The NFL calendar, which rarely pauses, is set to really get rolling.
The scouting combine is this week in Indianapolis, with more than 300 of the top draft prospects to be evaluated by the 32 teams through on-field workouts, interviews and medical exams. The gathering of NFL decision-makers also serves as a runway for free agency, which begins March 13 with a two-day negotiating period.
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The pressure is on the Browns to rebound after going 7-10 and missing the playoffs for the second straight year. The urgency was obvious in the recent changes made by coach Kevin Stefanski to his staff and should also be evident in the offseason talent acquisition by general manager Andrew Berry.
Here are five things to watch at the combine:
Berry has work to do before free agency begins in two weeks and can make a lot of headway during his time in Indy.
The Browns are about $14 million over the salary cap and will need to create space to be in compliance with league rules and add to the roster. Berry said the cap situation won’t prohibit him from making any desired moves and he can manufacture room by restructuring contracts, including the $46 million in salary owed to quarterback Deshaun Watson in 2023. Berry began the process by trimming nearly $2 million off the cap with a reworking of kick returner Jakeem Grant Sr.’s deal last week.
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The Browns are committed for the long term to many of their highest-paid players, but safety John Johnson III is an exception. He’s entering the final year of a three-year, $33.75 million deal, and the Browns could save $9.75 million in cap space if they release him with a post-June 1 designation.
Berry, Stefanski and new coordinator Jim Schwartz must decide if they want Johnson. If they don’t, the release will happen. If they do, Berry will likely seek to restructure the contract to avoid the $13.5 million cap hit scheduled for 2023.
(UPDATE: The team plans to release him.)
The goal of the cap gymnastics is to have the flexibility to improve the roster. That process includes keeping the talent already on it.
Center Ethan Pocic is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent March 15 but is coming off a strong season in which Pro Football Focus ranked him third in the league at the position. He made $1.2 million on a one-year deal and is due for a significant raise. The Browns might not be able to match the offers he’d receive on the open market and could try to re-sign him before he gets there.
Berry, who doesn’t have a first-round pick after the Watson trade, has shown the willingness and ability to get creative in the search for talent and will explore trades for veteran players. The trade for receiver Amari Cooper last year is a great example and was agreed to before free agency.
Berry’s multitasking in Indy will include laying the groundwork for free agency. The Browns are expected to be aggressive, which means they better be ready to pounce when the negotiating period opens. Defensive tackle, defensive end and receiver will be top targets — the questions are which they will prioritize and if they’ll be able to address all three.
The combine presents an early chance — perhaps the first — for the reconfigured coaching staff to work together. The coaches will meet as a group and are involved in interviews and scouting with the personnel department.
Stefanski has shuffled the staff in the days leading up to the combine, including firing special teams coordinator Mike Priefer and replacing him with Bubba Ventrone. The longer NFL season and later Super Bowl have compressed the timeline of the offseason, causing coaching chaos across the league.
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The latest move by Stefanski was hiring veteran coach Bill Musgrave as a senior offensive assistant, a league source confirmed to The Chronicle-Telegram. He’s been an NFL coordinator for 10 seasons, including 2011-13 with the Vikings when Stefanski was assistant quarterbacks coach, and spent the past three years as coordinator for the University of California.
Musgrave, who was a backup quarterback in the NFL, gives Stefanski another experienced voice on the offensive staff.
Stefanski doesn’t plan to hire a quarterbacks coach to replace Drew Petzing, who left to be the Cardinals’ coordinator, and coordinator Alex Van Pelt will work even closer with Watson. Van Pelt did the same with Baker Mayfield in 2020 and ’21 when the Browns didn’t have a specified quarterbacks coach.
START UP FRONT
The combine’s primary purpose is the evaluation of draft prospects — even as so much else goes on — and the defensive line must be the No. 1 focus of the Browns. They could use two tackles and a starting end to pair with Myles Garrett in Schwartz’s attacking scheme and aren’t expected to fill all the holes in free agency.
The Browns have eight picks, starting at No. 42 in the second round. Iowa State’s Will McDonald IV, Georgia’s Nolan Smith, Auburn’s Derick Hall and Kansas State’s Felix Anudike-Uzomah are candidates as edge rushers, with Michigan’s Mazi Smith, Baylor’s Siaki Ika, Wisconsin’s Keeanu Benton and Pittsburgh’s Calijah Kancey possibilities at tackle.
The defensive linemen take the field at Lucas Oil Stadium on Thursday, so expect Berry, chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta, Stefanski and Schwartz to be keen observers.
BORN TO RUN
The receiver free agent class isn’t impressive — New England’s Jakobi Meyers and JuJu Smith-Schuster are at the top — so the Browns could turn to the draft to add a wideout to complement Cooper and Donovan Peoples-Jones. The addition must bring speed.
The passing attack lacked explosion last season and would benefit from someone who can stretch the field vertically and horizontally. Cooper has downfield ability but isn’t a burner, and Peoples-Jones is most effective making contested catches.
The receiver draft class isn’t as incredibly deep as it was the last couple of years, but talent and speed will be available at No. 42 and beyond. Some names to watch in the second and third rounds are North Carolina’s Josh Downs, Boston College’s Zay Flowers, Cincinnati’s Tyler Scott and Michigan State’s Jayden Reed.
As always, Ohio State will be well-represented. The Buckeyes had eight players invited to the combine, giving them 86 over the last 11 years.
The impressive list starts with quarterback C.J. Stroud, who’s in the mix to be the No. 1 pick. Stroud will throw in Indy, while Alabama’s Bryce Young — the favorite to be the top pick — will wait until his pro day, according to reports.
Paris Johnson Jr. could be the top offensive tackle taken and go in the top 10, and receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba might not be far behind. The other Buckeyes are defensive end Zach Harrison, safety Ronnie Hickman, tackle Dawand Jones, center Luke Wypler and cornerback Cam Brown.