Cleveland Browns general manager Andrew Berry has been on the job for almost a month now, preparing for the portion of the NFL calendar that will shape his first season in charge.
First up in the annual Scouting Combine, which begins today in Indianapolis and runs through March 1. After that comes the opening of free agency on March 16, followed by the NFL Draft, which will be in Las Vegas from April 23 to April 25.
From now until the final selection is made in the draft, Berry will be busy shoring up a roster from 2019 that looked good on paper, but was lacking when it mattered.
Here are four items that need to be at the top of Berry’s “to-do list” in the coming months.
Make a decision on Kareem Hunt
Kareem Hunt is a restricted free agent, meaning that if the Browns want him back he will be with the team again this season.
Retaining Hunt appeared to be a lock at the close of last season as he blended in nicely with the offense after returning from his eight-game suspension to open the season. Hunt’s pass-catching ability offered a nice safety outlet for quarterback Baker Mayfield, and Hunt compliments starting running back Nick Chubb very well.
There are some continuing questions, however, after Hunt had another run-in with police earlier this year. After sticking with him during his suspension, that misstep did not sit well with the Browns.
It is up to Berry, now, to decide just how much of a risk Hunt presents versus how much of a reward he can bring to the field. There is no questioning that Hunt can make the offense better, but if he were to mess up again off the field, then nothing else would matter as he would be facing another suspension.
Since Hunt is a restricted free agent, Berry has to decide if he wants to work out a longterm contract with Hunt or offer him one of three tender offers that would give the Browns a draft pick if Hunt were to sign with another team.
The Browns have until March 18 to make a qualifying offer to Hunt if they want to maintain the right of first refusal on a contract offer from another team. At this point, it seems likely that the team will give Hunt at least a second-round tender while buying themselves some time to decide if Hunt is worth investing in on a multiyear deal.
Mend some fences
The 2019 season was a lost year for both wide receiver Rashard Higgins and tight end David Njoku.
Higgins was never going to unseat fellow wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry for the majority of the targets, but he looked like a solid option as the team’s third wide receiver — especially given the chemistry he developed with quarterback Baker Mayfield in 2018.
But Higgins suffered a knee injury in the season opener against the Tennessee Titans and was not seen again on the field until seven weeks later against the New England Patriots. He played sparingly throughout the rest of the season, finishing the year with just four receptions for 55 yards.
Njoku followed a similar trajectory after injuring his wrist against the New York Jets in the second game of the season. That injury landed Njoku on injured reserve, and he did not make his return until the Week 13 game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
It was back to the bench for Njoku after that, with his only remaining appearance coming in the season finale against the Baltimore Ravens, when Njoku was on the field for just four offensive plays.
For reasons that were never fully explained, Higgins and Njoku both landed in someone’s dog house and it is now up to Berry to help mend those fences.
Higgins is an unrestricted free agent, and while it seemed a lock that he would be leaving Cleveland as soon as he could, the dismissals of head coach Freddie Kitchens an general manager John Dorsey could be enough to entice him to sign a new deal and claim the No. 3 wide receiver position.
As offensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings last season, Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski put together an offense that only used three wide receivers about 18 percent of the time, according to cleveland.com, so while a third wide receiver may not be high on the list, having a reliable option like Higgins would not be the worst idea.
Stefanski does like using two tight ends, however, so throwing a little bit of love at Njoku as he enters his fourth season and rebuilding his confidence could prove beneficial once the games start this fall.
Work out a deal with Joe Schobert
The Browns have several holes to fix this offseason, so there is no reason to create another one by letting linebacker Joe Schobert leave in free agency.
Schobert is active on defense as one of the best coverage linebackers in the NFL. This past season may have been his best, even if it did not result in a Pro Bowl nod, as Schobert finished with 133 tackles, four interceptions and a fumble recovery. He is the type of player the Browns should be looking to make a core player as the defense looks to take it to the next level under new defensive coordinator Joe Woods.
Former general manager John Dorsey, who helped create the holes that Berry now needs to fix, showed no interest in working out a deal with Schobert during the 2019 season, which ultimately could cost the Browns a bigger slice of their salary cap given the deals signed by Shaq Thompson of the Carolina Panthers, Jordan Hicks of the Arizona Cardinals and Avery Williamson of the New York Jets.
But given Schobert’s production, and the other areas that need attention, it is a price that Berry may have to pay.
Fix the offensive line
The No. 1 priority on Berry’s list is finding a way to keep quarterback Baker Mayfield in one piece.
Left tackle Greg Robinson may have earned a career-high grade from Pro Football Focus in 2019, but he still ranked 34th among tackles who played at least half their team’s offensive plays. If that wasn’t enough to convince Berry it was time to move on, then Robinson facing 20 years in prison after getting arrested last week with 157 pounds of marijuana should removed all doubt as the Browns announced they have no plans to resign Robinson.
Right tackle Chris Hubbard was worse as his run-blocking grade from PFF ranked him as the 59th best tackle in that category — ahead of just Cameron Erving of the Kansas City Chiefs. (That is not the kind of company you want your offensive linemen keeping.)
Together, Robinson and Hubbard allowed 10 sacks, 64 quarterback pressures and committed 19 penalties, according to cleveland.com.
While Berry is looking for a pair of new starting tackles, he may also want to look for a new right guard.
The Browns opened training camp expecting Austin Corbett to claim the starting job at right guard. That failed and Corbett was traded to the Los Angeles Rams. Next up was Eric Kush, who was benched halfway through the season and was recently released. Finally, Wyatt Teller got a shot and did nothing to make the Browns feel comfortable about trotting him out again this year. Collectively, Kush and Teller allowed 35 quarterback pressures, according to cleveland.com, as they combined with Hubbard to make the right side of the offensive line a disaster.
Whether it is through free agency - which is always dicey as that is how the Browns wound up with Robinson and Hubbard in the first place - or via the draft, Berry needs to fix the offensive line in a real way as fast as possible.