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Cleveland Browns 2021 free agency and NFL Draft preview

Jan 17, 2021; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) and the offense huddle before the snap against the Kansas City Chiefs during the first half in the AFC Divisional Round playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

In the lead-up to the start of free agency on March 17 and the 2021 NFL Draft, I’ll be taking a position-by-position look at all 32 NFL teams with a focus on the starting spots that have question marks heading into next season. This time, it’s the Cleveland Browns — a team looking to carry over momentum from a 2020 season in which it earned its first playoff victory since 1994.

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The Browns' first postseason victory in nearly 30 years is a win looking back at the 2020 season, but Cleveland will have its sights set higher in Kevin Stefanski’s second year. The offense will remain largely intact with Odell Beckham Jr. slated to return from injury. The Browns’ top priority this offseason will be adding pieces on the defensive side of the ball to fill out their starting 11.

Projected cap space (Over the Cap): $21,743,157 (10th in NFL)

Picks in 2021 NFL Draft: 26, 59, 90, 92, 101, 123, 153, 187, 222

Projected 2021 offense 
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
QB Baker Mayfield 8 / 32 $10.6 million
RB Nick Chubb 4 / 70 $4.2 million
WR Odell Beckham Jr. 38 / 127 $15.8 million
WR Jarvis Landry 13 / 127 $14.8 million
TE Austin Hooper 21 / 71 $8.3 million
TE Harrison Bryant 53 / 71 $1.0 million
LT Jedrick Wills 31 / 38 $4.5 million
LG Joel Bitonio 2 / 39 $10.0 million
C J.C. Tretter 2 / 37 $11.1 million
RG Wyatt Teller 1 / 40 $2.2 million
RT Jack Conklin 2 / 38 $13.0 million

Cleveland incorporated the tight end position heavily into its offense in Kevin Stefanski’s first season as the head coach — something we also saw in his 2019 Minnesota Vikings offense — so I opted for 12 personnel as the team's base offense here. 

The clear headliner is that there are no question marks. The biggest questions surrounding this group heading into next season will be what happens around the edges. Former first-round pick David Njoku could potentially be on the outside looking in at tight end, and there is no clear answer to who will serve as the team’s third wide receiver behind Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry

Do the Browns extend Baker Mayfield this offseason?

There are few quarterbacks in the NFL who were better down the stretch this past season than Mayfield. From Week 7 through the postseason, his 91.7 PFF grade ranked fourth among all quarterbacks — behind only Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson and Tom Brady. He was playing near-mistake-free football, handing out just seven turnover-worthy plays on 450 dropbacks over that span. 

Even in Cleveland’s loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round, Mayfield’s play gave them a chance. That is the player who Browns fans expected following a promising rookie season in 2018, and it’s a big step forward from the guy who struggled mightily in 2019. Cleveland’s offensive scheme and strong supporting cast deserves credit for that, but Mayfield is worthy of praise, as well. 

The concern is that there is still a very real chance Mayfield reverses course when he doesn’t have the best offensive line in the league. His 39.1 passing grade under pressure in 2020 ranked 28th out of 32 qualifying quarterbacks, and his pocket presence when things break down is still shaky. However, Cleveland has put an emphasis on making the situation right for Mayfield, and he showed this year he can succeed in that environment. The price tag could go up next offseason if he carries over that momentum into 2021.   

Is it time for the Browns to part ways with David Njoku, or do they prioritize having three capable, starting tight ends?

The Browns ran a league-high 550 offensive snaps during the 2020 regular season with two or more tight ends on the field and a league-high 159 snaps with three or more tight ends. For that reason, it makes sense that Cleveland would want to carry three starting-caliber tight ends on its roster. 

Njoku already requested a trade from the Browns in the 2020 offseason before later rescinding it, and his future remains uncertain one year later. He had a slow start to this past season with a stint on injured reserve due to a sprained MCL. That allowed rookie Harrison Bryant to lay claim to the TE2 job behind Austin Hooper, and it wasn’t until later in the year when Njoku found himself in a consistent receiving role. After picking up just 57 receiving yards across Weeks 5 to 13, Njoku ended the season with 172 yards in his final six games. 

Still, he seems to be on the outside looking in when it comes to 2021 — competing with Bryant for snaps behind Hooper. Njoku was noncommittal to returning to Cleveland in a recent interview on the Jim Rome Show, stating, “I’m not going to answer that right now. I have no comment towards that at this moment.”

If the Browns are able to get a return for Njoku from a team looking to feature him in a TE1 role, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him dealt to free up the $6 million he’s owed in 2021.  

Can Cleveland repeat as the NFL’s best offensive line in 2021?

Bill Callahan’s group finished the 2020 season atop PFF’s annual offensive line rankings. They put a clear emphasis on the group this past offseason with big-time additions — Jedrick Wills Jr. through the draft and Jack Conklin through free agency — and it paid off. Mainstays Joel Bitonio and J.C. Tretter delivered top-three performances at their respective positions, and Wyatt Teller took a massive step forward in his third season at right guard. Teller missed some time with injury, but his 92.3 PFF grade led all right guards when healthy. 

