The Cleveland Browns defense was less than desirable in the 2020 season.
The defense was 21st in points allowed, had difficulty getting off the field in key situations, and struggled unless it was causing turnovers.
General manager Andrew Berry exerted a considerable amount of energy in the offseason to rebuild the defense at all three levels through a combination of free agency and the draft.
While the defense should be better, is the true key to improvement based on where Berry allocated the money toward the various levels of the defense?
That is the premise of an article by Britton Mann at The 33rd Team. Mann took a look at how teams that employed a base 4-3 defense* allocated their salary cap dollars in 2020 to see if there is a correlation between where a team spends its money and winning.
According to Mann:
All five of the top defenses spent a higher percentage on their defensive line than on any other group. A key component to a successful 4-3 defense is the ability to control the line of scrimmage and rush the passer with four down linemen. The bottom five teams spent on average 4.06% less on their line than the top five teams.
The two data sets share a similar pattern when it comes to spending money on linebackers. The average spent on the linebacker position is less than 10% in each table. Typically, 4-3 linebackers are easier to replace than other position groups across the defense and can be found at a cheaper cost.
The spending on defensive backs was higher in the bottom five defenses than the top five. This data projects that spending cap on defensive backs will not make as large of an impact if the defensive line is not constructed properly.
Mann used points allowed to determine the five best defenses from 2020, and found that on average those teams - Washington, New Orleans, Indianapolis, Kansas City and Seattle - spent 17.28 percent of their salary cap on the defensive line, 8.6 percent on the linebackers, and 11.88 percent on the secondary.
So how does the rebuilt Browns defense line up to Mann’s findings?
The positional balance is there, even if the numbers are a bit lower than the average from last season as Cleveland is spending 14.23 percent of its cap on the defensive line, 4.48 percent on the linebackers, and 13.93 percent on the secondary, according to spotrac.com.
Those numbers are for the 88 players that the Browns currently have on the roster - a number that does not include rookie cornerback Greg Newsome and rookie wide receiver Anthony Schwartz, who are both still unsigned - so the numbers will look different once the opening day roster is set.
Even so, the numbers show that the Browns front office continues to trend in what would appear to be the right direction when it comes to building the defense. They have invested in defensive end with Myles Garrett, whose contract extension kicks in after this season, and are building a strong secondary, both key elements in today’s NFL.
There are some flaws in Mann’s premise, however.
Most notably, it is hard to draw any definitive conclusions using only one season of data. This year’s “top five defenses” may look different than the ones that Mann used, so a few more seasons of analysis will be needed to support his conclusions.
Then there is the case of the 2020 Browns, who landed on Mann’s list of the bottom five defenses for 2020. Last season, Cleveland invested 14.09 percent of its cap on the defensive line, 8 percent on the linebackers, and 11.76 percent on the secondary. Those numbers are not that far off the average spending of the top five defenses on the list, so it may still hold true that paying the right players is just as important as making sure your cap percentages line up correctly.
Berry has the percentages down and it appears that he has hit on paying the right players are the positions. If that turns out to be correct, then the defense should be able to show the kind of improvement in 2021 that everyone is expecting.
*Yes, everyone now understands that NFL teams no longer are solely 4-3 or 3-4 defenses. But teams do have a base defense, and given their roster the Browns are clearly a 4-3 team.