There has been a growing acceptance in recent years that NFL teams that “win” in free agency rarely win when it matters.
Being smart in free agency? That is a different story, which brings us to the Cleveland Browns.
For the second year in a row, general manager Andrew Berry used free agency to focus on the areas where the Browns needed the most help. And while he may not have made the type of moves that grab headlines early in the week, Berry’s work to repair the secondary may be the signature moves that push the Browns closer to the top of the league.
The signing of safety John Johnson III and slot cornerback Troy Hill, both of whom are coming over from the Los Angeles Rams, landed the top two spots on Pro Football Focus’ list (via ESPN Insider) of the most underrated signings in the first week of free agency.
Browns safeties earned the worst cumulative grade in the league last season at 48.2— PFF (@PFF) March 15, 2021
John Johnson III: 85.3 PFF Grade in 2020 (3rd) pic.twitter.com/jFVHUn1lQ8
First up is Johnson, who signed a three-year deal with $24 million in guaranteed money, and who PFF believes “might be the best signing of the week”:
The Browns entered the offseason with one of the most well-rounded rosters in the NFL, and the addition of Johnson takes them a big step closer to contention status. The former Rams safety finished the 2020 season as one of the five most valuable defensive players in the NFL, according to PFF’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR) metric, and he did it while serving as the signal-caller for the No. 1 coverage unit in the league.
Johnson has proven to be capable of playing any role in any scheme. He has recorded PFF grades above 80.0 in three of his four seasons — all of which ranked 11th or higher at the position — and the one season he didn’t was in 2019, when he was limited to only six games due to injury.
This was a home run for the Browns and might be the best signing of the week.
Hill was next on the list for both his value as a slot cornerback and the value of his contract, which is two years for $9 million, with $4.5 million guaranteed and two voidable years on the back end:
This contract doesn’t even make Hill one of the 40 highest-paid cornerbacks in the league. Yet, over the past two years with the Rams, he has ranked 14th in coverage grade and 20th in WAR generated among all those at the position.
Cleveland got him on this dirt-cheap deal for one reason only: Hill is a slot corner. It’s the most undervalued position in the game, and the Browns recognized this and seized the opportunity. When filtering to only slot snaps, Hill jumps to No. 1 in PFF coverage grade.
With the signings of two of the top and most underappreciated defensive backs on the market, Cleveland might have won free agency.
We could have done without that pesky “won free agency” sentence there at the end, Berry took a smart approach to fixing the secondary the same way he did a year ago when the additions of right tackle Jack Conklin (free agency) and left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. (draft) helped turn Cleveland’s offensive line into the league’s best unit.
It is obviously still too early to know if Johnson and Hill will have the same level of impact as Conklin and Wills, but if they can even come close, the Browns should be enjoying another deep playoff run this upcoming season.
Who knows? Maybe that will even help people realize that being smart, rather than having the biggest wallet, is the true way to “winning” in free agency.