Can the Browns fix their defense in just one draft? Of course not.
On the other side of the ball, the Cleveland offense appears set. What would happen if the defense was just as good?
Free agency may be the catalyst that Cleveland GM Andrew Berry will use to fill most positions of need. But the NFL draft is certainly the correct tool to make certain that young guys fill holes vacated by aging or under-productive veterans.
And the Browns certainly have plenty of needs on defense. Some positions will be instant starters while many draft picks are mainly for depth or the eventuality of becoming a starting participant.
The good news about the draft is that it is the last domino in filling problem areas. Free agency occurs first in the NFL calendar which then gives each franchise an idea of where their holes remain. For the Browns, that implementation is where the holes remain on defense.
The biggest question for Cleveland this year is: what are they going to do about the wide receiver position?
Rashard Higgins had a decent season, but only signed a one-year deal and now is set to test the free agent waters. KhaDarel Hodge is productive when healthy, but the injury factor is the huge minus. Can he remain on the field? Will the Browns keep OBJ? If so, what type of player will he be when he is fully healthy?
It is hard to imagine Cleveland will go into next season with Jarvis Landry and Donovan Peoples-Jones as their starters.
A look at the top free agents available at wide receiver show Allen Robinson (Bears), Corey Davis (Titans), Will Fuller (Texans), Kenny Golladay (Lions), Chris Godwin (Buccaneers), T.Y. Hilton (Colts), Antonio Brown (Buccaneers), Chris Samuel (Panthers) and JuJu Smith-Schuster (Steelers).
Hilton is a four-time Pro Bowler but has seen his best football behind him at age 31. Samuel has under-performed since being taken in the second-round. Fuller has never been that productive. Golladay has already expressed his desire to remain in Detroit. Tennessee passed on Davis’ fifth-year option. Brown has an abundance of talent but is an emotional roller coaster.
Godwin is just 25 and has good production in an excellent receiver room. He is ranked as the Number 2 free agent this year. Smith-Schuster may find the door because of the play of rookie Chase Claypool plus Diontae Johnson. Robinson had 1,250 yards last year. All three would become a plus for the Browns’ offense.
And if the receiver position is solved, would Cleveland spend their entire draft going defense-heavy?
Currently on the defensive line, it’s quite possible that two of the four starters will have different nameplates next season. That is a scary thought.
The Browns have five defensive linemen who are free agents this year: unrestricted free agents (UFA) DE Olivier Vernon, DT Vincent Taylor and DT Larry Ogunjobi. The exclusive-rights free agents (ERFA) are DE Porter Gustin and DE George Obinna.
Obinna and Taylor are young guys who saw the practice squad or minimal playing time.
At defensive end, Adrian Clayborn saw quite a bit of action when Vernon was hurt and had decent numbers with 12 tackles, seven QB hits, three tackles-for-loss and 3.5 sacks. Backup Joe Jackson only played in three games. Vernon has a huge contract and is often injured. Gustin had starter written all over him coming out of training camp, but did not result in much production with 30 tackles, two tackles-for-loss, two QB hits, zero sacks to which Clayborn basically took his spot as the first man off the bench.
For the defensive tackle position, Andrew Billings was seen as a key free agent signing last off-season but was a COVID opt-out. Third-round draft pick Jordan Elliott saw limited snaps in his rookie year but played in every game with one start and showed promise. Ogunjobi had a roller coaster season with 15 starts, 46 total tackles, six QB hits, five tackles-for-loss and 2.5 sacks. Taylor played in 15 games with one start and had just 12 tackles. Sheldon Richardson had a solid season with 64 tackles, 4.5 sacks, five tackles-for-loss, 10 QB hits and three batted balls.
If Ogunjobi signs with another club, can Billings and/or Elliott fill that position?
Other teams have figured out the dependence of the Browns’ defense on Myles Garrett. There needs to be another option for an outside pass rush. One can only imagine the pressure if Cleveland could find a young stud pass rusher to pair with Garrett.
Wouldn’t it be great for the Browns to find their own Joe Schmidt, Dick Butkus or Ray Lewis to play the middle linebacker position? Someone who is a tough SOB, sure tackler and respected for his dependable roughneck play?
Mostly, Cleveland plays linebackers who come on the cheap and the position isn’t a priority. This ultimately frees up funds to spend on cornerbacks and the defensive line.
The Browns have four linebackers who are set to hit free agency this year: UFA’s B.J. Goodson, Malcolm Smith and Elijah Lee. The restricted free agent (RFA) is Tae Davis.
