Cleveland Browns 2021 Free Agency Recap
After winning their first playoff game since the 1994 NFL season, the Browns are looking forward to a positive future amongst the AFC elite. So how have they done so far this off season? Find out in our Cleveland Browns 2021 free agency recap.
By Ivan Mulinder, Cleveland Browns Chief Writer and Founder of Dawg Pound East.
Follow Ivan on Twitter: @DawgPoundEast
The Cleveland Browns have had an outstanding Free Agency. According to the PFF Improvement Index the Browns are the fifth most improved team with the rest of their main AFC rivals the Chiefs, Ravens and Bills all remaining static and the Colts in decline. Given that the Browns were inches away from the AFC Championship game last season this is very promising for Browns fans.
The Browns have added some quality starting players to their roster and in particular on defense which was below average last year. The Browns targeted their offense last season in free agency and the 2020 NFL Draft and this paid dividends, winning 12 games land coming close to the AFC Championship game.
Ultimately, they came up short due to their defense which graded below average and meant the Browns were hanging in games they should have comfortably won. To move to the top of the AFC the Browns needed to improve their defense and have really focused their attention on every aspect on this side of the ball. Here are their key additions:
Troy Hill – Cornerback, age 29
Overall PFF grade: 74.2, coverage grade: 75.7
He has a two-year, $4.5 million per year contract with $4.5 million guaranteed. This is an absolute bargain for a very good starting cornerback. He has produced coverage grades of 73+ in three of his last four seasons, he was first in slot coverage last season, fourth in single coverage and eighth in passer rating against. He ranked ninth in tackles, ninth in interceptions and tenth in receptions allowed. He had 77 tackles last season, three interceptions – two of which were returned for touchdowns and he recovered a fumble for a touchdown. Bearing in mind he was the tenth most targeted cornerback, these stats are incredible.
John Johnson III – Safety, age 26.2
Overall PFF grade: 85.6, run defense grade: 83.9
Given three years at $11.25 million per year, of which $24 million is guaranteed. Another bargain for a Pro Bowl calibre safety. He has scored at least a 84.9 grade or above in coverage across three of the last four seasons, was the third ranked safety overall and second in receptions allowed. He has a run grade of 83.9 and so is a very diverse defensive piece as he can be used against the run, in coverage and in the slot. He has a very high IQ and is an outstanding leader.
Takkarist McKinley – Defensive End, age 25.3
Overall PFF grade: 69.6, run defense grade: 69.7
McKinley earned a one-year $4.25 million contract with $3.5 million guaranteed. The Browns have picked up a very good backup if not a starter on the d-line, who was a first-round pick at number 26 overall in 2017 and a player who they desperately wanted. Clearly, they believe his speed off the edge is something which has been under-utilised as he is excellent in wide-9 situations which will open up blitzing lanes on that side whilst Myles Garrett is getting double/triple teamed on his side.
Malik Jackson – Defensive Tackle, age 31
Overall PFF grade: 63.7, pass rush grade: 72.1
A starter or backup depending on use. He had an 11.3% pressure rate last season which ranked 18th in total compared to Larry Ogunjobi who ranked 58th and Sheldon Richardson who ranked 32nd, so the Browns have clearly improved in this position.
Anthony Walker – Middle Linebacker, age 25
Walker has been given a one-year $3.5 million contract. The man is a run stopper with 105 tackles in 2018, 129 in 2019 and 92 in 2020. He started 46 of 48 possible games for the Colts and has had at least one interception per year for the last three years. He has been highly praised by a number of former teammates for his leadership and high football IQ.
The Browns have also added offensive tackle Greg Senat who they see as a potential starter at some point. He was drafted by the Ravens in 2018, but spent his time on injured reserve, then spent 2019 on injured reserve with the Chiefs. He began 2020 on the Browns’ practice squad but got picked up by the Cowboys where he played ten games on special teams. The Browns wanted to keep him and now have him back, so Bill Callahan can work his magic on him.
