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Tuesday, April 27, 2010
The Big Question: Browns' starting safety?

By James Walker
ESPN.com

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Will the Cleveland Browns go with a rookie starting safety this season?

Rarely is an NFL coach stumped by a football question.

But after the Browns took cornerback Joe Haden in the first round of the NFL draft, coach Eric Mangini was quizzed on his starting safeties, which caused some hesitation.

T.J. Ward
The Browns hope T.J. Ward can step in and be a starter at safety.
"It's a ways away," Mangini said. "So I can't really say that definitively right now."

Over the next two days, the Browns drafted a pair of safeties -- T.J. Ward of Oregon and Larry Asante of Nebraska. The Browns are hoping one of these players matures quickly and earns a starting role this season alongside veteran Abram Elam.

Safety was arguably Cleveland's biggest need entering the draft. It was a major reason many projected Eric Berry or Earl Thomas to land with the Browns in the first round.

Berry was a target for Cleveland at No. 7. But when he went off the board at No. 5 to the Kansas City Chiefs, the Browns turned their attention to Haden. It also forced Cleveland to look very hard at safeties in the second round.

Some draft experts felt the team reached for Ward at No. 38. But Ward was a player the Browns really liked.

"When I looked at him and spent time with him he reminded me a lot of Lawyer Milloy," Mangini said. "I think he's got outstanding instincts in the running game. He’s one of these guys that can navigate through traffic and it's almost like the blockers don't exist. Very rarely does he miss tackles."

The Browns selected Asante in the fifth round. He has similar skills to Ward in terms of being an aggressive hitter at safety. Right now, Ward is the favorite to be the Week 1 starter. But both rookies will have plenty of opportunities to impress Cleveland's coaching staff in training camp.

"Just like with the other guys, he will battle at safety for playing time," Browns general manager Tom Heckert said of Asante. "We do think he is a good player. He played at a big-time level of competition, which is always a nice thing to have."

With opposing quarterbacks on the schedule such as Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Joe Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger and Carson Palmer, the Browns need at least one of these rookie safeties to be fast learners.