Goodson started 14 games and led the club in tackles with 91. He also had two tackles-for-loss, three QB hits, .5 sacks and six pass defenses. He graded out on Pro Football Focus at 65.4. On the Top 100 free agents for 2021 list, Goodson is absent.
Smith is a player the Browns could convincingly re-sign. His production increased as the season unfolded. In the end, he had 72 tackles with just four starts, but played in 15 games. Smith also had three tackles-for-loss, one sack and one interception.
Still on the roster are Sione Takitaki, Jacob Phillips and Mack Wilson. The Browns would be in trouble if this was their starting lineup in 2021. Takitaki and Wilson do not appear to be starter caliber. Perhaps somebody make a call and see if Clay Matthews is still in game-shape?
This is an area that has had the most plug-and-play pieces this year. Injuries and the pandemic brought forth a revolving door of players into various roles.
The Browns have seven defensive backs who are set to hit free agency this year: UFA’s CB Terrance Mitchell, CB Kevin Johnson, S Andrew Sendejo and S Karl Joseph. The only RFA is CB Tavierre Thomas. The ERFA list is also short with just CB Brian Allen.
At cornerback, Denzel Ward is an excellent athlete and has Pro Bowl hardware but has yet to complete an entire season. In his rookie year he suffered two concussions and missed three games. The following season he had a thigh hamstring strain Grade 2. This year, he pulled a groin rated as Grade 1. Ward started 12 games to which opposing quarterbacks tried to throw in a different direction.
The other cornerback was supposed to be manned by former second-round pick Greedy Williams, but he didn’t play a single snap this year. When he did play it was a mixed bag of results, one being zero interceptions. Mitchell was his veteran replacement and had 16 starts with 65 tackles, two tackles-for-loss, three forced fumbles, zero interceptions or sacks.
Thomas is a special teams ace. Johnson had six starts and came with issues. Allen spent time with five different clubs in 2020 and was signed when warm bodies were a premium. With DC Joe Woods playing more 4-2-5 alignments, the Browns will need a dedicated slot corner plus depth.
With the safety position, Sendejo was signed as a veteran presence and most Browns fans wondered why he was signed at all. One thing he was: durable. Joseph is a former first-round pick and is a very good hitter but lacks speed and is limited in recovery.
Ronnie Harrison was an excellent trade for the Browns and seems to have found a home. Hopefully, he will be paired with last year’s second-round pick Grant Delpit to finally solidify this position. The unknown here is Delpit’s residual effects from coming back from an Achilles tendon tear. As backup, Sheldrick Redwine has coverage skills but is a poor tackler.
What is available in each round defensively?
Editor’s note: rounds 4-7 have not been confirmed and are projections
Round 1: pick #26
CB Jaycee Horn – South Carolina
EDGE Jayson Oweh – Penn State
LB Zaven Collins – Tulsa
EDGE Joseph Ossai - Texas
DT Christian Barmore - Alabama
LB Nick Bolton - Missouri
Round 2: pick #59
DT Levi Onwuzurike – Washington
CB Elijah Molden - Washington
LB Chazz Surrant – North Carolina
S Talanoa Hufanga - USC
EDGE Joe Tryon – Washington
EDGE Quincy Roche - Miami
Round 3: picks #89 & #91
EDGE Carlos Basham – Wake Forest
LB Jabril Cox – LSU
S Andre Cisco - Syracuse
CB Shaun Wade – Ohio State
EDGE Ronnie Perkins – Oklahoma
LB Baron Browning – Ohio State
Round 4: picks #107 & #129
EDGE Payton Turner – Houston
CB Israel Mukuamu – South Carolina
EDGE Janarius Robinson – Florida State
DT Darius Stills – West Virginia
EDGE Daelin Hayes – Notre Dame
CB Rodarius Williams – Oklahoma State
Round 5: pick #166
CB Thomas Graham, Jr. - Oregon
EDGE Joshua Kaindoh – Florida State
DT Khyiris Tonga – BYU
Round 6: pick #205
LB Ventrell Miller – Florida
DT Mustafa Johnson – Colorado
EDGE Wyatt Hubert – Kansas State
Round 7: pick #251
LB Derrick Barnes – Purdue
LB Jamin Davis – Kentucky
CB Mike Hampton – South Florida
Can the Browns fix their defense in just one draft? If they dedicate their picks on a slot corner plus an outside guy, two linebackers, a safety and four defensive linemen - of course they can.
What position on defense needs the most attention?
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