It was a season that everyone expected, and the Cleveland Browns made their return to the postseason for the first time in 18 years. They made a little noise, getting their first postseason victory in 26 seasons.
The defense still looks suspect but has enough potential on talent alone. For the first time in a long time, the Browns aren’t introducing a new coaching staff or talking about one on the hot seat. Instead, Cleveland enters this season with the reigning Coach of the Year in Kevin Stefanski, who is entering his second season at the helm.
The success of the organization in 2020 should raise the standard for the team in 2021. With a large portion of their top talent already under contract through the season, the Browns are poised to run it back. They could possibly be stronger if they can have another successful offseason of adding top free agent talent.
Pending Free Agents
The team is in a nice position to continue building upon their success in 2020. They have a lot of young talent on their rookie deals and $20M in salary cap space. There are questions about whether the team should extend quarterback Baker Mayfield this offseason or if another year is needed to evaluate him. The Oklahoma alum has been up-and-down across his first three seasons. Mayfield isn’t the only one due for a deal soon, as cornerback Denzel Ward and running back Nick Chubb were a part of that 2018 draft class, as well.
If the Browns hold off on extending the young players, they can maximize their cap freedom and have another active free agency period to continue bolstering the roster. The Browns have been a loyal bunch in the past, so some of that cap space could go to bringing back a number of their free agents on new deals. Those were old and unsuccessful regimes, however, and analytics are king in Cleveland.
Olivier Vernon, Defensive End
After a down year in 2019, Vernon re-structured his contract with the Browns before the 2020 season, which possibly motivated the edge rusher to return to his true form he showed when he played with the Dolphins and the Giants. Some of his best performances came in the back half of the season with Myles Garrett missing on the other side. In the last six weeks of the season, Vernon tallied seven of his nine sacks for the season while Garrett was limited by the impact of COVID-19. A player with an injury history, Vernon missed just two games in the regular season but did miss both games in the playoffs.
Rashard Higgins, Wide Receiver
One of Baker Mayfield‘s favorite targets, Higgins made key plays on offense down the stretch to help Baker and the Browns reach the playoffs for the first time since 2002. After testing free agency last offseason, Higgins returned to Cleveland on a veteran-minimum contract to show the new staff that he had more to offer. With all the attention on the Browns last season, there is a chance more teams saw his value. That could make his phone ring a bit more now that he is back on the market.
Malcolm Smith, Linebacker
It’s not every day that a former Super Bowl MVP ends up a free agent, but that’s the case this season as Smith is back on the market. As a linebacker in Seattle’s vaunted “Legion of Boom” defense, he took home MVP honors when the Seahawks beat the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. Malcolm was a second-unit guy on a defense that struggled at linebacker, so his value may not be what it once was. However, with the display of Devin White and Lavonte David in Super Bowl LV for Tampa Bay, linebacker value may be high this offseason. Smith’s resume could help him cash in on a better deal than usual.
Terrance Mitchell, Cornerback
Cleveland has talent in the secondary, but having them healthy on Sundays has been an issue the last few seasons. One constant, however, has been the availability of Mitchell. He would typically be the team’s third corner but was elevated to the team’s top option at times in 2020, playing 99% of defensive plays. A quality backup corner, the former Oregon Duck may return to Cleveland but may have other options in free agency after assembling extensive film.
Karl Joseph, Safety
The Cleveland Browns were just outside of the bottom-10 in pass defense in 2020, giving up 3,962 yards through the air. Joseph, a former top-15 draft pick, did not help matters all too much. He allowed 25 catches on 33 targets. Part of that could be his first season in a new system, and more could come from the inconsistent play throughout the secondary. At the end of the day, Joseph’s PFF rating took a hit. That said, Joseph still has the talent to be a starter in a more complete secondary and could be a valuable addition for such a team.
Potential Cap Casualties
With their cap situation and coming off of a strong season, Cleveland is in a position to be more picky about the performances of players on their roster than in years past. In fact, recent offseasons have shown that the Browns becoming somewhat of a destination for top talents like Jack Conklin and Austin Hooper, two of last season’s acquisitions that were highly sought after.