Browns Have Retained Key Contributors in 2021
The Browns have brought back quality starting players in wide receiver Rashard Higgins, age 26.4 with a one year $2.38 million contract who had an overall PFF grade of 73.4 last year and whom Baker Mayfield has a QB rating of 126.1 when throwing to. They have also brought back linebacker Malcolm Smith who had a 70.8 PFF grade, kicker Cody Parkey and wide receiver Khadarel Hodge who I’m very excited to see develop.
Very significantly, and this can’t be over-emphasised enough, the Browns return all of their coaching staff: Head Coach Kevin Stefanski, Offensive Coordinator Alex Van Pelt, Defensive Coordinator Joe Woods, Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer and Offensive Line Coordinator Bill Callahan.
Keeping consistency with the playbook and retaining quality coaches is essential. This is evidenced by the progression Baker Mayfield made last year where he finished as PFF’s eighth ranked quarterback, but from week seven was the third ranked QB; this despite previously having had three head coaches and three offensive coordinators in his first two years in the NFL. In addition, the Browns’ offensive line was ranked number one in the pass game, as well as the number one run blockers, establishing a phenomenal running game with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.
To get the clearest view of how the Browns have progressed in free agency we need to see who they have lost. Here are the main players the Browns have seen depart:
Terrance Mitchell – Cornerback
Overall PFF grade: 66.7, coverage grade: 63.4. A backup CB. He was a very dependable and popular, but the Browns were forced to use him as a number one corner way too often and he lacked pace.
BJ Goodson – Linebacker
Overall PFF grade: 65.4, pass rush grade: 58.5, run defense grade: 60.5. Another solid backup LB, a position the Browns value less in their preferred nickel and dime defense where they will use faster safeties and cornerbacks.
Adrian Clayborn – Defensive End
Overall PFF grade: 59.8, coverage grade: 63.6, run defense grade: 49.2. A backup in coverage, but replaceable in general.
Larry Ogunjobi – Defensive Tackle
Overall PFF grade: 53.0, coverage grade: 58.3, run defense grade: 55.2. A very replaceable DT who never lived up to expectations.
Kevin Johnson – Cornerback
Overall PFF grade: 50.6, coverage grade: 52.7. Again, a very replaceable player who the Browns needed to move on from.
Andrew Sendejo – Safety
Overall PFF grade: 42.6, coverage grade: 39.3. To be fair he was only brought in for special teams primarily and ended up being a starting safety.
MJ Stewart – Cornerback
Overall PFF grade: 41.6, coverage grade: 44.1. The grades say it all.
Cleveland Browns Starting Defense In 2021:
In all, the Browns have upgraded every position on their defense in free agency and retained quality starting players. This is their new starting defense as it currently stands (rotational players included):
Myles Garrett and Takk McKinley with Porter Gustin, Joe Jackson & Curtis Weaver as backups
Malik Jackson/Sheldon Richardson
Andrew Billings, Jordan Elliot
Anthony Walker/Sione Takitaki, with Malcolm Smith for the pass D
Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams
Troy Hill and Grant Delpit
Ronnie Harrison/Karl Joseph
John Johnson III
Browns To Strengthen Defense Further In The 2021 NFL Draft?
This is a very strong starting defense with backups already in place before we hit the 2021 NFL Draft in April and cuts/waivers later on. Draft needs remain primarily on defense with another staring defensive end required and a starting outside corner still necessary.
I think we will draft a defensive tackle fairly high and another safety which will be good to see. The only offensive position we are likely to target early on is wide receiver where I believe the Browns need a fast outside receiver. Tactically the Browns were far too dependent on Out, Curl and Slant routes last season and if they don’t vary this, then they will become predictable.
Expect the Browns to make another significant leap forward next season winning the AFC North for the first time since their return to the NFL in 1999 and making the AFC Championship game.
It’s finally a great time to be a Browns fan and my next article will cover two mock drafts specifically focused on the Browns. Given the starting roster the Browns already have it’s unlikely that any, but two players drafted will see immediate starts next season and maybe only seven players will make the 53-man roster. These Drafted players are crucial for sequencing and immediate quality depth so the April draft, in Cleveland, remains a crucial piece of the puzzle.