CLEVELAND, Ohio — The Browns’ defense features a mixture of young guys, established players and veterans who’ve seen it all. It’s a recipe for productivity if everyone buys in, but the young guys will benefit the most.
Primarily because the 2023 season is the type of the season which allows a small margin of error, meaning the younger players will have to contribute no matter the amount of playing time received.
But what defensive players could break out in 2023? Here are three of them.
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Martin Emerson Jr.
Emerson made a splash during his rookie season, playing with much-needed physicality and showing a feel for the game.
Emerson appeared in all 17 games and started six of them while recording 63 tackles, 15 pass deflections and one sack. Per Pro Football Focus, Emerson tied for 30th among cornerbacks in defensive grade (72.5) and tied for 22nd in coverage (75.1).
He also ranked ninth among cornerbacks with a forced incompletion on 20% of his targeted passes. His performances led to PFF projecting Emerson as breakout candidate for the Browns ahead of 2023.
Emerson’s adjustment became faster after his season-high nine tackles and two pass deflections in the Week 8 win over Cincinnati.
He credited the performance to feeling motivated after meeting former Browns cornerback Joe Haden, who retired as a Brown the weekend leading up to the game. Haden was one of Emerson’s favorite players growing up, and he wears No. 23 like Haden.
If Emerson continues to play the way he did in that game, he’ll break out even better in his second season. He also has Jim Schwartz’s defense to look forward to, with it’s 4-3 base allowing the secondary to play in man coverage, which can gift Emerson’s physical gifts and instincts.
Flashes were shown as proof to why the Browns drafted Alex Wright in the third round in 2022. From his four tackles and one pass deflection in their win over Houston in Week 13, to his forced fumble on a goal-line stand early in the season finale loss to the Steelers.
But then there were the moments of being overpowered or overmatched by his offensive opponent, struggling to contribute on the field.
He appeared in all 17 games, starting five. Wright was part of 543 defensive snaps and recorded 28 tackles, 13 of those solo, along with five passes defended.
His PFF grades fluctuated. His pass-rushing grade was a low 47.1. But he graded worse in overall defense (38.4), run defensive (37.2) and tackling (27.5).
For a breakout year, Wright will have to tighten up his consistency in tackles and create pressure.
NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein cited a couple of Wright’s strengths prior to the draft, including his “talent and traits to beat a single block with better technique,” and “agility for an edge-to-edge rush attack.”
Wright only totaled 12 hurries and zero sacks during 2022, and would vary in the amount of pressure given. He also recorded eight missed tackles and a 22.2% missed tackle rate, with three of his games ending with a missed tackle rate over 50.0%, per PFF.
Wright has the physical tools needed to stay on the field, but his skill set will have to make a jump in his second year to become a key contributor off the bench.
Greg Newsome II
Newsome is an intriguing player within this Browns secondary, because he’s versatile and can be used in multiple ways. Newsome has a feel for the game while staying ferocious and capping off his play with a finishing tackle.
Coming off his second season, the 23-year-old cornerback improved with 42 tackles and six pass breakups. His PFF grades rose in multiple categories, including tackling (62.7) and coverage (72.3).
He also allowed only a 58.0% completion percentage, 10.2 yards per catch and two touchdowns on passes he covered.
Ahead of his third season, Newsome joins Emerson and Denzel Ward as difference-makers. Newsome can be used in a couple ways within Schwartz’s defense, whether in the slot position or on the outside.
Check out the video at the top of this post to watch Sports 4 CLE host Dave Bacon and Tyler Johnson of The Faithful Dawgs Podcast and Network 216 discuss Browns defensive players who could have a breakout season.
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