It was another third-place finish in the AFC North for the 8-9 Cleveland Browns in 2021. Unlike 2020, however, the season didn’t end in the playoffs. The year was in trouble early after quarterback Baker Mayfield suffered a shoulder injury in Week 2. Personnel and player decisions since then have presented a number of potential red flags for the franchise hoping to truly turn the corner. From a staffing standpoint, Cleveland is set to run it back with the same staff. With faith in the staff, it will soon be shown how much faith there is in last year’s roster by how many players return for 2022. The Browns’ window of benefiting off of key players under rookie contracts is quickly closing, cutting into a lot of their flexibility.
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Pending Free Agents
Cleveland has 27 players that may face free agency this year, and over $23.6 million in cap space to work with according to Over the Cap. A number of them are players who have helped bring a new identity of maturity to the rather young roster. The front office run by general manager Andrew Berry, along with the “Moneyball” man himself Paul DePodesta, is notorious for relying on analytics to make personnel decisions. Outside of foundational position players for the team’s schemes, they aren’t likely to pay a premium to bring back a likable guy or good player. Entering their third offseason together, their jobs can’t afford another step back. Expect their decisions to reflect that notion.
Playing opposite of Myles Garrett, Clowney enjoyed his best season out of a Houston Texans jersey. His nine sacks tied the second-most of his career, and starting in each of his 14 games played, he matched another near-career mark. At the conclusion of the season, Clowney expressed wanting to stay in Cleveland if the two sides can make it work on the money end. Showing a glimpse of his old self with the Browns in 2021, other teams will surely be interested in making a run at the 2014 first-overall selection. The production numbers with Clowney and Garrett don’t lie, and Garrett himself is making it clear he wants Clowney to return.
Both Walker and Malcolm Smith are facing free agency, and losing both would be a hit to the linebacker unit. While Smith is a former Super Bowl MVP, Walker brings the upside of being six years younger. The production from the two is similar, but it was Walker who often got the start. Though often injured, Jacob Phillips should assume Smith’s role as Walker’s backup, and affordable insurance can be found. It is likely the Browns bring back Walker as long as the cost per year stays under $2.5 million per year.
Njoku and the Browns have had a rocky relationship since the team selected the raw-talented tight end out of Miami in the first round of the 2017 draft. Entering the 2020 season, he requested a trade from Cleveland after the front office drafted Harrison Bryant in the fourth round that year. That was the last straw after the team brought in Austin Hooper on the richest tight end contract at the time. Njoku withdrew the request and has let his performance on the field speak for his grievances. In 2021, he turned in his best season since 2018, including a career-high 67.9 catch percentage. Showing to be the most reliable tight end on the team, there’s a good chance the team brings him back.
Potential Cap Casualties
Having $23.6 million in cap space isn’t anything, but it is less than Cleveland fans are used to the team having over the last few years. The years of hitting on draft picks are starting to take their toll on the checkbook, and arguably a few pieces and a healthy quarterback away from truly contending, they’ll have to make their dollar stretch on key additions to capitalize on what is left of their window. The Browns are likely going to extend Pro Bowl cornerback Denzel Ward, a figure that figures to be around $9 million in year one. They may have to consider a new deal for Mayfield before the season starts too. With drafted players coming into their own, some key veterans could be cut to start the savings.
Austin Hooper ($2 Million Saved)
Kevin Stefanski’s offense features the tight end position and utilizes a number of them. That’s what made the 2020 free agency signing of Hooper so significant and seemingly worth a rich deal. Two years into the five-year deal, however, the return on investment doesn’t appear to be there. Hooper’s numbers in Cleveland are half of what they were during his two Pro Bowl seasons in Atlanta before the move. The glaring issue with Hooper in 2021 was his 10-percent drop rate. With the recent improvement in play from Njoku and Bryant still waiting behind him, Hooper becomes expendable. The ability to clear $2 million in cap space this season makes cutting him logical if he isn’t interested in restructuring his contract.
Andy Janovich ($1.5 Million Saved)
Another staple of Stefanski’s scheme is the fullback, though his 92 total snaps on offense all season hardly reflect that. With the ball in his hands, he contributed just 11 yards, even less than his 15 yards in 2020. Understanding that the offense still needs the position apparently, Johnny Stanton may provide the team a better option. Making appearances back-and-forth off of the practice squad, Stanton is a former college quarterback who lists running back, tight end, and fullback as part of his skill set. There’s more room for creativity with a player like that than Janovich, and his 10 total yards in just 14 offensive snaps make the case.
Jarvis Landry ($14.8 Million Saved)
A year ago, it would be ridiculous to consider the Browns cutting Landry. Since then, however, he’s turned in another poor season in Stefanski’s offense. His relationship with Odell Beckham hasn’t been winning him any favor from fans either. Landry missed five games this season with an injury, and only topped 100 yards in a game once when available. He’s also entering the final year of his contract. Cleveland could move forward with Donovan Peoples-Jones and Anthony Schwartz at receiver, and add another in the draft. Just clearing the $14.8 million while taking a measly dead cap hit of $1.5 million would also give them the flexibility to find a more affordable option in free agency too.
Open Market Free Agent Targets
The Browns have some spending power, but with possible extensions to worry about distributing, will likely be frugal in free agency. Having $23.6 million allows for a splash signing or two, but that would be it. If they were to let Clowney leave they’re more likely to be spending on value-veterans rather than young rising talents like Uchenna Nwosu from the Los Angeles Chargers. Offensive weapons and front-seven support on defense are likely to be their target spending categories.
