It’s the most wonderful time of the year! And no I’m not talking about Christmas or getting the #1 pick in the NFL Draft. March 17th marked another critical point in the NFL offseason. Free Agency is upon us!
It truly is uncharted territory here. Usually, the Cleveland Browns might be focused on signing a veteran leader, drafting a Top 5 pick, and letting the chips fall where they may.
No more. After coming off a season which saw them post a stout 11-5 record, and knock the AFC North Champion Pittsburgh Steelers out of the Playoffs, GM Andrew Berry and his team are playing for keeps now. While it is true that division titles, playoff games and Super Bowls aren’t won on paper, many would say the Browns are on the doorstep of seriously chasing the Lombardi Trophy for the first time since 1989! Provided they make the right moves.
But before a team can make the right moves to put themselves in contention to chase a Super Bowl title, they need to know what their biggest needs are. I’m not a General Manager. I’m merely an intelligent fan who always tries to learn new things. But in my opinion here are the Browns biggest needs heading into 2021: Safety, Cornerback, Linebacker, Defensive End, Wide Receiver.
The Browns finally found some firepower in 2020, averaging a healthy 25.5 points per game last season according to ESPN. Baker Mayfield had a breakout year, throwing 27 touchdowns to just 8 interceptions, and bruising running back Nick Chubb ran for 1,067 yards behind one of the top offensive lines in the league.
However, even though the offensive explosion was refreshing to see, the Browns struggled mightily on the defensive side of the ball, giving up an average of 26.2 points per game. They gave up more points than they scored. A lot of this had to do with an extremely weak secondary. If the defensive line didn’t get to opposing quarterbacks, or stop the run, there wasn’t much to stop an opposing offense from routinely gashing the Browns for a big gain or touchdown once the linebackers and defensive backs were called on to make a play. Poor open field tackling was also an issue. If an opposing quarterback was pressured, and they decided to throw the ball, the Browns also found themselves routinely getting burned when trying to defend the pass.
Through the legal tampering period on March 15th-16th and the first two days of Free Agency on March 17th and today, the Browns have made a few key roster moves. The move that I am the most impressed with so far, addresses one of their biggest needs by strengthening the secondary. Enter John Johnson III.
John Johnson III
A safety’s job in the game of football is a kind of jack of all trades position. They team up with cornerbacks in covering wide receivers, come up and tackle the opposing running back in run support, and they often serve as “enforcers.” If a receiver catches a pass over the middle, good safeties are hard hitters who make the receiver think twice about holding onto the football and absorbing the hit. They’re good at intimidating opposing offensive players with their physicality.
John Johnson III brings all of these things with him to Cleveland. Last season, he served as the captain and play caller of a Rams defense that was ranked 1st in total defense and pass defense. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Johnson led the Los Angeles Rams in tackles with 105, allowed only one touchdown in one on one coverage, and was rated the 4th best safety in the league in terms of coverage and 3rd best safety overall. This was a solid first step in turning the Browns’ biggest weakness into a future strength. Hopefully Johnson has some productive years in Cleveland after inking a 3-year deal worth $33.8 Million.
In addition to shoring up the secondary, Browns GM Andrew Berry also opted to sign former Raiders defensive end Takk McKinley to a one-year deal worth up to $4 Million. At first this move didn’t make much sense to me, since at the time we already had a defensive end and pass rusher in Adrian Clayborn. It seemed like more of a lateral move than an upgrade.
But now after reading up on him a little bit, I think it’s a solid signing for several reasons. First, signing McKinley to a deal worth only $4 Million keeps the Browns out of salary cap trouble compared to if they had gone for a bona fide big-name pass rusher. Sure they could’ve gotten a star to put on the other end of the defensive line across from Myles Garrett, but it would’ve broken the bank and not allowed them the flexibility to make other moves later in the season.
Second, according to Doug Lesmerises of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Browns have tried to get Takk McKinley on several occasions in the past. Obviously Andrew Berry and Co. see something they REALLY like in him, or they wouldn’t have gone after him this hard. And I think I know what that might be, which leads me to the third reason I now like this move: His speed coming off the edge as a situational pass rusher.
McKinley, a 2017 first round pick, has 17.5 career sacks, so he’s definitely shown that he has the ability to get home and sack the quarterback. He’s been dealing with some recent injury issues, but when he is healthy, he is supposedly faster than former Brown Adrian Clayborn when coming off the edge. He has a quicker first step off the ball.
When you consider that the Browns already have one of the top pass rushers in the NFL in Myles Garrett, putting McKinley across from him makes sense. Opposing offensive coordinators already have to game plan around slowing down Myles Garrett. Adding another player who can generate more pressure on opposing quarterbacks from the opposite direction will make it that much tougher to stop the Browns’ pass rush. I still think the Browns will draft a pass rusher who is intended to be a future star alongside Myles Garrett, perhaps with their first overall pick at #26. But for right now, McKinley makes sense.
The Browns also addressed a weakness at the cornerback position by signing former Rams cornerback Troy Hill to a four-year deal worth $24 Million. While the price tag seems high, after reading up on him, I agree with ESPN’s analysis of the move: He’s insurance as a reliable starting cornerback if stars Greedy Williams and Denzel Ward can’t stay healthy. While I still think the Browns need to find another star cornerback somewhere, this is definitely a step in the right direction. Hill, who is 30 years old, could provide veteran leadership to the younger guys on the team. He also rejoins John Johnson here in Cleveland, as the two were teammates with the Rams in Los Angeles. A good move in several ways: getting a reliable starter, adding insurance, and continuing to build a winning culture based on prior connections and veteran leadership. I like it!
Hollywood is Back!
The one re-signing that has so far pleased me the most has been Rashard “Hollywood” Higgins, who signed a one-year deal worth $2.3 Million in guaranteed money. You’d think a guy with the nickname “Hollywood” would be more flashy and in your face. But that’s definitely not the case with Higgins. He’s just a quiet, humble guy who simply goes about his business, which is catching the football.
Fortunately for the Browns, he lets his actions and play on the field do the talking. Not to mention he catches just about everything thrown his way! Last season, Higgins caught 37 passes for 599 yards and four touchdowns. 2020 was a career year for Higgins in many ways. He nearly equaled his career high for catches in a season (39), equaled his number of touchdown catches in a season, and his 599 yards receiving was a new personal best.
He is a solid, reliable receiver. But he also seems to be the guy Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield goes to the most when the offense needs kickstarted by a big play, or to keep a drive going. That’s the reason he averages over 14 yards per catch. He might make the occasional spectacular play. But his true value lies in the fact that he’s Baker Mayfield’s security blanket. He’s a young quarterback’s most reliable receiver when all else fails.
Free Agency definitely drives home the point that the NFL is first and foremost, a business. And like any business, sometimes employees leave to find work elsewhere. A few players left the Browns and found new homes with other teams such as:
- DE Larry Ogunjobi: Signed with the Cincinnati Bengals on a one-year deal
- OT Kendall Lamm: Signed with the Tennessee Titans on a two-year deal worth up to $8.5 Million
- Special Teams players Tae Davis and Tavierre Thomas signed with the Houston Texans.
- CB Terrance Mitchell signed with the Houston Texans for two-year deal worth $7.5 Million.
- CB Kevin Johnson signs with the Tennessee Titans on a one-year deal.
So far, I like the moves Andrew Berry has made. He’s filling team needs while staying within the team’s budget. While I know most fans, myself included, love to see their team make a mega splash in Free Agency, I agree with the approach the Browns have taken so far. Hopefully Andrew Berry and the Browns front office keeps building something special. Stay tuned everybody!