When Joe Woods formulated his plans for the Browns defense in his first season in Cleveland as defensive coordinator, he saw Grant Delpit as one of his top playmakers.
Delpit, the 2019 Jim Thorpe Award winner for best defensive back in the nation, was set for a substantial role as a second-round rookie. Woods planned to take advantage of the team's secondary talent by using three safeties — Delpit was the third safety, and his versatility could give Woods an abundance of tricky defensive looks to an opponent.
"Grant is a very talented player," Woods said in May. "When you look at his tape, he has the ability to play down in the box and he has the ability to play in the post. We can play him in the dime. He can match up in the slot and man coverage. He is the ideal type of athlete that I look forward to getting in the secondary."
Now, Woods has less than three weeks to implement a plan for the defense without Delpit. The Browns announced Tuesday that Delpit, who left practice during individual drills Monday, ruptured his Achilles tendon and is expected to miss the entire 2020 season.
The safety room still has reliable veterans with Andrew Sendejo and Karl Joseph, and Sheldrick Redwine, Jovante Moffatt, J.T. Hassell and Elijah Benton are competing for backup roles. Woods could pluck one of the safeties to fill a similar role as Delpit, but the rookie's absence certainly will be difficult to replace.
"It was very disappointing," Woods said Tuesday in a video call with local reporters. "It was just kind of a freak deal, just going through and catching the football. For all the guys, it's really an opportunity for them. Obviously, you want everyone healthy, but you have to move on."
Check out photos from the ninth day of Browns Camp
The defensive backs room as a whole has dealt with an unfortunate rash of injuries thus far in camp. CB Kevin Johnson, who was one of the top defensive players to open team practices and excelled early as a slot cornerback, suffered a lacerated liver last week, although he was able to watch Tuesday's practice from the sidelines. CBs Terrance Mitchell, Greedy Williams and M.J. Stewart also did not practice Tuesday.
The Browns have had no choice but to embrace the "next man up" mentality and have given first-team reps to younger players. With a large chunk of starting-caliber guys injured in the secondary, the defense still performed well Tuesday against the offense in team drills and won all but one of the rounds of 2-minute drills orchestrated in practice. Pass deflections and interceptions have been common with the defense so far, and that hasn't changed despite the slew of injuries.
"That's a testament to the guys just coming out and playing hard," Woods said. "This is an opportunity for those guys to be seen. We knew going into it what we were dealing with. It's good to see those guys out there and make football plays so we see what we have."
As for the safety position, Woods said he still might plan on using a heavy load of three-safety sets, which leaves room for just two linebackers but could limit an opponent's options in the passing game. He plans on using the remaining days of training camp to mix and match secondary and linebacker combinations to see what fits best.
"I still want to be able to run that package, but we're really going to have to evaluate where we're at with our linebackers and our secondary in terms of what we can do," Woods said. "I'm going to try to do both."
No matter how the defense looks, it won't be easy to replace Delpit. The Browns have lauded his versatility and ball-hawking talent from his three seasons at LSU, and he was set to play a key role in an already talented defensive backfield.
Now they'll likely have to go through 2020 without him.
"He was doing well," Woods said. "The one thing you know is he'll be able to rehab and come back and help us next year."