September 1, 2014

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Browns safety Eric Hagg has come long way in short time, could win starting job

BEREA – Safety Eric Hagg didn’t expect to see his name listed with the starters on the depth chart when organized team activities started last month.

It won’t be a surprise if he’s still there when the season opens in September.

“We liked what we saw prior to him being injured in camp last year,” coach Pat Shurmur said. “I think he’s got very good instincts, I think he can do all of the things we are talking about in terms of covering, playing parts of the field and, of course, tackling. That’s why we think he will be a good player.”

Hagg has taken every first-team repetition in the practices open to the media. That’s noteworthy considering the backgrounds of him and chief competitor Usama Young.

Hagg was a seventh-round pick out of Nebraska in 2011, then missed all of the preseason and the first six games after he tore a piece of cartilage in his left knee during training camp. He didn’t start a game and finished with 10 tackles, a pass defensed and a fumble recovery.

Young, in his sixth season, was one of the few free agents signed by the Browns in 2011, inking a three-year, $6 million deal. He couldn’t beat out journeyman Mike Adams for the free safety job, but wound up starting the final eight games after strong safety T.J. Ward sprained a foot. He finished with 66 tackles, an interception and a pass defensed.

That the coaches put Hagg first on the depth chart caught even him off guard.

“Oh, yeah, definitely,” he said.

Hagg is quick to note the coaches haven’t named starters. But they’ve taken a long look at him, and have liked what they’ve seen.

“He’s a guy that is making great progress here in the offseason,” Shurmur said. “There’s a portion to the responsibility of the free safety making sure everybody gets lined up, and being able to verbalize, and being able to get lined up yourself, but also direct. We’ve seen him do that.”

“Yeah, I think I’m doing good, but there’s always room to improve and get better,” Hagg said.

He is 6-foot-1, 205 pounds and moves well – he stuck with receiver Greg Little on a crossing route Thursday. But he said his greatest strength is asking questions in the film room.

“I’ll ask 10 questions if I don’t understand it and I’ll just keep asking the same question until something makes sense to me,” said Hagg, who got his degree in multicultural education. “Then I’ll bring it out on the field.

“So it’ll slow whatever I’m doing down out there on the field. Just asking questions, writing things down and learning.”

Shurmur said the intelligence translates to quality communication on the field, which is vital for a free safety.

“He’s doing well in the classroom and it is showing up out here,” he said.

Hagg saw most of his playing time as a rookie at strong safety, working in with Young in the final games. He said the transition to free safety isn’t much of a switch because he and Ward share similar duties.

Hagg’s quick ascension up the depth chart is remarkable considering where he was last August. After arthroscopic surgery to repair the cartilage, he could’ve been placed on season-ending injured reserve or even waived. But the Browns had seen enough to wait for his return.

“That was huge,” he said. “Just going off of what people say, getting hurt and being in the seventh round, I didn’t know if I was going to get cut or released. I don’t even know how it works.

“I definitely think I’m blessed that the coaches wanted to keep me, and then actually keep me active and actually get in the last four or five games to play.”

Hagg credits the late-season experience with accelerating his development in Year 2.

“It was super-fun,” he said. “Even learning special teams, just to get those reps gives you game experience.

“I feel like I’m more comfortable. But I wouldn’t say all the way. I’ve still got tons to learn.”

Hagg was asked what he did to earn the first crack at the starting spot.

“You probably have to ask Coach about that,” he said. “All I know is I keep working, keep doing what I got to do, keep learning the plays, trying to slow the game down.

“Maybe I made some plays last year where he saw something.

“I hope to continue to keep doing what I’m doing. If not, I’m going to keep working hard and then I’m going to follow whoever else he wants to put there and just keep grinding.”

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.