The draft is less than a month away, so general manager Andrew Berry’s focus has shifted to the next phase of roster building.
As our attention also turns to the draft and what the Browns will do with their nine picks, including Nos. 26 and 59, it’s necessary to reflect on what could prove to be a pivotal first two weeks of free agency as the Browns try to bolster their Super Bowl chances.
Here are five takeaways from a busy couple of weeks:
Berry had a productive start to free agency — it never really ends — adding talent at every position on defense while dealing with a restrictive salary cap situation. Most of the heavy lifting is complete, but that doesn’t mean he’s done.
The lack of sufficient depth at defensive end signaled as much, and the visit last week from defensive end Jadeveon Clowney drove home the point. Myles Garrett, Takk McKinley, Porter Gustin and a handful of afterthoughts aren’t enough at the premium position.
Berry’s a big believer in McKinley — he repeatedly tried to land him last year and made him the second target in free agency behind safety John Johnson III — but is pragmatic enough to realize he needs depth at best and a backup plan at worst.
Clowney makes sense. Berry tried to sign him a year ago before Clowney spurned the offer and took less money from Tennessee. He’s coming off a disappointing season but is a former No. 1 pick with freak athletic skills and is a better run defender than McKinley.
But Clowney only makes sense at the right price. To me, that’s $6 million for one year.
The Browns reportedly went as high as $17 million last year, but Clowney took a one-year, $13 million deal from the Titans. It’s hard for many players to agree to a steep drop in pay from one year to the next, even if the reasons are plentiful, and Carlos Dunlap signing a two-year, $16.6 million deal with the Seahawks could give Clowney reason to hold out for more money.
If a deal can’t be reached with Clowney — or the Browns don’t like the look of his knee, which required season-ending surgery a year ago — there are other veteran options. Melvin Ingram, Aldon Smith, Justin Houston and Ryan Kerrigan are the most attractive.
If Berry doesn’t like one, or believes they’re all too expensive, there’s always the draft. Whatever means he uses, he will certainly add a third end, at minimum.
Berry set up the team perfectly for the draft. That’s how the best organizations handle the offseason.
The Browns will enter the draft without a can’t-afford-to-skip need. They’re a step ahead of a year ago when Berry left a hole at left tackle knowing the group was talented and deep enough that one would be available with the No. 10 pick.
After signing McKinley, Johnson, cornerback Troy Hill, defensive tackle Malik Jackson and linebackers Anthony Walker and Malcolm Smith (kept from a year ago), the needs on defense are no longer pressing. The same is true at receiver after re-signing Rashard Higgins and JoJo Natson and tendering restricted free agent KhaDarel Hodge.
Berry’s given himself more flexibility than a year ago, which is necessary when not picking until No. 26. It’s impossible to predict exactly who will be on the board that late, so having options is critical.
If Berry doesn’t make another significant move before the draft, defensive end and cornerback would be at the top of the wish list and he’d be expected to address both within the first three rounds. But the fact that it’s not a mandate is important. He’ll be able to take the best player available — not just pay lip service to the idea.
Berry would still lean toward pass rusher and corner with his first two picks, but if a receiver, linebacker or maybe a defensive tackle he loved fell in his lap, he could pounce without worrying about fielding a quality starting lineup in September.
The Browns didn’t do well enough in pass coverage in 2020, ranking 22nd in yards, 25th in touchdowns and 19th in opponent passer rating.
Injuries at cornerback and safety were a big reason, as was a lack of sufficient quality depth in the secondary and at linebacker. Johnson, Hill, Walker and Smith should all help significantly.
The Browns also expect safety Grant Delpit (Achilles) and cornerback Greedy Williams (shoulder) to return after missing all of the 2020 season, but they can’t be completely confident. That’s where the signings of Johnson and Hill have extra impact.
All of the moves in the secondary and at linebacker were aimed to help the pass defense first. Smith excelled in the nickel a year ago — he was ranked ninth in coverage by Pro Football Focus — and the Browns coveted Walker’s speed. The upgrades at the back two levels should improve the coverage of tight ends and running backs, whether coordinator Joe Woods chooses to go with three cornerbacks, three safeties or three linebackers.
WORTH A SHOT
The McKinley signing initially struck me as underwhelming. He was barely on my radar when free agency started, as I was focused on Carl Lawson, Trey Hendrickson and Romeo Okwara as the preferred complements to Garrett.
Berry decided not to spend double-digit millions on a No. 2 pass rusher and inked McKinley for one year and $4.25 million. That’s quite a letdown from the expectations that would accompany Lawson and his $15 million a year contract.
But after watching a couple of his games and participating in his introductory Zoom interview, the McKinley move grew on me. I still think Berry should add someone — a veteran or rookie — who can compete with McKinley for the starting role, but there’s more to like about McKinley than I originally thought.
He plays hard and turns his speed off the edge into power. His sack numbers aren’t inspiring – 17.5 in 49 games — but he has generated pressure, including six quarterback hits in the 2020 opener against Seattle.
McKinley’s flame-out in Atlanta, admitted loss of hunger and injury history underline the need for a worthy alternative, but his potential is exciting.
HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD
The Browns brought back Higgins at a bargain price of $2.38 million for one season. Berry didn’t seem inclined to pay Higgins much more, but the receivers market was soft and Higgins wanted to stay. Given Higgins’ connection with Baker Mayfield and production last year, it was a no-brainer for Berry.
The question becomes: How much will Higgins contribute?
If healthy, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry are locked in as the starters, pushing Higgins into the mix for the No. 3 spot with Hodge and Donovan Peoples-Jones. Higgins isn’t as good a blocker as the other two and doesn’t have the same impact on special teams but has been more productive catching the ball.
The grind of a season — one that will be 17 games — requires depth and will create opportunities. But Higgins and his legion of fans might have to wait for him to have a chance to contribute.