Browns Rising Star Predicted to Bust Into Starting Lineup in 2023

Martin Emerson Jr., Browns

Getty Cornerback Martin Emerson Jr. of the Cleveland Browns.

The Cleveland Browns underachieved last season, though a new addition to the starting lineup should help remedy those woes this time around.

Bill Barnwell of ESPN predicted on Tuesday, August 8, that cornerback Martin Emerson Jr. will emerge as a Week 1 starter for the Browns come September. Barnwell contended that poor play across much of the defense is why Cleveland missed out on a playoff spot last season, even despite the high-profile absence of quarterback Deshaun Watson for 11 games followed by his struggles down the stretch once he returned.

One of the few exceptions who had a promising 2022 was Emerson, the team’s best cornerback for stretches as a rookie. The third-round pick spent most of his time in the slot, but he also moved around the field, most notably limiting Mike Evans to 31 yards on nine targets in a November victory over the [Tampa Bay] Buccaneers. He finished the season with a 77.6 passer rating allowed in coverage.

New defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz thrived in Philadelphia when the Eagles unexpectedly got a career season out of corner Patrick Robinson in the slot in 2017; Emerson has to be equally valuable to the Browns to get their defense right this season.

Martin Emerson Jr. Was Browns’ Best CB in 2022 Based on Analytics and Traditional Statistics

Martin Emerson, Browns

GettyCornerback Martin Emerson Jr. of the Cleveland Browns celebrates after deflecting a pass during the fourth quarter of an NFL game against the Cincinnati Bengals in October 2022.

Emerson wasn’t just the best cornerback on the Browns’ roster as a rookie, he was one of the better corners in the entire NFL.

Pro Football Focus afforded Emerson an overall player grade of 72.5, which was nearly 3.5 points better than Greg Newsome II and a whopping 15.7 points better than Denzel Ward — the team’s two starters on the outside. Emerson’s advanced analytics slotted him in as the 23rd best cornerback in the league last season out of 118 players who saw enough snaps to qualify at the position.

His traditional production was stellar as well. Barnwell mentioned the 77.6 collective passer rating Emerson afforded opposing quarterbacks in 2022, which came across 91 targets on the season. Emerson also held QBs to a 50.5% completion rate while racking up 63 tackles, 15 pass breakups and a sack, per Pro Football Reference. He was credited with six starts on the season, though he appeared in all 17 of Cleveland’s regular season games.

Martin Emerson Jr. Ready to Fill in for Greg Newsome II if Necessary

Martin Emerson, Denzel Ward

GettyCornerbacks Martin Emerson Jr. #23 and Denzel Ward #21 of the Cleveland Browns.

Cleveland utilized a third-round draft pick (No. 68 overall) to select Emerson out of Mississippi State in 2022, which represents a meaningful amount of capital spent to acquire his services. That said, Emerson’s value looks spectacular heading into his second season. Not only did the CB outplay his draft position, but he is also entering the second season of a four-year rookie deal that will cost the Browns just $5.5 million over the life of the contract.

To put that in perspective, Ward is playing on a five-year, $100 million deal that keeps him under contract through 2027. The two-time Pro Bowler had arguably the worst season of his five-year NFL career in 2022 and could definitely bounce back, but Emerson is indisputably a more valuable asset considering his production-to-cost ratio.

Rumors about Newsome demanding a trade began to fly around this offseason, though the former first-round pick denied there was any veracity to them. However, Newsome is expected to miss significant preseason time due to a groin injury.

If Newsome truly is unhappy and wants out, or if he misses time in the regular season due to health concerns, Emerson is there for the Browns as a replacement. As Barnwell pointed out, Emerson is likely to start Week 1 in either case, though his role may well increase in 2023 — a development that Emerson’s play has indicated he is ready to take on.

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