Injuries almost derailed the Cleveland Browns in 2020.
Joe Woods found himself re-scheming his defense after Grant Delpit and Greedy Williams went down early.
And things didn’t get much easier during the year, either.
— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) August 25, 2020
Kevin Stefanski’s offense was better set up to survive an injury or two.
The offensive line and tight ends didn’t miss a beat through Covid issues and a few dings.
Browns' RB Nick Chubb is being placed on IR with an MCL injury, per Kevin Stefanski.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) October 5, 2020
For sure, the 2021 defense is deeper than last year’s unit, too.
But here are 3 under-the-radar players the Browns can’t afford to lose to injury.
Safety Ronnie Harrison
Andrew Berry made short work of rebuilding the Browns secondary.
He added the top safety and top slot corner in the early days of free agency.
Then he drafted Greg Newsome at cornerback and threw in another late-round safety.
Delpit and Williams are back from injury and a pair of interesting undrafted free agent corners join the mix.
It would be easy to forget Ronnie Harrison in the crowded secondary.
#Browns DC Joe Woods said safety Ronnie Harrison looks like a different guy and is set up to have really nice season
— Nate Ulrich (@ByNateUlrich) June 17, 2021
There is some thought that Delpit might even knock Harrison from a starting role.
But it was Harrison who caught the eye of Joe Woods in training camp, as he told reporters after minicamp:
“I was watching film yesterday. Just in terms of what (Harrison) has done so far on his movement skills and bending more in his backpedal, he looks like a different guy, and he has a natural feel when he is in the box. I think he is set up to have a really good year for us.”
Harrison is a reliable veteran presence in the middle of young and recently-injured players.
His loss could set more changes in motion, a reminder of how 2020 began.
Right Tackle Jack Conklin
How does a Pro Bowl player operate under the radar?
By just doing his job with little fanfare and high expectations.
Conklin was one of the earliest and biggest free-agent signings in 2020.
He rewarded Andrew Berry’s faith with a career season at right tackle.
Jack Conklin appreciation tweet. Dude gets no where near the credit he deserves pic.twitter.com/p8PSZOQA8x
— CLE SPORTS WORLD (@Browniestalk) February 26, 2021
Keeping in mind how adeptly the Browns reserves covered injuries last year, why is Conklin so important?
Well, none of those fill-ins played a long-term role in protecting Baker Mayfield.
Losing a starter for an extended period of time allows for a second-string option to be more exposed.
In Conklin’s case, his loss also puts pressure on Wyatt Teller after his huge performance last year.
Working in the middle of two Pro Bowlers (JC Tretter and Conklin) is easier than trying to help out a new starter.
Linebacker Anthony Walker
Much has been made of how safety John Johnson III wore the green dot for the league’s best defense last year.
And just as much has been said about the diminished role of the linebackers in Joe Woods’ defense.
But as of this writing, Anthony Walker is slated to be the defensive signal-caller for the 2021 Browns.
Walker brings more than good tackling and youth to the middle linebacker spot.
His Indianapolis teammates lamented the loss of a team leader- on and off the field.
#Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said free-agent pickup Anthony Walker has been as advertised in terms of communication, leadership as MIKE linebacker
— Nate Ulrich (@ByNateUlrich) June 2, 2021
Stefanski already extolled the virtues of Walker’s role, saying he “came as advertised” from the Colts.
Should Walker go down, Mack Wilson is the only experienced middle linebacker behind him.
That’s not to say others couldn’t step into what is likely to be a slew of 2-linebacker sets.
Johnson could take the green dot and Mack Wilson could make the most of an opportunity.
But the loss of Walker still creates a depth issue in the middle of the defense.