CLEVELAND, Ohio -- The Cleveland Browns’ projected starting secondary has combined to miss eight games already just a quarter through the 2019 season.
Corner backs Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams missed the Browns’ last two games due to hamstring injuries. Safety Morgan Burnett also missed the past two games because of a quad issue and a concussion kept fellow safety Damarious Randall out Weeks 2 and 3.
Despite enduring what would spell chaos for most NFL coaching staffs, the secondary is actually flourishing with a group of reserves turned gameday playmakers.
Veterans T.J. Carrie and Terrence Mitchell are thriving at corner. Safety Jermaine Whitehead forced two turnovers on Sunday in Baltimore and do-it-all defensive back Eric Murray is making a case for a big payday after his rookie deal expires this offseason.
Even Juston Burris, who was cut from the Browns only to be resigned days later and plugged into the lineup with 48 hours to prep for the Rams in Week 3, is proving reliable. He recorded his third career interception two weeks ago against Jared Goff.
The Browns backups are playing so well that they could actually be starters for more than half the NFL according to Pro Football Focus.
Through four games, the collective average coverage grade for those five Browns defensive backs is 60.2 overall. Considering the Eagles secondary (ranked 16th) graded at a 60.1, the Browns are deploying a backup secondary worthy of starting for half of the league.
“We all know what the next person is doing and we could all play multiple positions. In the end, it makes you more valuable but it also makes the defense better as a whole,” Murray said after Tuesday practice. “What is unique about our defense is you have multiple people playing multiple different positions. Just the sheer number of people we got doing that is unique.”
“It speaks volumes about the type of team we have and the type of people we have together here,” Murray continued. “We have great teachers who are taking the players and putting them in the best position possible. They do a really good job of understanding the personal and do a good job of cross-training.”
Murray is a prime example of the Swiss army knife defensive back. Depending on an offense’s personnel, Murray can line up at safety, slot corner or even linebacker. His versatility keeps him on the field and is a defining characteristic of this chameleon-like secondary as a whole.
Cleveland ranks eighth in passing yards allowed per game (215), tied for fifth in interceptions with four and has the seventh-best pass defense DVOA (-19.8 percent). All of which would be impressive even if the projected starters were playing.
(Per Football Outsiders, DVOA measures a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent.)
Whitehead’s play on Sunday is another example of this backup secondary exceeding expectations. With desperation time sinking in, Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson launched a deep fourth-quarter pass in hopes of rallying Baltimore back against Cleveland on Sunday.
His favorite target, tight end Mark Andrews, was the intended downfield target but Jackson threw into double coverage and Whitehead capitalized. Running in stride with Andrews, Whitehead located the football and literally jumped over Andrews’ helmet, securing the catch and his first career interception.
Whitehead -- starting for the injured Burnett-- played all 69 defensive snaps Sunday, his second consecutive game not coming off the field, joining Murray, Mitchell, Carrie and Burris in proving themselves as quality NFL defenders who are making the most of the opportunities.
Randall returned last week and registered his first career sack, but the rest of the secondary remained out.
Despite all the injuries, the secondary is one of the league’s most versatile, well-conditioned and deep units. Murray, Mitchell, Carrie and Burris played every snap in Week 3 against the pass-happy Rams. Mitchell and Carrie played 68 of 69 snaps on Sunday. Murray played 58 and Burris 10.
With no clear timetable for the walking wounded to return, it’s this group of collected parts that the Browns will continue deploying.
Whitehead was cut by the Packers in 2018. Murray joined the Browns via a trade from the Chiefs in April. Mitchell, a former seventh-round pick, joined Cleveland a year ago after Kansas City declined to resign him. Carrie, another former seventh-round selection, signed with the Browns in 2018 when Oakland let him walk and started eight games for Cleveland last year.
But when preseason depth charts were released, Carrie, Murray, Burris, Mitchell and Whitehead were deemed backups. As injuries quickly decimated the Browns’ secondary, all five reserves have made measurable cases to be NFL starters.
All five have graded 55 overall or better according to Pro Football Focus, with Burris (70 overall), Mitchell (61.9 overall), Whitehead (56.8 overall) and Carrie (56.4 overall), the entire unit is playing starting-caliber football.
As this group of defensive backs continues to prove themselves as more than just backups, they are making a heck of a case for Cleveland to pay them this offseason.
Because if the Browns don’t value their complement of ability and versatility, other NFL teams will.