We’ll be without a mailbag next week because of the 2018 NFL Combine, so we’ll make this one extra special with four of your questions.
Where do we stand with our current corners? Jamar Taylor was looking better going into last year, Jason McCourty was doing good for most of the year and everyone likes Briean Boddy-Calhoun’s fire. But who do you think will start next year, including free agency and the draft? -- Jarrod F., Erie, Pennsylvania
All three of the players you mentioned are slated to be back with the Browns in 2018, and the goal will be to surround them with more competition. That, in theory, will elevate the level of play in an area where the Browns struggled, especially when injuries decimated the group, through most of 2017. Cleveland ranked last in the NFL in opponents’ completion percentage (68.1), was tied for sixth-worst in touchdown passes allowed (28) and had the second-fewest interceptions (seven). The Browns need to be better in all facets next season, and the secondary is certainly included.
Focusing specifically on cornerback, the Browns have a few options in free agency and even more in the draft. Chicago’s Kyle Fuller, if he’s not franchised, is poised to be one of the most coveted free agents at the position. So, too, is New England’s Malcolm Butler and Los Angeles Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson. None of the three will come at a bargain, but the Browns are in a position to spend, if they so choose. Buffalo’s E.J. Gaines and Indianapolis’ Rashaan Melvin are also players to watch.
In the draft, the big name is Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick, who is listed by most as a safety but could also play cornerback. The highest-rated true cornerback is Ohio State’s Denzel Ward, who is projected as a top-10 pick but not as high as where the Browns pick at No. 1 and No. 4. At No. 33 and No. 35, the Browns could have their choice of players such as Colorado’s Isaiah Oliver, UCF’s Mike Hughes or Louisville’s Jaire Alexander. Also something to consider: the Browns essentially have an extra rookie cornerback to work with in Howard Wilson, the former fourth-round pick who missed all of last year with a knee injury.
We liked Jarrod’s question so much, we’re tackling another one of his queries...
I am loving the Fitzpatrick pick at 4. I think partially because we missed out on Malik Hooker last year. How do they compare? Or does he compare to Jalen Ramsey more? -- Jarrod F., Erie, Pennsylvania
I’d lean more toward the Ramsey comparison, though it seems more probable Fitzpatrick ends up playing safety on a more regular basis for whichever team selects him while Ramsey has made his mark as a cornerback. Hooker, the former Ohio State star who went 15th overall to the Colts last year, is a prototypical center fielder-style free safety. Before suffering a season-ending ACL injury, Hooker racked up three interceptions in seven games, mimicking the style he utilized with the Buckeyes. Fitzpatrick, meanwhile, played most of his Alabama career closer to the ball as a slot cornerback and was often used as a blitzer. Still, he can certainly roam the field like Hooker, as he filled in nicely at safety as a sophomore and finished his career with nine interceptions, four of which he took back for touchdowns.
Hue Jackson always liked to use a fullback in his offense. With Todd Haley calling the shots, what are the chances we have one on the roster next year? -- Ethan A., Houston
The Browns have had a fullback on the roster for every week of Jackson’s tenure with the team. Malcolm Johnson held down the role for half of the 2016 season, and Danny Vitale has played the position ever since. During Haley’s run with the Steelers, Will Johnson played the role during the first part and Roosevelt Nix has been utilized at the position since 2015. So, odds are in favor of the Browns retaining a fullback, but Haley stressed last week he would build the offense around its strengths. Nothing is locked in at this point.
If Joe Thomas remains with team for 2018, do the Browns pass on drafting an offensive lineman? If Joe Thomas retires, who moves into the left tackle position? Bitonio? Coleman? Johnson? Someone in the draft? -- Brent H., Cambridge
With 12 picks in the upcoming draft, it’d be a safe bet to project the Browns to take at least one player capable of playing left tackle, no matter what Thomas decides. The place where that player is selected could certainly change depending on Thomas’ decision, but general manager John Dorsey has vowed to take the best player available when the Browns are on the clock throughout the draft. As for the in-house options, all three of the names you mentioned are plausible but wouldn’t be considered sure-fire solutions if Thomas opts to retire. Bitonio bounced back nicely last year from two injury-marred seasons and proved why he can be one of the NFL’s best guards. Coleman is coming off his first full season at right tackle and showed promise at what was a new position for him after playing left tackle during his college career. Rod Johnson, a fifth-round selection in last year’s draft, missed the entire season with a knee injury and is still recovering. The name you didn’t mention is Spencer Drango, who filled in admirably for Thomas during the second half of last season. Drango could get another shot to start if Thomas retires, but the Browns would like to surround him with more competition in that scenario. And, of course, if Thomas retires, the Browns could also find their answer in free agency.