of potential for 2020. The Browns never got to see it. Howard never had a chance to coach it.
"That was a lot that happened to us," Howard said in August. "I feel like football really doesn't produce character; it really tests character. That situation is one example of that. Especially with our guys, we are going to go into the season, it's going to be tough and we're going to get hit in the mouth. It's about how you are going to handle it."
The Browns went into the offseason in need of some upgrades in the secondary. Some will arrive internally; Delpit and Williams are both slated to return in 2021, and safety Ronnie Harrison Jr., who proved his reliability after the Browns acquired him before the 2020 regular season, will have his first full offseason with the team.
But Browns Executive Vice President and GM Andrew Berry has hooked up Howard with several more key additions for next season.
S John Johnson III, an every-down player for the Los Angeles Rams' top-ranked defense last season, and CB Troy Hill, who was the Rams' top option in the slot, have joined the group via free agency. The Browns could also add another defensive back early in the draft, which could give Cleveland one of the deepest and youngest secondaries in the league.
"It's an exciting opportunity for us," Howard said Wednesday in an interview on Cleveland Browns Daily. "I'm excited to work with them. There's so many variations that you could do that allows the play-caller to come up with a multitude of schemes and personnel groupings."
That last part is why Howard likely will be counting down the days until he can return to coaching a full brass of players. His group could feature a variety of formations that most NFL teams won't be able to accomplish with their defenses, and that's because the Browns have transformed their secondary into one of the deepest groups on the roster.
The Browns can line up with three safeties and still feel confident they can shut down the run on any given play. They could play with two safeties, with just one of them positioned in the backfield, and believe they can prevent the deep ball. If they have four cornerbacks and one safety, they should like their odds of being able to shut down any passing play.
The list of formations appears to be endless, and that's a luxury most NFL teams won't carry with them in 2021.
"That's why I've liked this part of the year so much," Howard said. "I see myself as being curious, and I kind of wanted to look into what we did well and what did we do poorly? How can we improve? We do that from a scheme evaluation standpoint, and also down to the players and coming up with an improvement plan."
The amount of schemes and formations the Browns hope to deploy with their defense will be maximized if Delpit and Williams make a smooth return to the field next season. Howard didn't have a chance to coach either player on grass during the regular season, but he still coached them in team meetings, which is why he believes both players won't be too far behind when they can put their helmets and jerseys back on.
"I thought they did a tremendous job during the season to take the situation they had and really invest in every day," Howard said. "They would come to meetings, listen to the game plan, ask questions and rehab so they can get ready for next year. I think that's an investment that will pay off."
Howard has already begun building his relationship with his two biggest additions in Johnson and Hill. Those players, perhaps, will be the biggest reason why the Browns will be flexible in their schemes — both guys have success playing all over the field, which is why they were two of the top free agent targets this offseason.
Both players are veterans, too. Johnson has shown growth in all four of his NFL seasons and ascended to becoming the Rams' defensive play-caller last season. Hill, who thrived last season in the slot, led all NFL players in defensive touchdowns and registered a career-high three interceptions last year, his sixth in the league.
"(Berry) and his group did such a great job in free agency," Howard said. "We're really excited about what (Hill and Johnson) have been, what they believe in and how they've performed in the past."
Howard hopes the days of coaching an injury-depleted position stay behind in 2020. Despite the adversity, his group still battled week-to-week and helped launch the Browns into the playoffs, which makes the potential of the secondary upgrades for 2021 even more exciting.
Now, Howard can count on two hands the number of proven playmakers he has in his group. His group could be one of the most improved on the Browns, and he'll be able to enter next season with plenty of depth to meet his vision for the defense.
"I think there's a great opportunity," he said," but opportunity without work doesn't mean anything. So I'm excited to get these guys back into work and see what we can put together."