NFL free agency is off and running, and we're keeping track of every major signing, trade and release of the 2021 offseason, with analysis from our NFL Nation reporters and grades from our experts. The new league year began March 17, meaning free-agent signings could be made official after that. The first round of the 2021 NFL draft begins April 29 on ESPN.
After committing a franchise-record of more than $60 million in guaranteed money to bolstering the offense last season, the Browns will turn their focus to the defense this time around.
Cleveland won’t have the same money to utilize as it did last season. But with more than $25 million in cap space available, general manager Andrew Berry still has the means to add an impact player or two defensively.
Finding an edge rusher to complement All-Pro Myles Garrett will be the priority. But the Browns have needs at every level of their defense, and will be casting a wide net from this free-agent player pool:
Here's a breakdown of every 2021 NFL free-agent signing by the Cleveland Browns, and how each will impact the upcoming season:
John Johnson III, safety
John Johnson signed a three-year, $33.75 million contract on Monday.
What it means: The Browns had a huge need at safety coming into free agency and filled it with one of the top safeties on the market in Johnson. Cleveland, now, potentially has its safety trio of the future in Johnson, still just 25, Ronnie Harrison and former second-round pick Grant Delpit, who is on his way back after missing his rookie season last year with an Achilles injury. Cleveland's defense allowed 15 touchdowns on passes thrown 15-plus yards downfield, according to ESPN Stats & Info, which tied with the Dallas Cowboys for most in the league last year and ranked 26th in opponent QBR. Johnson should help dramatically reverse that number.
What's the risk: In committing $33.75 million to Johnson, including $24 million guaranteed, the Browns are limiting their options elsewhere. That said, there still several fairly affordable options at edge rusher, where Cleveland's biggest need remains, and the Browns will the draft to also address both that as well as linebacker, where Cleveland could use a playmaker. But it's hard to nitpick this addition. Johnson checks so many boxes for Cleveland's defense.
Takkarist McKinley, defensive end
Takk McKinley signed a one-year deal worth $4.25 million base and up to $6 million, on Tuesday.
What it means: The Browns needed to add an edge rusher opposite Myles Garrett. After the bigger names, such as Carl Lawson, Bud Dupree and Trey Hendrickson, went off the board on Monday, the Browns finally landed an edge rusher Tuesday after agreeing to a 1-year deal worth $4 million with McKinley. For Cleveland, McKinley is more of a flyer, after being waived last year, then failing two physicals with a pair of teams, San Francisco and Cincinnati, who claimed him, before finally landing in Las Vegas, where he ended up on injured reserve. McKinley did have 13 sacks over his first two seasons in the league, and has the pedigree of being a former first-round pick. But the defensive line outside of Garrett still seems to be a major question mark for the Browns.
What's the risk: The Browns didn't commit huge guaranteed money to McKinley, like other teams had to with Hendrickson, Lawson and Dupree. So if he doesn't pan out, Cleveland's long-term outlook won't be affected. But after Garrett, the Browns don't have much proven production off the edge for the moment. Could Cleveland afford to land another edge rusher? Maybe so. Otherwise, the Browns will have to take a hard look at using their first-round pick, No. 26 overall, on another edge rusher.
Troy Hill, cornerback
Troy Hill signed a four-year deal on Friday.
What it means: Hill gives the Browns insurance, depth and an option at nickel. With Greedy Williams still working his way back from a shoulder injury that forced him to miss the entire 2020 season, Hill has the ability to slide outside opposite Denzel Ward, should Williams suffer any setbacks. But assuming Williams is good, Hill can step into the slot corner role in defensive coordinator Joe Woods' 4-2-5 nickel alignment.
What's the risk: The Browns gave Hill $24 million in the four-year deal, though much of that will not be guaranteed. So the Browns should have an escape hatch, should Hill not pan out with Cleveland. Still, Hill has 39 career starts, including all 16 games for the Rams last season. That is the kind of experience the Browns desperately needed to add to their secondary, which had its share of problems last year.
Anthony Walker, linebacker
Anthony Walker signed a one-year deal on Friday.
What it means: The Browns needed to add a veteran to their linebacking corps and land just that in Walker. A three-year starter in Indy, Walker has been a tackling machine, the type of player Cleveland needed to add to Joe Woods' defense. Walker has issues in pass coverage but that won't be his primary responsibility, out of Woods' 4-2-5 scheme that will employ versatile safeties and corners around Walker.
What's the risk: Walker likely steps into the role B.J. Goodson held last year. Goodson, so far, has yet to re-sign in Cleveland, or anywhere else for that matter. The Browns probably need to add more athleticism to the group but they can address that in the draft if they feel it's a glaring need.
Malcolm Smith, linebacker
Terms of Malcolm Smith's deal were not disclosed.
What it means: The Browns brought in Smith last year to serve as a veteran mentor to the young linebacking corps while providing depth and experience. The Browns are still looking to upgrade the position. But bringing the former Super Bowl MVP back ensures a level of stability.
What's the risk: Cleveland's linebacking corps overall had some underwhelming moments, especially in the playoff loss at Kansas City in the divisional round. The Browns will need to add more playmaking and speed to the position this offseason to take the next step. But Smith is solid and reliable.
Malik Jackson, defensive tackle
Malik Jackson signed a one-year deal worth $4.5 million on Friday.
What it means: The Browns now have addressed one of the real depth questions they had left, bringing in the former Pro Bowler, who was released by the Eagles. Jackson will compete for a starting defensive tackle job with Andrew Billings, who opted out of last season due to the pandemic. They will both replace Larry Ogunjobi, whom the Browns chose not to bring back.
What's the risk: Jackson, 31, has dealt with injuries in recent years. He did make the Pro Bowl in 2017 with the Jaguars. But in the 2019 opener, he suffered a foot injury and was placed on injured reserve for the rest of the season. If healthy, Jackson can definitely help. But relying on him and Billings, who hasn't played since 2019, will be a risk.
Rashard Higgins, wide receiver
Rashard Higgins signed a one-year deal on Tuesday.
What it means: Higgins was a key part of Cleveland's run to the playoffs, stepping in for the injured Odell Beckham Jr. in Week 7 and producing for quarterback Baker Mayfield. Higgins will step back into a No. 3 receiver role behind OBJ and Jarvis Landry, but has proven he make plays in key moments. That, given Higgins' chemistry with Mayfield, should only make Cleveland's passing attack that much more difficult to contain next season.
What's the risk: On a one-year deal, there's little risk. And Higgins coming back frees up GM Andrew Berry to prioritize elsewhere in free agency and the draft, where Cleveland might have had to draft a receiver had Higgins left. The Browns could still draft a receiver. But the pressure now to do so is gone.