There’s no reason to expect Cleveland won’t have one of the league’s best offensive lines again in 2021. Tretter is the oldest player of the bunch, having just turned 30 years old, and a younger player like Wills should only continue to improve under Callahan’s tutelage. 

A 52.8 run-blocking grade is the reason that Wills’ overall grade rank in the table above doesn’t impress, but his pass blocking was more than competent out of the gates. Given that run blocking and athleticism was a clear strength for him coming out of Alabama, it’s reasonable to expect improvement there in his second season, raising the ceiling for this unit. 

Potential targets at open spots

WR3: Rashard Higgins, Breshad Perriman, Dyami Brown

The Browns' offense is a rare instance where a unit doesn’t necessarily need to add or retain anyone to field a starting lineup. The biggest area of need may be a third wide receiver when Cleveland opts to take a tight end off the field and go to 11 personnel. Rashard Higgins would make sense in that role, but he is set to become a free agent. Donovan Peoples-Jones made several plays in big moments as a rookie, but the Browns could still look to add some competition at the position. 

Bringing back Higgins is certainly an option for Cleveland, but so is bringing back a player like Breshad Perriman, who began a career resurgence of sorts with the Browns in 2018. Perriman went on to have success with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2019 before dealing with injuries and regressing in one of the worst offenses in the NFL this past season in New York. Perriman has averaged over 18 yards per reception over the past three seasons and would add some speed to the position if the Browns opted to bring him in. 

In the draft, Dyami Brown should find himself in the second wave of receivers to come off the board on the second night of action. Like Perriman, he offers the potential for success on the vertical route tree after dominating in that facet at North Carolina. His release packages and physicality point to the idea that he should continue to have success in those areas at the NFL level. 

Projected 2021 Defense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
EDGE Myles Garrett 6 / 109 $9.4 million
DI Sheldon Richardson 49 / 126 $13.2 million
DI Andrew Billings N/A $3.5 million
EDGE ?
LB ?
LB ?
CB Denzel Ward 23 / 121 $9.5 million
CB Greedy Williams N/A $1.8 million
CB ?
S Ronnie Harrison 9 / 94 $2.2 million
S Grant Delpit N/A $1.7 million
S ?

While the Browns' offense has few questions heading into next season, the defense is a different story. They have some elite talent in Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward, but there is also uncertainty throughout the starting lineup heading into 2021. 

I included a third safety rather than a third linebacker because defensive coordinator Joe Woods has gone on the record saying he would like to play more dime defense. Per Jeff Risdon last offseason, Woods said, “I would like to transition into a dime system, but it is going to be something that is going to take time to get into, just because of getting their reps.”

Ronnie Harrison and Grant Delpit figure to be two of those safeties, but 2020 contributors Karl Joseph and Andrew Sendejo are both free agents this offseason. Cleveland could look to add to the position this offseason, especially with Delpit still being an unproven commodity given that he missed his entire rookie season with injury. 

At cornerback, Greedy Williams will be the favorite to get back opposite Ward on the outside after missing the 2020 season with a shoulder injury. The Browns will still need to address the slot with both Kevin Johnson and Terrance Mitchell slated to be free agents, though.

The linebacker position will return Jacob Phillips, Sione Takitaki and Mack Wilson, but none has a strong claim to a starting job. The Browns will have to decide whether to bring back B.J. Goodson and Malcolm Smith — the two players who led the team in snaps at the position in 2020 — as both will be free agents.

Olivier Vernon is yet another 2020 contributor who will be a free agent this offseason. He and Garrett formed just one of two edge-rushing duos where both players crossed the 50-pressure threshold last season. Larry Ogunjobi is the other notable free agent along the defensive line, but the Browns have a potential replacement in the form of former Cincinnati Bengal Andrew Billings.

Where does the pass rush come from outside of Myles Garrett?

The Browns already have one elite pass rusher in place in Garrett. They swapped Kevin Zeitler for Olivier Vernon two offseasons ago in an attempt to put two high-quality edge rushers together on the field, and while Vernon may not have been dominant in his time with the Browns, he was productive. His 51 quarterback pressures this past season were a top-20 mark at the position, and his 74.6 PFF grade ranked 22nd out of 109 qualifying edge defenders. A ruptured Achilles in Week 17 makes the offseason outlook murky for the 30-year old as he enters free agency. Cleveland could very well look to bring in a fresh face opposite Garrett. 

The Browns need an impact player at that spot. Sheldon Richardson has been a solid producer over the past two seasons inside, but Cleveland doesn’t have an elite pass-rushing presence on the interior. Getting a quality starter opposite Garrett would allow him to see more one-on-one opportunities, and history has shown that he is fully capable of beating almost any tackle in the league in those situations. 

Do the Browns stay in-house at the linebacker position in 2021?

I didn’t fill in either of the two starting linebacker spots for Cleveland in the projected starters table because there doesn’t seem to be any consensus right now on who will man those spots. B.J. Goodson was in the middle of things last season with a position-high 937 defensive snaps, but he will be a free agent this offseason. The only other linebacker on the team with over 500 defensive snaps in 2020 — Malcolm Smith — is also set to be a free agent this offseason. 

