We're 24 days from the start of training camp in Berea, which means we have a little time to look toward the clouds and ponder deep thoughts about how things might go for the 2019 Cleveland Browns.
From that process, we've emerged from the inner portion of our football-focused consciences with nine very important questions related to this football team, which reconvenes for the start of camp in a month. We'll address one per weekday for the next two weeks. Next up: An unheralded player who made some legitimate noise during OTAs.
Most Important Question Ahead of Training Camp No. 4: Does Jermaine Whitehead end up with the starting safety group?
The Odell Beckham Jr. trade brought the Browns the superstar wideout and Olivier Vernon, and cost Cleveland a very reliable guard in Kevin Zeitler. Also given up in the blockbuster deal was safety Jabrill Peppers, a former first-round pick who was starting to look like he was worth the selection by the end of his second season. His departure left a void at the position alongside Damarious Randall, who’s also entering the fifth and final year of his rookie deal.
Browns general manager John Dorsey addressed the position with not one, but two offseason additions. First, Dorsey traded defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah to the Chiefs for safety Eric Murray — whom Dorsey selected in his final draft as Chiefs GM — and then signed veteran safety Morgan Burnett four days later. At the end of the same month, Dorsey spent a fourth-round pick on Miami (Fla.) safety Sheldrick Redwine.
The position seemed to be solved one way or another, though camp would have to determine how the starting lineup would look.
Then, Jermaine Whitehead entered the picture.
Whitehead joined the Browns in 2018 during the season after the Green Bay Packers released him following an in-game altercation that saw him ejected from the contest. He appeared in seven games for the Browns, quietly recording four tackles before the campaign ended.
His presence has been anything but quiet during the offseason. Whitehead saw consistent snaps with the starters during OTAs and minicamp and has made a handful of plays. Where he brings value, though, is a bit surprising.
“He’s shown a lot of range back there. A lot of communication,” Pro Bowl corner Denzel Ward said during OTAs in May. “That’s what you like as a corner, somebody that’s gonna talk to you, get you in the right formation, right coverage and everything. I’m liking Whitehead back there as well.”
Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks had plenty of positive things to say about Whitehead, too. His involvement has been surprising, but also makes the situation at the position a little more complicated. If there are three or four safeties capable of playing the position, which ones end up in the starting roles? This is a group of candidates that doesn’t even include presumed starter Randall, who had an excellent first season in Cleveland. It’s essentially four players battling for one starting spot.
Well, not quite.
One of the foundational tenets of Wilks’ defense is versatile, interchangeable defenders. He likes linebackers who can play all three positions, and also enjoys playing sub packages that feature three safeties. That opens the door for an additional slot, even if it’s not technically a starting position.
Plus, as special teams coordinator Mike Priefer has emphasized during the offseason, the Browns aren’t going to rely on the bottom 11 of the 53-man roster to fill out their special teams. They want to play quality defenders on kick and punt coverage. There will be a use for all of these safeties, as long as they find themselves on the roster.
For now, it’s one of the most intriguing positions on the team because we’ll get to see whether Burnett ends up assuming one of the roles as a veteran on the team a season after he wasn’t quite used properly in Pittsburgh. If not, the job could go to Murray or Whitehead or Redwine. And the most interesting part of it will be who ends up filling the three-safety looks. This group, seen as a weakness in early April, could end up being an important strength of this defense.
The Browns' 53 man roster as of September 20, 2019.