Last off-season, the Browns and GM Andrew Berry were very busy. Berry identified several areas that were weak or inadequate, and then subsequently addressed most of those needs.
At the top of the list was the ability to run the ball. Cleveland traded for fullback Andy Janovich from the Denver Broncos. Next up: the offensive line – with both tackle positions highlighted in big red markers. Right tackle Jack Conklin was inked two days after free agency began.
The tight end unit was perceived as a weak link and Berry signed Atlanta’s Austin Hooper. After the Browns let go linebackers Christian Kirksey and Adarius Taylor, middle linebacker B.J. Goodson was signed away from the Green Bay Packers.
In all, Berry signed 12 free agent players before the NFL draft April 23. Some panned out and played crucial roles such as S Karl Joseph, backup QB Casey Keenum and DE Adrian Clayborn. And then there were the whiffs as evidenced by S Andrew Sendejo and CB Kevin Johnson. There are the signings whose value are still undetermined with opt-out DT Andrew Billings, backup C Evan Brown and injured KR JoJo Natson.
And now, the 2021 Cleveland Browns and their Coach-of-the-Year Kevin Stefanski have fresh concerns and new needs.
Who will Berry go after this year in the free agency period? Which players will help the Browns instantly; or who will become the Adrian Clayborn of 2021 and become a late contributor?
Whoever Berry signs, they must contribute right away and become a valued portion of the puzzle. This franchise is just pieces away from becoming one of the league’s best teams.
This much we know: Cleveland fans need each free agent signing to become an asset and not another Sendejo.
Here’s 3 absolutely famous players the Browns should avoid signing in this year’s free agent class, despite each being a position of need.
DE J.J. Watt - Houston Texans
J.J. Watt. One of the great NFL pass rushers. Probably a Hall of Famer one day. Excellent philanthropist and humanitarian. 2017 Walter Payton Man-of-the-Year. Twice NFL sacks leader and three-time NFL defensive Player-of-the-Year. Five Pro Bowls. Two 20.5 sack seasons.
No doubt about it, the Browns need a bookend pass rusher to compliment Myles Garrett. Other offensive coordinators realize that the entire pass rush is contrived on Garrett causing havoc in the backfield and he needs some help.
Watt has been a dominating force for many years; and now, here he is a free agent ready to sign with any club for his services which are highlighted by both power and speed. So, that would seem to be a match made in heaven for Cleveland, yes?
Not so fast.
There is a lot of mileage with Watt; and issues despite being considered one of the greatest pass rushers of all-time.
The main issue is his extensive injury history. Since 2015, Watt has missed 32 games due to injury. He did manage to play last season in all 16 games, but his time off from the field in recent years is troubling.
His injury list is a literary work: dislocated left elbow, torn elbow ligaments, partially torn right adductor longus, fully torn left adductor pectineus in his inner things and groin, partial tears in his left and right abdominals, broken left hand, herniated disc in his back, left ring finger injury, minor knee surgery, and a torn left pectoral muscle. Watt has been listed on IR four times.
Watt turns 32 this March. After netting 16 sacks in a full season during 2018, he followed that with four and then five the past two years. While regularly making around 80 tackles a year, he had just 76 the past two years combined. From 2012-2015, Watt had 190 QB hits. He failed to get into the 20’s this past year.
Then there is the matter of his salary. His cap number with the Texans last year was $17.5 million, the final year of a $100 million extension he signed in 2014. At the time, he was the richest ever paid to an EDGE rusher.
The Browns have already gone through a 30-year old pass rusher who is handsomely paid yet cannot remain on the field with Olivier Vernon and his $11 million cap hit despite missing eight games since he arrived in Cleveland in 2019.
Does the franchise want to go through that again?
J.J. Watt is a lock for the Hall of Fame one day once he hangs up his cleats. He is a beast while he is on the field. Which is - sometimes.
WR Antonio Brown – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
When AB was with the Pittsburgh Steelers, he was an awesome playmaker and gave the Browns secondary hell. So now that he has a Super Bowl ring and an impeding free agent, why shouldn’t the Browns go after him?
Think about it: Jarvis Landry, OBJ, plus AB? Talk about nightmares for the opposing defense and the problem of who to cover and who to double-cover.
AB will be 33 this summer but still has plenty of juice and shows no signs of slowing. And despite his past where all you heard each week was AB this and AB that, this year with Tampa Bay he was relatively quiet. Of course he didn’t sign a contract with the Buccaneers until late October this year with a one-year show-em deal worth $1 million in base salary.
Brown had 45 receptions for just 483 yards in a shortened season playing in just eight games with four starts for the Super Bowl Champs. However, he ranked seventh among all receivers during that eight game span and graded out a hardy 86.0.
