Browns’ GM Andrew Berry has been busy during the free agency period. The position holes this year included safety, linebacker. third wide receiver, kicker, swing tackle, kick returner, pass rusher, defensive tackle and cornerback.
In the first week of free agency alone, Berry brought in a player for each level of the defense which will allow quite a bit of flexibility going into next month’s college draft. He was thorough with his choices of which players from last year were re-signed for this year’s roster as either starters or as quality depth.
Berry has also made shrewd moves without breaking the bank for name-brand players that can sometimes be overpaid on their identity and reputation alone. Berry has shown that being assertive does not always mean you have to pay top-dollar to get the desired results.
Just how good of a job were his 2021 signings? Did he miss again this year like he whiffed last season on players such as Andrew Sendejo, or over-pay for supposedly productive athletes that did not accumulate the numbers like Austin Hooper?
S John Johnson, III – Jackpot. The safety position has been in a constant flux for several years, and not that the franchise hasn’t tried to fix it. With the addition of Ronnie Harrison and the hopeful return of Grant Delpit, the defense plays a ton of 4-2-5 to which three good safeties are needed. Johnson is an excellent, excellent tackler. Very versatile and does a great job of coverage on the tight ends - Cleveland’s Achilles heel the past few years. Defensive play-caller. This will allow the Browns to take the best player available in the draft and has suddenly turned a weakness into a strength.
LB Anthony Walker, Jr. - Walker is a tackling machine at a bargain price of $3.5 million. For his career with the Indianapolis Colts, he had an astounding 343 tackles. This guy plays hard, is pretty fast, a leader, intelligent and possesses a team-first personality. Exceptional signing. Does not drop in coverage as quickly as needed, but is deadly against screen plays and is a run-stopper. Is just 25-years old so his best football is in front of him - which thankfully will be in orange and brown.
WR Rashard Higgins – A dependable third receiver was not only needed, but necessary now that OBJ will be sidelined for how ever many games early in the season. Higgins and QB Baker Mayfield have a great relationship on the field with Mayfield’s quarterback rating increasing while throwing his way. A very quiet first half last year until Beckham was hurt, but had a great second half. Nice signing on an experienced guy who already is in tune with the system - and just knows how to get open.
LB Malcolm Smith – Smith had a very good second half last year and was one of the best defenders going down the schedule stretch. Got a marginal bump in pay this year, but provides a veteran presence and is a dependable tackler. Will team nicely with last year’s rookie Jacob Phillips and newly-signed Walker in the traditional 4-3.
OT Greg Senat – Senat has played a total of three NFL snaps, and yet he is signed as one of the key backups. Has played both guard and tackle and on both sides of the ball which is a huge plus, but doesn’t have any experience. If Chris Hubbard isn’t ready to come back from knee cap explosion, and then something happens to either starting tackle, do you want Senat to inherit the job? Perhaps the low-price and developmental aspect were the carrot being dangled, but the Browns are made to run and need guys who have fought it out in real games to compete.
DT Malik Jackson – Jackson was once one of the best interior defensive linemen in the game. That was then. He parlayed one great season in Denver to get a huge contract with Jacksonville and then made the Pro Bowl in 2017 in a year in which the Jaguars were 10 minutes away from a Super Bowl. But by 2019 Jackson had regressed and by Week 10 lost his starting position. Last year, he blew out his knee in the first game for Philadelphia and was place on season-ending IR. That means Jackson hasn’t played any significant snaps since Week 9 of the 2019 season. There were other DT’s who are younger still out there. Jackson is on the other side of 30 to boot and is strictly a backup who will come in occasionally to give whoever takes over Larry Ogunjobi’s job a blow.
CB Brian Allen - What the Browns need at cornerback is quality depth, not a player who has been cut consistently and played for more teams than has NFL starts. Yawn.
Milk Bones – grape flavored with numerous side effects
KR JoJo Natson – The Browns haven’t had a dynamic return specialist since - who? Josh Cribbs? Wasn’t the main form of personal communication back then was the Blackberry? Natson’s 40 time has been clocked at 4.38 – that is before last year’s season-ending torn ACL in Week 3. You want guys who can come in and be difficult to defend, but is that Natson? His career numbers are 64 punt returns for 492 yards (7.7 average) and 36 kickoff returns for 753 yards (20.9 average). As you can see, not exactly burning numbers. And touchdowns? Punt returns: zero, kick returns: zero. You can’t coach speed, but you also can’t pay for non-production. If Natson doesn’t improve his stats significantly this year and become a factor, the Browns won’t.
K Cody Parkey – This is a player who you either place in the Brownies category or in the Frownies slot. So, he ends up here. Parkey has plenty of experience playing in the elements while being employed by Cleveland, Chicago and Philadelphia. His numbers last year were all middle-of-the-pack or the bottom third in every kicker category. He is very good at placing the ball inside the five on kickoffs as Coach Mike Priefer’s preference, but is inconsistent at times and ranked 16th in field goal percentage and 26th in PAT completion percentage.
DE Takk McKinley – McKinley is a former first-rounder who never lived up to expectations as a pass rusher for Atlanta although he did net 13 sacks in his first two seasons. When his fifth-year option came due and the Falcons did not cash in his option, he went to social media and bashed the front office - repeatedly. Then he suffered a groin injury to which Atlanta then waived him and his immature attitude. Three other clubs claimed him of which two cut him after he could not pass a physical. The Las Vegas Raiders claimed McKinley but immediately placed him on IR where he drew a paycheck but never played a down. McKinley hasn’t played any significant football since Week 4 of last year which he finished with eight tackles and one sack. If you look at recently waived Adrian Clayborn’s numbers, they are similar; but at least Clayborn was productive last year and knows how to conduct himself. We will see, but don’t think McKinley is that dynamic answer opposite Myles Garrett and may become more situational rather than starter.
CB Troy Hill – This is a wait-and-see player. Despite being in the NFL six years, Hill really had just one productive season which fortunately for him was last season. Played backup or practice squad or was cut the other years. Will play immediately in the slot and provide veteran insurance in case Greedy Williams is not ready or falters. Last year, Hill started 16 games with 77 tackles and 10 pass defenses, but also had nine missed tackles. With the Los Angeles Rams last year, Hill’s receiver was targeted 91 times in which 64 were completed for a 70.3 completion ratio. Ouch. Has a franchise friendly contract that allows the club to move on from him just in case those type numbers resurface. Hopefully Hill can take last season as the beginning of a good things to come instead of being a one-hit wonder.
LB Elijah Lee – Lee is a demon on special teams and is usually on the tackle. He will provide limited depth at the linebacker position, but basically his skills are making tackles in the open field and he does that job very well. Will make $990,000 this season chasing down punt receivers and kick returners. Not a bad gig.