Defense, defense and more defense: Browns look to free agency, draft to upgrade at DE, linebacker

Baker Mayfield turned a corner in 2020, and now the offense is relatively set for the long term with youth and talent. Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports

BEREA, Ohio – In 2020, the Cleveland Browns delivered their best season since rejoining the NFL more than two decades ago, finishing the regular season 11-5 before winning their first playoff game in 26 years.

With a talented young core headlined by All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett, relentless running back Nick Chubb and budding quarterback Baker Mayfield, the Browns have the goods to become a perennial Super Bowl contender for seasons to come.

To get there, though, work remains ahead.

Last offseason, the Browns solidified their offense around Mayfield by committing a franchise-record of more than $60 million in guaranteed money to right tackle Jack Conklin, tight end Austin Hooper and backup quarterback Case Keenum. Cleveland then expended the No. 10 overall pick in the draft on left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr.

Those additions coalesced in first-year head coach Kevin Stefanski’s offense, as the Browns finished sixth in the league in offensive efficiency.

This offseason, general manager Andrew Berry will refocus toward fortifying the defense around Garrett.

With several big-money extensions internally looming, the Browns won’t have the same money to utilize as they did last season. But with more than $25 million in cap space available, Berry still possesses the resources to make another splash in free agency. The Browns also own all their own picks, including the No. 26 selection in the first round, plus an extra pick in the third and fourth rounds netted from previous trades.

With the right transactions and continued internal development, the Browns could soon reach a place they’ve never been before -- the Super Bowl.

Here’s what to watch for from Cleveland as the NFL offseason calendar heats up:

The Browns are attacking this offseason with a primary aim of bolstering all three levels – defensive line, linebacker, secondary -- of a defense that ranked just 19th in efficiency last year. As ESPN and other outlets reported, Cleveland did pursue three-time defensive player of the year J.J. Watt, but was not in the neighborhood with their offer to Watt, who ultimately signed with Arizona on a two-year deal worth $31 million, including $23 million guaranteed.

To be sure, Cleveland liked Watt as a potential replacement for Olivier Vernon, who ruptured his Achilles in the regular-season finale last season and will turn 31 this year. But there are other defensive ends that will be available this week the Browns like just as much. And Cleveland banking it will be able to snag one for a more team-friendly cost.

Last offseason, knowing it had to upgrade the offensive line to give Mayfield a chance to develop, Cleveland pegged Conklin from the beginning. Like with offensive tackle last season, landing a defensive end to complement Garrett from the other side of the pass rush will be a priority -- and the Browns are prepared to pay to get one. But unlike last year, when Conklin was the target, and the Browns had the cap space to outbid the competition, Cleveland is likely to take a more measured approach with the defensive end market, casting a wider net from a rather deep pool of free agent pass rushers while attempting to strike a cost-conscious deal.

Though there might not be a no-brainer defensive end version of Jack Conklin out there, the Browns are certainly intrigued by this robust edge rusher market. Among the names to watch this week include: New Orleans’ Trey Hendrickson, Arizona’s Haason Reddick, Pittsburgh’s Bud Dupree (who sacked Mayfield twice last October before later tearing his ACL), Detroit’s Romeo Okwara, Tennessee’s Jadeveon Clowney (whom the Browns pursued last offseason) and Cincinnati’s Carl Lawson, who, at just 25, is still young enough to fit seamlessly into the Browns’ young core.

Look for Cleveland to be aggressive. But, like they did with Watt, also look for the Browns to refrain from engaging in a bidding war over any particular edge rusher. And should the Browns somehow strike out on an edge rusher, they could fall back on reallocating money toward bringing in an impact player at linebacker or in the defensive backfield.

Cleveland would like to retain several of its own veteran free agents. That includes Rashard Higgins, despite a report last week that the Browns were “moving on” from the wide receiver.

Higgins and cornerback Terrance Mitchell stepped into starting roles last season after the season-ending injuries to Odell Beckham Jr. and Greedy Williams and reliably produced. Yet both Higgins and Mitchell will test the free-agent market this week, which will ultimately determine whether either is back in Cleveland.

Linebacker B.J. Goodson will be one to watch, as well. Same as Higgins and Mitchell, Goodson was a valuable, if underrated, contributor to Cleveland’s playoff run. Bringing back all three would be a coup for the Browns. But given Cleveland’s plans to bring in a big name defensively, money figures to be tight.

Though tight end David Njoku is once again hinting (not so subtly) at being unhappy with his role in Cleveland, Stefanski still considers him an important piece of his two tight end base offense, which also includes fellow tight ends Hooper and Harrison Bryant. Njoku requested a trade last year before rescinding it during training camp. If Cleveland finally decided to part with Njoku, who notably had four catches for 59 yards in the divisional round loss at Kansas City, it would likely need to replace his uniquely versatile skill set somehow. Njoku’s base salary of $6.01 million becomes fully guaranteed on Wednesday.

Last week, I discussed Cleveland’s options in the upcoming draft with ESPN NFL draft analyst Matt Miller. In his recent mock drafts, Miller has had the Browns taking edge rushers, including Miami’s Gregory Rousseau and Washington’s Joe Tyron. But Miller also sees linebacker as a real possibility for Cleveland, given where the Browns will be picking.

“Late first round, there's a cluster of linebackers who are really, really good,” Miller told me. “Jamin Davis from Kentucky is one of my favorite guys in the entire class. He's not getting enough love right now, but I think smart scouting departments will see him as a three-down player. He reminds me of (Colts All-Pro) Darius Leonard. … super, super impressive.

“The same thing for Zaven Collins from Tulsa. The key with him is he’s 260 pounds, so you have to almost try to find a fit for him, because he's a little bit bigger than a modern linebacker would be. But there's so much depth late first round at linebacker that . … if they decided to turn the roster a little bit and add more speed, add more depth, whether it's your Jabril Cox (from LSU), Jamin Davis, Collins – Nick Bolton from Missouri is player who fits that scheme. … There's several linebackers I would look for them at 26.”

Speaking of the draft, more than a hundred people representing the NFL -- including those in operations, information technology, marketing, security and production -- visited Cleveland last week as preparations continue for the draft to be held around FirstEnergy Stadium at the end of April. The league continues to deliberate on what the draft will ultimately look like. But the city has already demolished two warehouses just to the north of FirstEnergy Stadium on the shore of Lake Erie (a site currently inhabited by thousands of seagulls). An official decision from the league on the draft logistics is expected by the end the of month. Once that happens, construction and preparations around the area should move quickly.

Following free agency and the draft, the Browns will be turning their attention to extension talks with Mayfield, Chubb and cornerback Denzel Ward. Recently, the league announced that Mayfield’s fifth-year option tender for 2022 will be $18.86 million, while $13.29 million for Ward, who gets a bump for making the Pro Bowl as a rookie. Cleveland has until May 3 to exercise those.

Dak Prescott’s massive four-year extension, worth $160 million, including $126 million guaranteed with the Dallas Cowboys, figures only to enhance Mayfield’s leverage on extension discussions, as the arrow on quarterback salaries keeps pointing up.

Because Chubb was not a first-round pick, the Browns don’t have a fifth-year option to exercise on him. That adds urgency on getting an extension done with the two-time Pro Bowl back before he gets to free agency next offseason. The Browns have a little insurance with fellow running back Kareem Hunt under contract through the 2022 season. But Chubb seems too valuable in Stefanski’s offense to risk let getting away.