That leaves a trio of young linebackers on the roster to compete for the starting job as things stand right now. Sione Takitaki’s 89.3 run-defense grade was one of the better marks in the league, but he paired that with just a 44.4 coverage grade on 498 defensive snaps. Mack Wilson returned from injury with a disappointing 41.9 overall grade on the year, and third-round rookie selection Jacob Phillips graded even worse with a 39.0 grade in his time on the field. For that reason, linebacker is one of the more common early targets in mock drafts for Cleveland. 

There is a chance they bring back Goodson, who had arguably the best season of his career this past year with the Browns (66.0 PFF grade), and simply try to find the right combination around him with the young guys already on the roster. It’s a group that could use an injection of outside talent, though.     

How much of an impact can former LSU teammates Greedy Williams and Grant Delpit make in their returns from injury?

Cleveland has invested an early draft pick on an LSU defensive back in each of the past two drafts, selecting Williams in the second round in 2019 and getting good value on Delpit toward the back end of this past year’s draft. Unfortunately, neither player saw a single snap for the Browns during the 2020 season. Williams missed the year with a shoulder injury that included nerve damage, and Delpit suffered a torn Achilles prior to the season. 

With those two set to return, Cleveland instantly becomes more talented in the secondary. The ninth overall player on PFF’s Big Board in 2019, Williams allowed less than 40% of the passes thrown his way to be completed across two years at LSU. Things didn’t come quite as easy in his rookie season as he dealt with injury, but the talent is there for him to find success opposite Ward. 

Delpit, meanwhile, brings unique coverage and playmaking ability to the safety position, which should benefit Cleveland’s defense. He — like Williams — had some tackling issues coming out of LSU, but his coverage ability more than made up for that. From instincts to movement skills and athleticism to breaking on routes to ability to matching up with tight ends in the slot at his size, there is reason to be excited for his 2021 debut.   

Potential targets at open spots

Edge defender: J.J. Watt, Rashad Weaver

The Browns will not be alone in their interest for J.J. Watt, but it’s a spot that makes some sense. Cleveland isn’t all that far from Watt’s Midwest roots, and the team has both the cap space to give him a fair contract and a roster to compete in 2021. Watt may not quite be the same dominant force he was in his first five years in the league, but only Khalil Mack and T.J. Watt have been worth more wins above replacement over the past three years among all edge rushers. 

Rashad Weaver is an option to replace Vernon in the draft if Cleveland isn’t looking to attack the position early. He has ideal size and length to defend the run as a 4-3 defensive end, and he put up PFF grades above 83.0 in his past two seasons at the University of Pittsburgh. The Browns could certainly do worse after Round 1. 

Linebacker: B.J. Goodson, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah

There’s reason to believe Cleveland could have interest in bringing back B.J. Goodson, and it likely wouldn’t cost the team all that much to do so. His career suggests that it probably isn’t wise to expect above replacement-level play again in 2021. Goodson’s 0.2 wins above replacement in 2020 was four times more than his previous career-high mark in 2018. The benefit to bringing him back would be his familiarity with the defense in the hopes that he could provide the Browns solid play again next season. 

Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah would give the Browns something different. Listed at 215 pounds, he fits the mold of several of the new-age defenders to enter the league in the past several years — versatile enough to play multiple roles with a history of high-level play in college. Cleveland has needs in the slot, at safety and at linebacker, so Owusu-Koramoah’s versatility would be welcome. 

Cornerback: Desmond King II, Elijah Molden

The Browns could look to beef up at outside cornerback this offseason, but with Ward and Williams set to be starters, I honed in on the slot here for potential targets. 

Desmond King II was excellent out of the gates for the Los Angeles Chargers as a fifth-round rookie in 2017, earning PFF grades of 85.7 and 88.6 in his first two NFL seasons. Despite that, he found himself without a defined role in their defense last season before his trade to the Tennessee Titans. King’s grading profile hasn’t quite been as impressive the past two seasons, but he still profiles as a quality starting option inside that the Browns should have some interest in. 

Elijah Molden’s bottom line in the PFF Draft Guide reads, “The slot corner is a starter in today’s NFL, and Molden is about as safe a bet there as anyone in the draft class.” That’s where he spent the overwhelming majority of his snaps over his career at Washington, and it’s where he delivered coverage grades north of 85.0 in both 2019 and the limited action he saw in 2020. Molden would be a strong addition to a secondary that the Browns have clearly prioritized in recent drafts. 

Safety: Trevon Moehrig, Will Parks

Trevon Moehrig is one player you’ll see mocked to Cleveland in the first round of the upcoming draft, and he makes some sense. He can fill multiple roles at safety, whether that be split-field safety — which he saw a lot of at TCU — or matching up in man coverage with slot receivers. He would give the Browns more flexibility to run dime personnel alongside Ronnie Harrison and Grant Delpit

Will Parks is a name to watch at the lower end of the free agent safety class. The best season of his career came in 2018 with Joe Woods in Denver (74.0 PFF grade). He split time between playing in the box (224 snaps) and at deeper free safety alignments (198 snaps) that year.     

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