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3 “positions of need” - 6 answers to fill them

Should the defense be the focus this off-season?

NCAA Football: Tulsa at Michigan State
Zaven Collins
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Last off-season, newly installed GM Andrew Berry took a look at the Browns’ roster and found some glaring needs.

The offense under then-head coach Freddie Kitchens sputtered. For one, there was too much pressure from opposing team’s defensive fronts and a ton of offensive penalties. Plus, the production from the tight end position wasn’t up to par.

So, Berry signed OT Jack Conklin in free agency away from the Tennessee Titans, signed Browns veteran tackle Chris Hubbard as experienced backup, drafted OT Jedrick Wills and OG/C Nick Harris in the college draft and watched as this group blossomed into the league’s best offensive line unit under O-Line coach Bill Callahan.

Berry then inked TE Austin Hooper, the number one free agent tight end, plus drafted the Mackey Award winner Harrison Bryant. Stephen Carlson was retained as was former first-round pick David Njoku who was expected to be traded. Sent packing were Demetrius Harris, Ricky Seals-Jones and Pharaoh Brown.

These additions cured most of the woes for the offense. QB Baker Mayfield had a roller coaster start to the season but finished strong. Odell Beckham, Jr. became injured and lost for the season which put the pressure on Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins and rookie Donovan Peoples-Jones. Running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt - with a sprinkling of D’Ernest Johnson - had a banner year.

Being a playoff club means drafting lower in each round. For Browns’ fans, we’ll take the lower draft picks. Cleveland owns the 26th slot in the first-round of the NFL draft. For the 2021 season, there are glaring positions which will need the same care and attention Berry took this time last year.

Here are three positions that need help, and six possible answers.

1. Linebacker

The Browns have several linebackers which are free agents this year which include B.J. Goodson, Malcolm Smith, Tae Davis and Elijah Lee. Davis and Lee found success on special teams but did not see the field much at their natural position. Goodson played 78.7% of snaps while Smith played a bit over half of every game usually when other LB’s were injured such as Mack Wilson.

The signing of Mike linebacker B.J. Goodson last year came with mixed reviews. A former fourth-round pick of the New York Football Giants, he started in his second season, but was injured and had pedestrian numbers in the 4-3. He started just seven games and had 53 total tackles. The following year Goodson was paired with Alec Ogletree when the Giants switched to a 3-4. He finished that year as the 41st best grade among all linebackers. The following year, he was traded to the Green Bay Packers where he only started nine games with just 37 total tackles. This year, Goodson graded out at 65.4 on Pro Football Focus.

With Sione Takitaki, Wilson, Smith and rookie Jacob Phillips manning the outside backers, this unit is average at best and has a vital need as an upgrade.

Takitaki will always be remembered for his interception of Pittsburgh Steelers’ QB Ben Roethlisberger in the AFC Wildcard game with 3:16 left in the fourth quarter. Smith was a welcome addition and should assume a bigger role next year. Phillips showed flashes, but is still raw. It does not appear both Takitaki and Wilson are ready for starting roles in this league.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Atlanta Falcons
Lavonte David
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Free agent fix: Lavonte David (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)

David plays the inside role and had the 24th most tackles in 2020 with 117. He is 30-years old, but his motor is nowhere near winding down. A former second rounder, this past season he was named Second-Team All-Pro.

David (6’1”- 233 pounds) still has high production with speed and efficiency as the tools of his trade. He is an exceptional coverage LB and is able to read the game as it unfolds in front of him. David is also an excellent tackler and rarely misses.

Currently, he is the Number 1 free agent linebacker and the eighth overall best free agent for 2021.

Draft fix: First-round pick #26 - Zaven Collins - Tulsa

This is a stud of a football player. Collins is a beefy 260 pounds and stands 6’,4”. The junior LB won both the Chuck Bednarik Award (best LB) and the coveted Bronko Nagurski Trophy for the nation’s best overall defensive player. Plus, he was named Unanimous All-American, was the AAC Defensive Player-of-the-Year, and First Team All-AAC.

An intelligent player, Collins would slide right into the MLB position and reek havoc for opposing offensive linemen. He is also versatile which could see him slide out. An excellent coverage LB, he has exceptional power and will make clutch plays. Collins is a very strong man who can rush the passer and is prevalent in the run stoppage game.

2. Cornerback

Former second-round pick Greedy Williams was supposed to pair with Denzel Ward to form this terrorizing duo of pass defense. Instead, Williams has been hurt more than he has actually played. This year he was on IR for the season after suffering a nerve injury in his shoulder. When he did actually play in 2019, his tackling skills were sub-par but was an adequate pass defender although he still does not have an interception.

