Defensive end Olivier Vernon isn’t going anywhere.
Neither is tight end David Njoku.
That was the post-draft message from general manager Andrew Berry.
Vernon, a former Pro Bowler, is due $15.25 million in the final year of his contract and is coming off a season in which he missed six of the last eight games with a knee injury and had only 3.5 sacks. But the Browns didn’t draft an end this weekend, and the only addition in free agency was veteran Adrian Clayborn, who’s more of a rotational player at this stage in his career.
“Olivier is a good football player and we like having good football players on the roster,” Berry said Saturday night. “He is a talented defensive end. He is here to continue to be here.”
Coach Kevin Stefanski expects Vernon to be his starting end opposite Myles Garrett.
“Obviously I think Olivier is a really great player,” he said. “Unfortunately he was banged up a little bit, but we look forward to all our guys contributing next year.”
Berry was even stronger regarding Njoku, who hasn’t lived up to his draft status as the No. 29 pick in 2017.
The Browns signed tight end Austin Hooper to a four-year, $42 million contract in free agency and drafted Florida Atlantic’s Harrison Bryant in the fourth round Saturday, but Berry insisted Njoku is part of the future.
“I have been pretty consistent this offseason in terms of, we still have a ton of belief in David and he is very talented,” Berry said. “Obviously he was not on the field much last year but he is a guy with outstanding physical tools, he has proven NFL production and we still think the future is very bright with him here.
“So David has always been and continues to be in our plans. And we are going to continue to add competition all across the roster.”
Njoku suffered a broken wrist in Week 2 last year and had five catches for 41 yards and a touchdown in four games. His best year came in 2018 with 56 catches for 639 yards and four touchdowns.
The Browns must decide by next month whether to pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract, and Berry sounded as if they would.
“I would not comment on any of those decisions in this situation, or in this context,” he said. “But again, we perceive David as part of our long-term plans.”
The virtual offseason program started Monday, and Stefanski was raring to go. He was finally able to coach his team, even if he was in Minnesota and the assistant coaches and players spread across the country.
“It went really well,” he said of the first week. “The guys are definitely responding to the coaches. We as coaches are figuring out new ways to do this thing and I’ve really challenged the coaches to think outside the box and think creatively of how we can reach these players remotely. The feedback I’ve got from the players has been very positive, so we’re working real hard to teach these systems to the guys, making sure that they’re getting the information.”
The offseason program runs through the end of June, so Stefanski hopes to get back in the building and get the players on the field at some point. In the meantime, they’ve done huge Zoom calls with upward of 50 people, but he prefers smaller ones more conducive to teaching and learning.
“God willing, at some point during those weeks we’re together in the building with the guys, but I do think there’s a lot of work to be done in the classroom because these offensive and defensive systems, as you teach them, we’re going to take our time and we’re going to be the teachers that coaches are,” he said. “Our job right now is to find as many ways as we can to get this information across to them. As I told the players, it doesn’t matter what I know, it doesn’t matter what the coaches know, it matters what our players know.”
CENTER OF ATTENTION
Nick Harris started 17 games at guard as a freshman and sophomore at the University of Washington, before moving to center and becoming a two-time first-team All-Pac 12 selection. At 6-foot-1, 302 pounds, he projects as a center, but the Browns are going to try him at both spots.
“We do think there is some position flexibility with Nick,” Stefanski said. “He’s a talented player, there’s a very obvious schematic fit with his movement skills. We’ll see once we get our hands on him and teach him this system, we’ll see exactly where he fits whether it be center or guard.”
The Browns have a starting center in JC Tretter, who signed a three-year, $32.5 million extension last season.
“We love JC. He’s our starter,” Berry said.
“Welcome to the squad @BRICKHARRIS56!” Tretter quickly tweeted.
The Browns have an immediate opening in the starting lineup at right guard, where Wyatt Teller, Drew Forbes and Chris Hubbard are expected to compete.
“Just because I played center last few years, I feel comfortable there but I also feel comfortable at guard,” Harris said. “Wherever I can get on the field the fastest and contribute will be good for me.”
FATHER KNOWS BEST?
Stefanski’s dad, Ed, was a longtime NBA general manager and works in the front office of the Pistons. He had plenty of opinions on what the Browns should do during the draft.
“I would say a lot of free advice and a lot of feedback,” Kevin said. “He loves athletes. There were players that he was sending me links to their pro day or links to their highlight tape.
“He wants very badly to be on staff with the Browns. Unfortunately, we do not have a spot for him. I did talk to him a bunch this week. The draft, whether NFL or NBA, that is the fun part and he certainly loves the NBA Draft and I can tell you he enjoyed watching his Browns this weekend.”
Without a seventh-round pick Saturday, the Browns got a head start on bringing in undrafted free agents. The team didn’t announce the moves because they’re unofficial until contracts are signed, but several agreements were leaked on Twitter.
Princeton QB Kevin Davidson agreed to a deal, NFL Network reported, and Liberty linebacker Solomon Ajayi Liberty agreed to sign, according his agent.
Deals for Georgia running back Brian Herrien (media), Colorado receiver Tony Brown (coach), Baylor cornerback Jameson Houston (media), Middle Tennessee State safety Jovante Moffatt (school), South Carolina State offensive lineman Alex Taylor (agent) and Sacramento State defensive end George Obinna were also reported on social media.
Bryant, selected at No. 115 in the fourth round, got good reviews of Cleveland from former Florida Atlantic teammates who played with the Browns — kicker Greg Joseph and defensive tackles Trevon Coley and Brandin Bryant.
“A lot of great things about Cleveland, the fans, just the surrounding area and how great of a time they had there” Bryant said. “I am just really looking forward to it.”
** The Browns have 10 picks in the 2021 draft, including an extra in the third, fourth and fifth rounds.