Does Jamoris Slaughter have the skills to be Cleveland's next defensive star?
Heading into 2013, one of the biggest question marks for the Cleveland Browns lies in the secondary.
It's not that the Browns don't have some talent at the back end of the defense. They do. Starting cornerback Joe Haden possesses Pro Bowl potential, and strong safety T.J. Ward appears to be on the verge of becoming the AFC North's next great hard-hitting safety.
However, the other starting cornerback spot and free safety are anything but solidified, which leaves a large hole in an otherwise promising young defense.
The free safety position, in particular, is an area of concern. Last year's primary starter, Usama Young (13 starts) was released during the offseason, subsequently signing with the Oakland Raiders.
While Young proved to be a liability in pass coverage at times, he was one of the team's most productive defenders (he logged 53 tackles, 1.5 sacks and tied for a team lead in interceptions with three) and the only player at the position with veteran experience.
The Browns chose not to bring in a veteran during free agency, leaving second-year safety Tashaun Gipson at the top of the depth chart, at least for the time being.
Gipson is expected to compete with second-year defensive back Johnson Bademosi, who made his mark as a reserve cornerback last season.
According to Glenn Moore of Cleveland.com, the Browns have moved the 6'0", 200-pound defensive back to free safety, and his aggressive, physical style of play could make it tough to keep Bademosi off the field.
However, the Browns' most intriguing prospect at the position, at least in the long term, appears to be rookie sixth-round pick Jamoris Slaughter.
The 6'0", 195-pound former Notre Dame standout has the physical tools to thrive in defensive coordinator Ray Horton's aggressive defensive scheme, though he may find it difficult to crack the starting lineup initially.
A torn Achilles tendon ended Slaughter's 2012 season after just three games (which is why he fell in the draft), and it could take some time for the rookie to regain his previous form. However, Slaughter was medically cleared to practice last month and should be able to participate fully in training camp.
This means we should soon be able to get an early look at a player who could very well become a part of Cleveland's long-term future.
There are a number of reasons to believe Slaughter can become the playmaking free safety the Browns have been lacking in recent years. He is an aggressive pass defender with the strength to battle receivers in man coverage and the reactionary skills to succeed in zone.
He is also a fundamentally sound tackler who takes solid pursuit angles and who will not hesitate to initiate contact with the ball-carrier.
Perhaps Slaughter's most impressive attribute, however, is his versatility, which is a particular trait that should prove valuable in Horton's defense.
While at Notre Dame, Slaughter found himself at various positions on the defensive side of the ball. In addition to playing both the strong and free safety positions, he was sometimes used at nickelback and in a hybrid linebacker role.
Slaughter is an extremely capable run defender and has a variety of ways to get into the backfield in order to stop running backs behind the line and to pressure opposing quarterbacks.
In 2011 (his last full season), Slaughter spent much of his time playing close to the line of scrimmage, which allowed him to rack up 45 tackles, four tackles for a loss and two sacks.
Even if Slaughter doesn't find a way to start early in his rookie season, his unique skill set should allow him to make immediate contributions on special teams and in sub-packages.
With the right opportunity and a little bit of NFL seasoning, Slaughter could emerge as a true playmaker on the Browns defense for several seasons to come.