While the Browns only scored 17 points that day, it was clear - as it had been all season - that the front office needed to put some work into the defensive side of the ball if the Browns were to make a legitimate run at an NFL title starting in 2021.
General manager Andrew Berry was clearly paying attention and he got on the task with the opening of free agency on March 17.
Andrew Berry breaks down our 6 free agent signings and approach to the 2021 offseason— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) March 25, 2021
"How we navigate the free agent market is to try to be opportunistic buyers. I think that's something we were really able to accomplish with the guys we added.”
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Berry made a big-time move in signing one of the league’s top safeties in John Johnson III and added a solid slot cornerback in Troy Hill. He added to the defensive line with short deals for defensive end Takkarist McKinley and defensive tackle Malik Jackson. Berry even had time to give a cursory nod to the linebacker position, re-signing Malcolm and adding free agent Anthony Walker.
A year after fixing the issues on the offensive side of the ball, Berry took the same approach to the defense with an eye on players who fit into what the Browns are building, according to a press release from the team on Thursday:
“I think we were in a position where we had enough flexibility from a cap perspective where if we felt there was a player who aligned with our needs, if their skillset matched what we want to do within our scheme and they fit the profile of smart, tough, accountable, young, durable, then we can go aggressively and attack that player.
“We were able to do that with John Johnson III, but really even after that, I think a lot of the free agent activity and how we navigate the free agent market is to try to be opportunistic buyers. I think that’s something we were really able to accomplish with the guys we added.”
Johnson was the marquee signing by Cleveland after being a key part of a Rams defense that was No. 1 in the NFL in scoring defense, total defense and passing defense in 2020. Johnson’s versatility and intelligence made him a target, Berry said:
“We thought he was one of the more versatile safeties in the NFL. He can play free safety, strong safety and he can play in the box in the nickel or dime. His breadth of skills that he brings to the table, that he can play man coverage, he can play center field, he can support the run and really do everything at a pretty high level. It’s perfect for what we want to be as a defense.
“On top of that, you have his intelligence and his natural leadership. That’s something we’ll always look to add to the mix, and we feel like we’re fortunate that he was available.”
Here is what Berry had to say about the rest of the players the Browns signed in free agency:
Takkarist McKinley: “We view Takk as a young edge player with a very high motor. He’s got speed, he has power and he has quickness. He really plays with his hair on fire,” Berry said. “He had a really strong start to his career, and I know the past couple years he’s dealt with a few injuries, but we think his playing style and skillset marries really nicely with what we look for out of our defensive ends in this system, and he’s a guy we think really has a ton of upside and fits nicely with what we want to do on the defensive line.”
Troy Hill: “Troy is a versatile corner that has played inside and outside. He’s a smart football player who can play man coverage, zone coverage, turn the ball over and is a sound tackler,” Berry said. “We all viewed him as a really big part of the defensive success in Los Angeles this past year, and for us, the ability to have a corner that can play at a high level on both the outside and inside gives us a lot of flexibility with who we currently have on the roster and who we may add moving forward.”
Anthony Walker: “The name of Anthony’s game is really speed and instincts,” Berry said. “He is one of the fastest linebackers in the league. He’s a very quick processor and is very smart. We think he’s a guy whose range and tenacity fits really well with how we view the modern day linebacker. We also think that he’s a good cover guy, specifically with his ability to match running backs out of the backfield.
“Much like John Johnson, on top of that, he has a level of veteran experience. He called the defense in Indianapolis and he’s played MIKE and WILL. He’s an exceptional human being both on and off the field and will have a really strong presence in our locker room.”
Malik Jackson: “Malik is a self-made defensive tackle who had been with Joe Woods in Denver before as well,” said Berry, who overlapped with Jackson for a season in Philadelphia. “What we like most about Malik is his ability to impact the quarterback as an interior rusher. He played three-technique and has played what we call “the Big End.” But what we love about him is his length, quickness and tenacity as an interior rusher to give us more of a presence in passing situations over guards and centers.”
Offensive tackle Greg Senat: “He’s a very physically gifted tackle who is still new to the sport. We thought he made a lot of progress on our practice squad last year and we tried our best to retain him when Dallas signed him to their active roster,” Berry said. “We feel fortunate that we’re able to get him back with Bill Callahan and Scott Peters and add him to the mix to compete for our fourth tackle job. We think he’s a very physically gifted guy. He’s very studious and is a hard worker, and he fits the profile for guys that usually do well for us.”
While Berry has done admirable work so far, there are still some issues that need addressing on the defense. Even with the McKinley signing, the defensive end position opposite of Myles Garrett is still a major question mark. The same at cornerback, where the Browns hope to get Greedy Williams back after he missed the entire 2020 season with a nerve injury in his shoulder, but that is far from a guarantee.
But that is what the NFL Draft is for, and just as Berry appears to have repeated his success this year in free agency, look for him to have a productive draft weekend filling out the remaining holes on the defensive side of the ball