As the talent level increases, it puts everyone else under a microscope, including those players on larger contracts. Their impact on the cap could be better cleared to start paying the young players coming up on rookie deals. For that reason, despite the team’s $20M in salary cap space, a number of players could find themselves released early.
Sheldon Richardson, Defensive Tackle ($11.5 Million Saved)
Richardson has done well in Cleveland, though the eighth-year defensive tackle isn’t the force that he was with the New York Jets, or even during his season in Seattle. His tackle numbers are near his career average, but he is not getting into the backfield like he once did. That could be in part to his spot on the line, as well as having other talents like Garrett and Vernon creating their own pressure.
The Browns aren’t strapped for cap space, but the $11.5 million that could be opened up by releasing Richardson a year before his deal ends could aid in another big catch for Cleveland on the market.
David Njoku, Tight End ($6 Million Saved)
Last offseason, fourth-year tight end Njoku requested to get out of Cleveland. This may have been a reaction to the Browns signing Pro Bowl tight end Hooper last spring, while also drafting Harrison Bryant. Njoku and the Browns repaired things ahead of the season, though there may still be lingering effects. Stefanski’s offense uses a lot of three tight end sets, so Njoku has value. The $6 million that could be freed up may be enough reason for him to be released, especially if the team doesn’t think he will return from free agency in 2022.
Adrian Clayborn, Defensive End ($3 Million Saved)
Entering his eleventh season in the league, Clayborn’s numbers appear to be on the decline. With only $500k in dead money to clear an additional $3 million in cap space, he could find himself released in favor of spending that money elsewhere. The Browns will need help on the edge if Vernon decides to leave. Keeping Clayborn makes sense, though if they’re just a couple of million dollars from making a bigger signing, he could be a casualty.
Open Market Free Agent Targets
The Browns are building something in Cleveland, and if last season is any indication, free agents are sensing it too. The team has money to spend. They are coming off their first playoff victory in 25 years and played the Chiefs tight in the divisional round. The offense is where all the excitement is. The defense has gaps surrounded by talent that could be enticing for some of this year’s top defenders.
Justin Simmons, Safety, Denver Broncos
The Browns have have a need for a difference-making safety in the secondary, and Simmons is a great fit. A free safety, he could pair well immediately with Ronnie Harrison on the other side. This would allow Grant Delpit, (2020 second round pick), the opportunity to ease into things as he continues to rehab the torn Achilles he suffered in camp. Additionally, Simmons has played all 16 games in each of the last three seasons, which would be a major positive for Cleveland.
J.J. Watt, Defensive End, Houston Texans
This is of no surprise to anyone, but because of the likelihood of it happening, Watt has to be included here. The Browns have already expressed interest in the All-Pro defensive lineman, as have a number of teams. Cleveland has some talented pieces on that side of the ball, specifically on the line. Watt is a great fit because he won’t be tasked with needing carry the defense.
Additionally, what’s better than playing alongside your brothers? Playing against them twice a season.
Aldon Smith, Defensive End, Dallas Cowboys
Whether or not the Browns Watt, Smith could either be the highlight of the team’s free agency class this season, or at least 1b. Having just returned to the league with the Cowboys last season, the entry-level deal likely will not be an option based on how Smith played in 2020. But Cleveland can afford it. With Vernon possibly leaving in free agency, Smith would be a high-ceiling replacement for a similar price.
K’Waun Williams, CB, San Francisco 49ers
The Browns selected Greedy Williams in the second round of the draft in 2019. Through two seasons, he has only been able to play 12 games. He missed all of the 2020 season with a nerve injury. There is no knowing if he will be back on the field this season. Even if Mitchell doesn’t depart via free agency, Cleveland could use a more talented corner to pair with Ward. Williams fits that bill.
