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Browns coach Gregg Williams wants his defense to be versatile athletes like Bill Belichick’s Patriots

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Every team wants to be New England.

Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke spoke with Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Willliams about getting both Calvin Pryor and Jabrill Peppers on the field at the same time despite both playing similar roles. Williams replied with an emphasis on having a versatile roster like the New England Patriots.

“How you get through games, through injuries is to play the next best athletes,” Williams said via Burke, “not just the next guy on the depth chart.”

That is a really intriguing philosophy as it pertains to roster construction. There are limits, obviously—if a team’s top nine athletes are all DBs, it’s not lining up in a 2-0-9 formation. It is a slightly altered view of the “next man up” philosophy preached to death by coaching staffs this time of year.

Williams credited his belief in it to New England coach Bill Belichick, who long has been creative with his personnel. He also used the line of thinking to explain why “everybody on our defense ... has to play two positions” during practices.

Now I’m not sure if I agree with Williams, or if his interpretation of the Patriots roster is correct; I’m fairly certain that the Patriots don’t prioritize a roster filled with athletes.

Depth is absolutely the most important part of a Bill Belichick team and it’s why all of his acolytes have focused on building depth for the Detroit Lions, Tennessee Titans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Atlanta Falcons. But that depth needs to fit within the scheme so the replacement process is as seamless as possible.

Belichick doesn’t simply want versatile athletes on the field. He wants versatile football players. Ted Karras is the top back-up interior lineman not because he’s a great athlete, but because he can step in at center or guard and the offensive line will hopefully continue to move forward. Danny Amendola is on the team not because he’s a great athlete, but because he can step up on special teams or fill in for Julian Edelman in case of injury. If athleticism was so important, we’d still see Aaron Dobson or Josh Boyce kicking around the roster.

Now looking at the last ten players on the roster, sure, I’d listen. Jacoby Brissett doesn’t play the same game as Tom Brady or Jimmy Garoppolo, but he brings a physical ability that the others don’t; having that extra element is helpful because teams don’t expect to win when they rely on their third-string quarterback.

But mostly the Patriots build their depth by finding those that can adequately fill multiple roles as closely to the performance of the original starter as possible.

I’m sure that Williams has spoken to Belichick about roster construction, so there must be some sort of truth to what he’s saying, though. Or maybe Belichick is just messing around with the latest round of Cleveland coaches.