Free agents for Cleveland at this position are Kevin Johnson, Terrance Mitchell, Brian Allen and Tavierre Thomas. Allen is an exclusive rights free agent whereas the others are in the UFA category. Thomas is a special teams ace. Mitchell was the fill-in for Williams and had 65 total tackles this year and has value as an experienced backup. Johnson saw playing time when Ward was injured and was the focus of attack for most offenses.

NFL: NOV 22 Steelers at Jaguars
Mike Hilton
Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Free agent fix: Mike Hilton (Pittsburgh Steelers)

One word that describes Hilton: versatility. He could compete for that second starting corner spot opposite Ward or become the starting slot corner from Day 1. He is very good in both zone and man coverage, can play the run and has blitzing capabilities.

The slot would become his best position allowing Williams and Mitchell to fight it out for the starting right corner position. Hilton (5’,9”- 184 pounds) had 51 total tackles in 2020, three sacks, three interceptions and five QB hits. For his career he has 32 pass defences, 237 tackles and seven INT’s. Every year Hilton is among the top corners in defensive stops.

South Carolina v Vanderbilt
Jaycee Horn
Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Draft fix: First-round pick #26 – Jaycee Horn – South Carolina

Originally a slot corner, his last season he played out wide and dominated. Horn (6’,1”-205 pounds) had an exceptional sophomore season and played in just seven games this past season with two interceptions. He is the son of four-time Pro Bowl receiver Joe Horn.

Horn is a physical player but will need some pointers on securing tackles. His 40 time is 4.5. The NFL is always looking for guys who are able to play in press-man coverage. Horn could be one of the best press-man corners to come out of college football that the league has seen in recent years.

He is very aggressive and athletic. Horn would come into training camp with the idea to start opposite Ward right off. A physical player at the catch point and has the understanding of passing concepts.

3. Defensive End/EDGE

Think about an exceptional compliment to Myles Garret. That alone would provide all sorts of issues for offensive coordinators within the division and elevate the Browns’ defense.

The free agent list at this position for Cleveland include Olivier Vernon, George Obinna and Porter Gustin. Obinna was a rookie out of Sacramento State where he was First Team All Big-Sky Conference twice and had 33.5 career sacks. Vernon was a roller coaster despite his $11 million a year salary. He made the Pro Bowl in 2018, but injuries were a major issue with an Achilles and later an ankle injury. Gustin was the sensation in training camp and appeared to have starter written all over him, only to regress and eventually lose his job to Adrian Clayborn when Vernon went down.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Chicago Bears
Shaquil Barrett
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Free agent fix: Shaquil Barrett (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)

In 2019, Barrett had 19.5 sacks. This year that tapered off to eight sacks, but this EDGE rusher is a very efficient part of the pass rush for Tampa. Add the fact that he is an excellent run stopper only adds to his value. Barrett (6’2”-250 pounds) has good speed and a variety of moves coming off the corner.

Barrett has also been known to drop off the line and help in coverage of the tight end or the running back in the flats. Has 266 tackles in his career with 88 QB hits, 55 tackles for loss and caused 15 fumbles. He is 28-years old and is a Super Bowl champion while with Denver.

For the 2020 season, the Bucs landed the franchise tag on him. He is not the fastest player coming off the edge nor has the largest body mass. He is just really good.

He has a wide variety of pass rush moves that leads to productivity. Barrett has natural stance leverage and is always looking for the ball. He consistently beats one-on-one matchups.

Draft fix: First-round pick #26 – Azeez Ojulari – Georgia

Although he is not your typical DE size measuring 6’,3” and weighing only 240 pounds, Ojulari is the best pure pass rusher in this class. He is a three-down player with excellent quickness. Will need to bulk up some at the next level, but displays very good effort and production at the point of attack.

Ojulari has a red hot motor and was a two-year starter in a tough conference. Netted 9.5 sacks this past season and 5.5 in 2019. Will threaten the edge even against larger offensive tackles. Ended the 2020 season with a 91.7 pass rushing grade. Runs a 4.7 in the 40. Two words: quick and strong.

Poll

In your opinion, what is the number one "position of need" for the Browns going into 2021?

This poll is closed

  • 60%
    Linebacker
    (567 votes)
  • 16%
    Defensive end
    (154 votes)
  • 0%
    Wide receiver
    (4 votes)
  • 3%
    Defensive tackle
    (34 votes)
  • 0%
    Kicker
    (4 votes)
  • 17%
    Cornerback
    (163 votes)
  • 1%
    Position not listed
    (16 votes)
942 votes total Vote Now