More than likely, he can be signed for around $2-$3 million per season so his value is ripe for the taking. This is a guy who in 2015 gained 1,834 yards, and more recently scored 15 touchdowns in 2018 alone. He does not have the numbers the past two seasons and has played sparingly.
The question remains is whether he would fit into the receiver room with the Browns. AB is still in terrific shape and could be an asset to this offense - or a detriment depending which AB shows up. What still remains unresolved are several lawsuits against AB including a sexual assault, a small claims case involving not paying his doctor fees, several domestic incidents and a civil suit. All of that would follow him to Cleveland.
Though he’s still in great playing shape, can he rebound to the superstar status he once had and keep the off-field distractions at a minimum? It is certainly difficult to comprehend that any club would contemplate paying him much more than below his talent level at this point until he resumes his production numbers.
CB Richard Sherman – San Francisco 49ers
This statement is very true: Sherman is one of the best cornerbacks of the current generation.
This statement is also true: Sherman was one of the best cornerbacks of the current generation.
The Browns surely need another cornerback opposite Denzel Ward. Whether that is former second-round pick Greedy Williams or not will play out eventually, but the signing of Sherman would solidify that outside cornerback position.
The fact that DC Joe Woods plays more five and six defensive secondary as a base defense requires the club to have more warm bodies at this position at all times. Woods is very familiar with Sherman in that he was the 49ers’ secondary coach before moving into the coordinator position with Cleveland.
Sherman would not be signed as quality depth, but as a starter.
As part of the fabled “Legion of Boom” defense in Seattle all those years, Sherman became a household name despite being drafted in the fifth-round of the 2011 NFL draft. He has the distinction of having the most pass defenses and interceptions of any active defensive player since entering the league in 2011. He is a five-time Pro Bowler including being added in 2019 with his new team the San Francisco 49ers after having one of his best seasons as a pro.
So, why not target the success and veteran experience that Sherman would bring?
For one, Cleveland does not have to have this player regardless of his pedigree. Williams is still an unknown commodity to the defense and the hope is that he will step in and become the starter as planned. The NFL draft is right around the corner and there are plenty of options in the first three rounds if they are so inclined to take a young guy.
Sherman also lacks scheme diversity which is a problem for most teams including Cleveland. He has had two surgically repaired Achilles tendons which took away a step. But he is a smart football player and still remains very aggressive especially in run support. However, the power in his legs since the surgeries has been an issue.
Then there is the age factor. He turns 33 in March. At the corner position, speed and awareness are everything. Sherman is a film junkie and does come prepared for his opponent, but he no longer has straight line speed like in his Seattle days. The Browns biggest issue with the outside corners has been a lack of speed. Sherman does not compete with speed and now is even slower.
Apparently, Sherman only wants his next team to be one that has a chance at a championship. Our friends over at Heavy.com published this article recently written by J.R. De Groote about Sherman and his desire to play for Cleveland:
The 49ers have discussed an extension with Sherman but have too many other players to sign instead so it is imminent that the free agency game is where he will find his next club. He plans on playing until he is 35 and then wants a broadcasting gig.
So, he is seeking one more contract. Make that, one more big contract. The deal he struck with the 49ers was a three-year agreement for $27.15 million with a $6 million signing bonus and an average salary of $9.5 million per season.
If he negotiated with Cleveland, he would want somewhere in the neighborhood of a two-year deal worth around $12-$14 million a season with at least a third of that in guarantees. Apparently, Sherman does not have any interest in “settling” for less since his plans call for just two more years.
Ward is currently the highest paid cornerback on the roster with a cap hit of $9.45 million. What type of reaction would that generate with Cleveland’s number one CB?
Also remember, Sherman was very critical of the Browns for hiring Kevin Stefanski as their head coach. You know, the guy who ended up being named Coach-of-the-Year? And one must recall the incident in which Sherman accused Baker Mayfield of not shaking his hand, despite video which plainly showed Baker extending his hand to no avail.
Does this sound like a Clevelander - or a West Coast diva constantly seeking attention?
The evidence reveals that Sherman wants to sign with a contender with a shot at one more Super Bowl and would come in as the mercenary role in order to achieve that goal.
Make no mistake about it, Sherman is very capable of coming into Cleveland and solidifying the other outside corner position opposite Ward and produce. Perhaps his talents for the next two seasons is exactly what this defense needs.
However, the next Richard Sherman could be drafted this year instead of paying premium money to the old Richard Sherman in the hopes that his age, declining physical attributes, injury history and attention-seeking personality are one of the pieces that will get this franchise to the next level in the coming seasons.