12 wins, first playoff appearance since 2002, first playoff win since 1994, returning the entire coaching staff and front office intact. Last year, GM Andrew Berry knew he needed to fix the offensive line and give QB Baker Mayfield more weapons. Done and done. The Browns 2020 offense was good enough to get this team to the Super Bowl. However, as the divisional playoff game versus the Kansas City Chiefs showed, to make that next step, Berry must address the defense in free agency and the draft. Since free agency comes first, let’s put together a wish list.
To make the defense better, you have to understand the type of player the Browns are looking for. In an earlier article, I mentioned Andrew Berry likes to sign players in their mid-twenties coming off their first contracts. You catch them going into their prime as players. As for defensive coordinator Joe Woods, he likes fast, versatile players. Wood’s ideal defensive scheme would be to cause pressure with his front four and drop seven players into coverage. Finally, because the NFL salary cap is decreasing dramatically this year, this list does not include the many players who will be released between now and the start of the league year. Here’s my wish list based on Pro Football Focus’s free-agent tracker.
Edge: Carl Lawson, Cincinnati, Yannick Ngakoue, Baltimore, Trey Hendrickson, New Orleans, Haason Reddick, Arizona and Romeo Okwara. The best value would be Lawson. Pro Football Focus rates him as the most undervalued free agent in this year’s class. The Bengals have the money to re-sign him, but they’ll need to focus their resources on the offensive line and at wide receiver. Ngakoue and Hendrickson are also options, however, they might be too pricey.
Safety: Marcus Williams, Saints, Marcus Maye, New York Jets, Xavier Woods, Dallas and Jaquiski Tartt, Atlanta. Of this group, Williams and Maye intrigue me the most. If the Browns are looking for versatility, then Maye fits the description. Played 400 snaps at free safety, 200 snaps at strong safety and 125 snaps at corner each of the last two seasons. Finished the season with a Pro Football Focus grade of 82.8 at safety. Williams is an option mainly because the Saints have the worst salary cap situation of any NFL team.
Corners: William Jackson III, Cincinnati and Mike Hilton, Pittsburgh. Not much of a list. Of the two, Hilton is the better fit. He can cover in both man-to-man and zone. He is very good against the run and can blitz when called upon. Best suited for the slot. Pittsburgh’s salary cap problems will make him available.
Linebacker: Matt Milano, Buffalo and Jayon Brown, Tennessee. Brown has the 10th-best coverage grade and Milano the 11th. Both are considered liabilities in the run game. If the Browns want to sign a free agent linebacker, Brown makes the most sense. However, the Browns don’t put much value in the linebacker position. Both the Bills and the Titans are slightly over the cap, so either can be had for the right price.
Interior Defensive Linemen: Leonard Williams, New York Giants, Dalvin Tomlinson, New York Giants and Sheldon Rankins, New Orleans. With DT Andrew Billings returning to the roster after opting out for 2020, this doesn’t seem like a position of need. But DT Sheldon Richardson is owed $13.7 million in 2021 and if he chooses not to restructure, it becomes a position of need. The headliner of this list is Williams. Great against the run and can apply pressure up the middle. Since 2015, he has been one of the most constant interior defensive linemen in the league.
As for Browns free agents, I would love for the Browns to re-sign CB Terrance Mitchell and DT Larry Ogunjobi, but I think both are gone. Re-signing S Karl Joseph and LB B.J. Goodson would be good moves. Goodson and Joseph played well down the stretch and would mesh well with any additional talent. This off-season is going to be as unusual as the season. In a normal off-season, the foundations for these free-agent deals are done at the NFL Combine. But because the combine is completely virtual this year, the “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” deals were started last week at the Senior Bowl practices. Secondly, because of the decrease in the salary cap, there will be a lot more trades prior to the beginning of the league year as teams try and get under the cap. Personally, I think former Buckeye and Cleveland native CB Marshon Lattimore would look great in brown and orange. Andrew Berry isn’t going to use all nine of the Browns draft picks and did pretty well with seven in 2020.
Last year, GM Andrew Berry made big moves on the first two days of free agency. He signed RT Jake Conklin, TE Austin Hooper, QB Case Keenum and traded for FB Andy Janovich. This year it’s time to fix the defense.