Cleveland finally ended a massive playoff drought and even pulled off an upset against the Steelers in the first round of the playoffs. The fanbase is rejoicing, but there are still significant upgrades to be made to make a second to the playoffs. The Browns offseason will be focused on adding defensive talent to the team.
Roster Needs: EDGE, CB, LB, DT
As you can tell, the Browns do not have any pressing needs on the offensive side of the ball. Baker Mayfield shrugged off a sophomore slump and willed his team into the playoffs. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt were thunder and lightning out of the backfield, running behind the best offensive line in the NFL. No holes on the offensive line gave Baker ample time in the pocket to throw to his playmakers. Odell Beckham Jr. looked to be back to his normal self until an ACL tear cut his season short. Jarvis Landry put together a solid campaign by totaling 840 yards in 14 games.
Rashard Higgins is an impending free agent, but rookie sixth-round pick out of Michigan, Donovan Peoples-Jones, looks like he can be a solid replacement. Peoples-Jones’s 6’2 frame allowed him to make contested catches on deep balls. Peoples-Jones has the tools to grow into a great receiver. Free-agent signing, Austin Hooper was a welcome addition to Cleveland. Along with being a big target across the middle, Hooper was an essential piece to the 3rd best rushing attack in the league.
The defensive side of the ball is where the Browns offseason must be a focus. There are key free agents and possible cut candidates that will shake up the defensive roster entirely for 2021.
The defensive line is a priority for change for the Browns offseason. Myles Garrett remained as dominant as ever racking up 13 sacks for 3rd best in the league. Fellow edge rusher Olivier Vernon was solid as well with 9 sacks. However, outside of those two, the Browns need playmakers as Vernon is a free agent next year, and there are holes along the rest of the line. Sheldon Richardson was excellent as a run stuffer, but the 30-year-old is past his prime and is costing nearly $14 million in cap.
Cutting Richardson would free up $13 million and allow the front office to go after a stud edge rusher to play opposite Myles Garrett. Cutting the 32-year-old Adrian Clayborn would also free up $3 million. Clayborn failed to make any significant impact last season used as a rotational piece and garnering 4 sacks, the former first-round pick is clearly past his prime. These changes give Cleveland approximately $34 million in cap next season, enough to address various holes across the defense with true difference makers.
The immense cap space available lets Cleveland go after stud pass rushers such as Shaquil Barrett or Jadeveon Clowney. Shaq Barrett has displayed great technique and a variety of pass-rushing moves in Tampa. In two seasons with the Buccaneers Barrett has totaled 27.5 sacks and will look for a massive payday. Barrett and Garrett would form the best pass-rushing duo in the league, giving relief to a porous secondary and linebacking corps. Clowney would be a lesser option, but bring an elite run-stopping presence to the defense. Clowney’s combination of size and strong hands allows him to set the edge on every play and blow up plays in the backfield. After a signing of either Barrett or Clowney, Cleveland would still have approximately $14 million cap space left over to sign other top free agents.
At defensive tackle, the Browns need a run stuffer to aid the pass-rushing tandem of Myles Garrett and whoever is brought in through free agency. The Browns should try to address this position in the draft with various options available in the first couple of rounds. Alim McNeill from NC State should be available in the second round and would be an immediate starter. The 320-pound lineman is a complete run defender. His size and strength allow him to shrug off blockers and close off running lanes.
The linebacking corps is young in Cleveland. Players such as Sione Takitaki excels in the run game but struggles when he drops back in coverage. Malcolm Smith and B.J. Goodson have been decent but are also free agents. Malcolm Smith would be a cheap veteran to be brought back in and has shown versatility in the run and pass game. Mack Wilson has only shown the ability to effectively blitz the passer and has struggled everywhere else. Cleveland should look to bring in a better coverage linebacker in place of Wilson as well as depth to the position. Through the draft, Cleveland could confront their linebacking issues with their first-round pick.
Nick Bolton is the best coverage linebacker in the draft and processes the game faster than anyone else. Jabril Cox from LSU would also fill the void of a coverage linebacker. The NDSU transfer can do it all in coverage, stellar in the zone, physical against tight ends, and guarding the slot. Either of the two intriguing prospects shows tremendous upside for the Browns defense. If free agency is the preferred solution, Matt Milano from Buffalo profiles well for Cleveland. Milano is a more polished Jabril Cox as he has developed into a top coverage linebacker over the years. Since 2018, Milano is the 11th best coverage linebacker per PFF. He has been suffocating in coverage against receivers and tight ends for the Bills.
Finally, the secondary is the last portion that needs fixing. Some argue the Browns lack playmakers at safety, but they do. That talent was out with a preseason injury last season. Second-round pick Grant Delpit missed the season due to an Achilles injury suffered in the preseason. The LSU safety is a former Jim Thorpe award winner in college, being recognized as the top defensive back in the country. Delpit came into the league with issues tackling but is stifling in coverage and will be a huge upgrade next season. He will be welcomed back into the starting lineup given the impending free agency of 34-year-old Andrew Sendejo. Other safety, Ronnie Harrison, had a career year despite a nagging shoulder injury. The 23-year-old out of Alabama covered well and even played snaps in the box to stop the run game.
The cornerback group is where health is key. Denzel Ward is a lockdown back that can guard any team’s top receiver. Second-round pick, Greedy Williams, missed all last season due to injury but will be back as the number two boundary corner in Cleveland. Slot corner Terrance Mitchell will likely walk in free agency, but the Browns have the cap space to upgrade. Desmond King graded as the top slot corner for the Chargers before being traded to Tennessee. The upgrade of Mitchell to King along with a year of experience under the belts of Ward and Williams gives the Browns a young, smothering secondary that teams will struggle to throw on.