Justin Houston, Baltimore Ravens
Signing Houston would serve two purposes. First, it would bring a strong veteran talent looking for a rebound to play opposite of Garrett as Clowney did. Second, Houston has inside knowledge of Cleveland’s division rivals. He’s also been on the inside of the AFC contending Indianapolis Colts. Houston is a former All-Pro who is strongest coming off of the left edge where he’s typically played. He also has position flexibility, playing defensive end with the Colts, but listed as a linebacker with the Ravens. Baltimore’s media team published a feature on Houston last season where he remarked that at this point in his career, he’s ring chasing. That’s exactly the kind of signing the Browns could benefit from if they could sell him on the team.
Everson Griffen, Minnesota Vikings
Coming from the Vikings organization, Stefanski had spent a lot of time coaching on the opposite side of the ball of Griffen. A four-time pro-bowl selection, he last earned the honor just two seasons ago. After spending 2020 split between the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions, Griffen returned to the Vikings in 2021. He tallied five sacks in just nine games. Another candidate to benefit from playing with Garrett in Cleveland, Griffen should be available for a value of under $4 million, much less than Clowney, while providing similar play. He missed the final seven weeks of the season while dealing with his bipolar disorder, which he has since embraced. Earlier this month, he stated that he wants to return to football. The Browns could surely use him.
Demarcus Robinson, Kansas City Chiefs
Cleveland has had premier receivers in the league and received a limited return on their investment on the field. In free agency, they could benefit from pursuing someone who is used to playing a supporting role. Currently lost in the shuffle on the loaded roster in Kansas City, Robinson can be a reliable receiver. Patrick Mahomes had a passer rating of 108.4 and 104.1 when targeting Robinson in 2020 and 2021 respectively. Pairing him with Peoples-Jones may not pop off of the depth chart, but playing it safe with another role player on the outside with positive potential could be exactly what Mayfield and the offense need in the passing game to complement the rushing attack.
Previewing the 2022 NFL Draft
Cleveland enters the 2022 NFL Draft with their own three original selections. They have an additional compensatory third-round pick from the league from the Vikings hiring Kwesi Adofo-Mensah this offseason for their general manager position. With OBJ gone, the team has a glaring need at needing a difference-maker at wide receiver. They could also shore up depth on the defensive front. Under Jimmy Haslam’s ownership, the Browns have made a number of trades in the first three rounds of the draft since 2012. The past two seasons with the front office trio of Berry, DePodesta, and Stefanski, however, they’ve been tranquil, staying put and still landing top players on their board.
Round 1, Pick 13: Wide Receiver
There are approximately four consensus first-round receivers in this year’s draft. The Browns could benefit from taking any of them at No. 13. Drake London is massive at 6’5” and would provide Mayfield with a great option across the middle. A pair of Ohio State Buckeyes are bonafide first-round picks in Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, both providing sure hands and elite route running. Alabama’s Jameson Williams may present the most speed of the group. While the Browns took Schwartz last year out of Auburn, Williams brings more size. Both London and Williams have serious injury concerns coming out of college. One of the Buckeyes should be favored to go to Cleveland.
Round 2, Pick 44: Edge Rusher
Behind Garrett last season, Clowney and Takkarist McKinley were strong forces off of the edge. Unfortunately for Cleveland, both players were only on one-year deals. With their cap situation what it is, if one or neither can be brought back, the need for a top prospect grows. Given the injury history of Clowney and McKinley, Cleveland may have been looking for another defensive rusher anyway. Seeing how much it benefitted Garrett to have a true running-mate on the outside, the Browns shouldn’t wait any later to draft at the position.
Round 3, Pick 78: Defensive Tackle
Malik Jackson and Malik McDowell worked the interior of the defensive line for Cleveland last year. Both both are free agents this offseason. The Browns hold the exclusive rights to McDowell, meaning he will be back if the Browns want him back. Jackson, on the other hand, is 32-years old and may be worth passing on. Tommy Togiai, a fourth-round selection last year, appeared in just six games in 2021. He should factor into the mix in 2022 alongside another selection at the position here.
Round 3, Pick 102: Linebacker
Cleveland’s linebacker corps just couldn’t stay healthy in 2021, and it’s worth addressing with a third-round pick here. Phillips has played just 15 games after being taken 97th overall in 2020 out of LSU. The Mack Wilson experiment is running out of time, and both Walker and Smith may not return. That’d leave Sione Takitaki and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah primarily left at the position. Even if one or both of the free agents do return, this is the spot where the front office likes to add depth at linebacker.
Early 2022 Expectations
For everything that happened in 2021, the Browns still had an opportunity to win the division in late December. The key pieces to the playoff team in 2020 are still on the roster as well. The time is now for Cleveland to make their claim on the AFC North. The Cincinnati Bengals may have made it to the Super Bowl, but they still have struggled against the Browns. Ben Roethlisberger has retired, leaving the future uncertain in Pittsburgh for the Steelers. Thanks to multiple injuries, the Ravens finished last in the division in 2021. The Super Bowl is a realistic expectation for the Browns. Still, the organization is as stable as a house of cards right now. Cleveland is as close to a Lombardi Trophy as it is collapsing upon itself.
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