Last week, at the Cleveland Browns' training camp, defensive coordinator Ray Horton described the team's free safety position as a "concern." Though T.J. Ward is ensconced as the Browns starting strong safety, the battle for the starting free safety job is still up for grabs.
Competing for the job are incumbent Tashaun Gipson, special teams convert Johnson Bademosi and rookie Jamoris Slaughter.
Horton isn't yet comfortable with any of these options, but when asked about the possibility of signing free agent Kerry Rhodes, whom Horton coached with the Arizona Cardinals, he stated that the Browns are "committed to [their] roster" and described Rhodes simply as "one of the players on the street right now," echoing comments made about Rhodes by team general manager Michael Lombardi back in May.
For a team that could certainly use a stable veteran presence at free safety, it's interesting that the Browns seem so hesitant to even kick Rhodes' tires. Rhodes was, after all, Pro Football Focus' fourth overall safety in 2012 (subscription required) and though he is entering his ninth season, he flourished under Horton's coaching in Arizona. It only seems logical that the Browns should give Rhodes a look.
The battle for the starting free safety job has also hit a few snags. Gipson has missed practices with a shoulder injury; though head coach Rob Chudzinski isn't concerned about it, the fact that he's missing time on the field means missed opportunities for development.
The same can be said for Slaughter; though he's fully healed from a previous Achilles tendon rupture, he's now sidelined with a hamstring injury, leaving just Bademosi to get first-team reps at free safety.
Last year, Gipson appeared in 10 games with three starts, playing all snaps at free safety. He split time with Usama Young, now with the Oakland Raiders, and Eric Hagg, who remains on the free-agent market.
Gipson was shaky in coverage, though his on-field time was limited. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he allowed five of seven passes thrown his way to be caught, for 95 yards, 22 yards after the catch and a touchdown. Though he had an interception, he also didn't successfully defend any passes.
Granted, facing seven passes in coverage isn't much of a sample size, which is the reason for the present camp battle.
Even harder to gauge is Bademosi, who played a mere 24 defensive snaps last year and appeared in three games as a cornerback and not a safety (he did participate in all 16 games as a member of Cleveland's special teams unit).
Slaughter is the wild card; he may challenge the two veterans as training camp progresses, but his rookie status combined with his background of injuries makes his uphill climb that much steeper.
Youth, inexperience, injury: Those are three compelling reasons why the Browns should bring Rhodes onto the roster. Unless Rhodes is harboring an ailment that hasn't been reported, he doesn't carry any of those risks or drawbacks. Horton also reportedly "thinks very highly" of Rhodes, so it's also not a matter of a good player drawing the ire of his former coach.
Last year, Rhodes performed well. He had 67 combined tackles, one sack, two forced fumbles and four interceptions. He allowed 21 of 34 passes thrown his way to be completed, for 252 yards, 141 yards after the catch, and gave up a mere two touchdowns while playing 1,040 snaps, 526 in coverage. In run-stopping, Rhodes was also solid, with 30 of his tackles coming during running plays and a total of six missed tackles when going after running backs.
Though the Browns have placed a premium on youth—it's been a common refrain of coaches and front-office staff alike this offseason—there is something to be said for what the 30-year-old Rhodes can provide their defense this year.
He knows Horton's system, can help with the development of younger players and, as it presently stands, would be an upgrade at one of Cleveland's most unstable positions. He doesn't need a highly lucrative or long-term deal and with the Browns' current salary cap situation, he can be fit in financially with little grief.
Whatever the unwillingness is in Cleveland to bring Rhodes aboard—his age, the perceived cost being too high, dedication to the young players on the roster, the rumors—it truly does seem like the benefits outweigh any apparent drawbacks.
Will they do it? Perhaps, if Gipson's and Slaughter's injuries linger, at least to bolster their depth, or if the trio competing presently does not show enough improvement as training camp continues. Should they do it? It seems to be no-brainer, at least from the outside looking in. What those in charge think, it's hard to tell, but it's also just as hard to deny how good a fit Rhodes would be with the Browns.