Drafting Florida State’s Derwin James would bolster the secondary but how could he fit in the Cleveland Browns’ defense?
When the offseason began, free safety was arguably the Cleveland Browns‘ biggest need outside of quarterback. Once the Browns traded for Damarious Randall, that need became smaller; but it is still there.
Randall played both CB and FS in college, but the Green Bay Packers drafted him as a CB and played him exclusively in that position. There is no guarantee that he will excel in his new role.
Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick had been talked about as a likely selection at four, but that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. Fitzpatrick may be better as a slot CB, and the Browns already have two of the league’s best at that position in Briean Boddy-Calhoun and T.J. Carrie.
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The other elite safety prospect in the class is Derwin James, and if the Browns hadn’t drafted Jabrill Peppers last year, James would be a no-brainer. He’s 6’2″ 215lbs and has the athleticism and versatility to play pretty much anywhere on defense.
At the NFL Combine, James ran a 40 time of 4.47 seconds, put up 21 reps of 225lbs on the bench press, and showed off his explosion with a 40 inch vertical and a 132-inch broad jump.
His 33-inch arms only add to his freakishness. James is something the NFL has not seen in a long time; a rangy free safety in the body of an elite defensive enforcer.
According to Pro Football Focus, James was the highest-graded safety in college football last year, with a 92.0 score. He allowed just a 43.6% completion rate when he was in coverage. That was tied for the lowest rate among safeties in Power-5 conferences.
James’ size and athleticism allow him to dominate against the run game. He played a lot of money backer at Florida State, similar to how Michigan used Peppers. In fact, James was so versatile that he lined up at defensive end multiple times, just because he’s such a good pass rusher.
James is far from a finished product, however. He is sometimes slow to react to what the QB does, although in college he was able to make up for that with his speed. James won’t be able to do that in the NFL. He is only 21 and has played just 26 games at the collegiate level, so he has plenty to learn. If a good coach is able to get the most out of him, we could be looking at a hall of famer.
James sounds like a fantastic prospect, so why isn’t he a surefire top-five pick?
His versatility can be considered a negative. If you play James as a FS, you’re wasting his ability to stop the run and disrupt the offense around the line of scrimmage. If you play James exclusively in the box, you lose his range in coverage.
This is why he may not necessarily be the best fit for Cleveland. He’s obviously better in coverage than Peppers, but do you really want to keep him there all the time? The Browns could employ a defensive look that includes four down linemen. Jamie Collins Sr. and Christian Kirksey would be the only linebackers, and have two CBs and three safeties, with Peppers and James playing close to the line, providing help in the run game and covering receivers and tight ends from the slot, with Randall playing the angel position.
The problem with this is that it requires good boundary cornerbacks. Right now, the Browns don’t really have that. If they are able to solve that problem later on in the draft, and if Howard Wilson improves quickly, then this scenario becomes more realistic.
James is an incredible prospect, with versatility the likes of which is incredibly rare in the NFL. Unfortunately, he may be too versatile for Cleveland.