There is a connection here between current Browns defensive coordinator Joe Woods and Williams. Woods was the defensive backs coach in San Francisco two years ago, so a reunion would be fitting. Williams’ talent would be a welcome return to Cleveland. He played for the Browns from 2014-2015.
Reuben Foster, LB, Washington Football Team
The linebacker corps is one of the many areas on the Cleveland defense that could use another strong talent to pair with what they already have. This position could use some depth while the team prepares to evaluate the futures of Mack Wilson and Sione Takitaki. Foster would be an interesting signing for the same low-risk/high-reward reason that caused Washington to keep him around before coach Ron Rivera ultimately placed the fourth-year player back on injured reserve.
If he believes he’s ready to play and can pass the physical tests, Foster could be looking for an opportunity to sign a “prove it” contract. The Browns, who have taken chances on troubled and injured players before, might roll the dice.
Previewing the Draft
Unlike years past, this team is not necessarily looking for immediate starters through all seven rounds of the NFL Draft. With nine picks, they have the capital to move up and find a few if they like. That is something the Browns have done a lot in the past, even trading back into the first round a number of times.
Cleveland has an additional third round pick that they acquired last April from the New Orleans Saints. Extra picks in the fourth, fifth and seventh rounds from trades the team made in 2019 under John Dorsey. Cleveland did send one of their fifth-round picks to Jacksonville in the fall, however, in exchange for safety Harrison.
The greatest needs for the team are on defense. While they may be big players in free agency, they can find depth pieces to develop alongside the established talent. Doing so would help to keep their contention window open longer than just a few years. Andrew Berry and Stefanski found key additions late in last year’s draft.
Round 1, Pick 26: Safety
Cleveland has a number of safeties entering free agency this offseason. Last year’s selection, Delpit, is still recovering from his Achilles injury. That means the Browns will need help at the position. There is a lot of potential talent already on the roster, and a move can be made in free agency. The pass defense was rough for Cleveland in 2020 and is worthy of the team’s first pick.
Round 2, Pick 59: Cornerback
Even more injury-prone than the safety position for the Browns has been the cornerback position. Their top players in Ward and Williams have been prone to injury early in their careers. Coupled with a number of the team’s corners like Kevin Johnson and Mitchell entering free agency, the secondary should benefit from the Browns’ second selection as well.
Round 3, Pick 90: Linebacker
Acquiring depth is the name of the game for Cleveland in this draft. Bolstering their linebacking corps to put talent alongside Jacob Phillips, Wilson, and Takitaki is a must. Especially if they don’t bring back any of their free agents. When shoring up inexperience with inexperience, quantity matters.
Round 3, Pick 92: Defensive End
Joe Burrow started to look like every bit the passer that he was at LSU, Lamar Jackson does amazing things whenever he’s given even an extra second, and Ben Roethlisberger is more reliant on time in the pocket than before. To deal with these prolific quarterbacks, the Browns need to generate pressure. Picking up another defensive end in the third round is a great spot to find talent at a value.
Early 2021 Expectations
The Browns have overcome their playoff drought and their playoff victory drought in one season. That shows that they can be every bit the team that everyone thought they’d become back in 2019 after acquiring Odell Beckham Jr. from the Giants. Offensively, they can hang in there with the best of them. Most of the pieces from last season are already under contract for 2021.
The question as to how far this team can go is the defense. They flashed moments of brilliance but seemed to thrive on momentum more than anything. Like the opening bad snap in the wild card game, momentum is not always to their credit for creating.
The Super Bowl isn’t quite the expectation for the Browns next year, even though they nearly reached the big game in their return to the postseason. It is not too far off. An appearance in the AFC Championship is a reasonable next step for the team that was arguably one drive away against the Chiefs from getting there. As they showed this year, that goal can be accomplished even without winning their division. The AFC North is one of the toughest in the league with the Ravens and Steelers not falling off.
After ending their 18-year playoff drought and their 26-year playoff win drought, the Browns now look to end another drought. They will look to make the conference title game for the first time since 1989.