Ronnie Harrison emerging as an every-down playmaker for Browns defense

After a few weeks of learning the defense, Harrison has taken over as a full-time player

Ronnie Harrison Jr. knew what kind of news to expect when he received a tap on the shoulder and a call to Jacksonville Jaguars' general manager David Caldwell's office on a hot September afternoon at TIAA Bank Stadium.

Harrison, a 2018 third-round draft pick from Alabama, was preparing to participate in a defensive meeting when the call came. Player visits to the GM's office are normally reserved for big news, so Harrison, who had two interceptions as a safety for the Jags in 2019, mentally prepared for whatever was ahead.

"We're trading you to the Cleveland Browns," Caldwell told him. 

And that was it. Harrison's time in Jacksonville was done, and he had two hours until he needed to catch a flight to Cleveland. As he walked out of the office, Harrison's head flooded with questions.

"What did I do wrong?"

"Why didn't they like me here?"

"Why do they want me in Cleveland?"

Harrison is 6-3, 214 pounds and in his third NFL season out of Alabama. Originally drafted by Jacksonville in the third round of the 2018 draft, Harrison has appeared in 28 games with 22 starts. He has 103 career tackles, three sacks, three interceptions, 12 passes defensed and one fumble recovery. He started 14 games last season and finished second on the team in tackles (70) and passes defensed (nine), while adding two sacks, two interceptions and on fumble recovery. A native of Tallahassee, Fla., Harrison helped Alabama capture two National Championships (2016 and 2018).

That last question was answered for Harrison once he met his new coaches and familiarized himself with the Browns' schemes. Cleveland needed Harrison on its roster to bolster a safety group that lost 2020 second-round pick Grant Delpit to a season-ending injury in training camp. Other players in the secondary grinded through injuries, too, so the Browns needed additional depth.

Harrison, 23, was young, talented and versatile. He was exactly what the Browns needed, and they only traded a 2021 fifth-round pick to acquire him. 

"It was really scary at first," he said. "The season was about to start, and you just finished training camp, and then you get traded. You don't know what to think. You're going to a new team, and you know you don't have a lot of time to pick up on a defense."

After eight games, however, Harrison feels right at home. 

He's recorded one interception, six passes defensed — which have all come in his last five games — and 30 tackles. He was on the field for every defensive snap Week 10 against the Houston Texans and has been deployed as both a free safety and strong safety.

The Browns are making the most out of the talents from Harrison, who currently ranks fifth among all qualified safeties with a 79.1 defensive grade, according to Pro Football Focus.

"He is playing at a high level," coach Kevin Stefanski said. "He is another player that is all about the ball. He is very active around the ball, a physical tackler. I put Ronnie in that category of making plays and a guy that we can count on and we're going to continue to count on."

As soon as Harrison arrived in Cleveland, he was tasked with analyzing a new playbook and familiarizing himself with all of the nuances and play calls of the defense. The Browns had 10 days until their Week 1 game, however, and Harrison was expected to have a slow transition to the defense before he could become a starter.

Learning the playbook only took him a few days. Many of the plays and schemes were identical to what Harrison operated with in Jacksonville and Alabama, and the hardest part of joining a new team was familiarizing himself with new play terminology.

The Browns were going to give Harrison plenty of time to feel comfortable. In his first week in Cleveland, defensive backs coach Jeff Howard arranged a few extra meetings with Harrison to give an opportunity to ask questions about the defense. He always had questions to ask, and he still does in each meeting.

"I really enjoy working with Ronnie," Howard said in a recent interview. "The reason why is because I think Ronnie loves football. He does not really talk about that, but you can see it in his play. When we go out to a walkthrough and when we go out to practice, he just enjoys playing ball, and you can see that with his effort, his focus and his questions."

The Browns used Harrison sparingly in the first few games of the season as he acclimated with the roster. He was used in only 25 snaps in the first four weeks of the season, but that's because Cleveland was prepping Harrison to play a variety of roles at safety.

He was used mostly as a strong safety, which normally requires lining up closer to the line of scrimmage rather than the backfield, in his first two NFL seasons. But the Browns wanted him to also occasionally play as a free safety, a position that has more freedom to roam the field and make plays based on initial reads from the offense.

Harrison carried bigger roles at both positions in Week 5 when his snap count went up to 37. In that game, he made arguably his biggest play of his career.

Colts quarterback Philip Rivers was in the shotgun on third-and-4 and went through his initial progressions. The Browns had all of his first options covered, and his last read was a short pass to wide receiver T.Y. Hilton near the first-down marker on the left sideline.

Harrison knew the throw was coming. He stepped in front of the pass, made the catch and had an unimpeded path to the end zone for six points —  his first NFL pick-six.

"That play felt like it was in slow motion," Harrison said. "I knew the route concept from the formation they lined up in. I knew I was going to get T.Y. coming my way, and just from watching the film, I knew Philip's progressions on that route. I knew he was going to look front side first and then come back to T.Y. Sure enough, he did.

"It felt like I was at Alabama again, like we were in the national championship. I haven't done that since college, so I felt like I was a little kid again."

Harrison unfortunately suffered a concussion later in the game, but he returned in Week 7 and logged 63 snaps. He's been named a starter every week since Week 5 and has emerged as one of the most reliable players in the secondary.

The Browns appear to have made a steal by acquiring Harrison, who's helped the defense piece together their two lowest-scoring games of the season in Weeks 8 and 10. At 6-foot-3 and 213 pounds, Harrison has given the Browns a big, range-y safety that can make tackles from the box, perform well in pass coverage and stabilize a defense that allowed 350 or more total yards in four of the first seven games. 

In their last two games, the Browns have allowed a much-improved 309 and 223 total yards, respectively. Harrison has been on the field for nearly every snap.

"Ronnie has meshed very well," cornerback Denzel Ward said. "He is out there making plays all over the field. He is a great addition to defense and in our secondary."

The transition for Harrison is complete. Now, the Browns are planning to use him as an anchor in the defense for their push toward the playoffs. 

Harrison feels as though he's in a perfect spot. That was what he had hoped once the shock of being traded faded away, and now that he's fully a part of the Browns' defensive game plans each week, his performances are starting to shine.

He's asking questions. He's making plays. And, most importantly, he feels as though he belongs.

"I feel like, just from all the reps and snaps, I just got a little bit of confidence building up," he said. "I feel more comfortable and confident in what I'm doing."

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