Browns' defense: Grading the positions ahead of free agency, 2023 NFL draft

Myles Garrett & Co. will be working with a new defensive coordinator in 2023. Photo by Lee Coleman/Icon Sportswire

BEREA, Ohio -- The Cleveland Browns are entering a crucial offseason, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

Last season, the Browns finished 19th in defensive efficiency, which was a massive disappointment given the expectations. Even though Cleveland quietly improved late in the year, the franchise fired defensive coordinator Joe Woods and replaced him with Jim Schwartz, the former head coach in Detroit and former Super Bowl-winning defensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Browns have work to do on the roster as well and at every level of their defense.

Here’s the state of each position -- determined by whether the unit is "set," "needs work," or "requiring an overhaul" -- as the Browns look ahead to free agency and the draft.

Defensive line: Requiring an overhaul

With free agent Jadeveon Clowney on the way out, the Browns essentially have only one starting-caliber defensive lineman on the roster -- All-Pro end Myles Garrett.

That’s in large part why the Browns had arguably the worst run defense in the NFL last year, with a defensive total rush EPA of -23.11, which is one of the worst marks of any team in the past decade.

If the Browns have a big swing to make in free agency, it’s here -- and more specifically at defensive tackle. That would allow Schwartz to begin to revamp and mold the Browns' defense around the way he wants to play, especially up front.

“I think as you guys hear [Schwartz] talk,” said general manager Andrew Berry from the NFL combine, “he will talk about being an attack-style front -- [with] guys who really do get up the field, penetrate and really use either quickness or power to create disruption behind the line of scrimmage. That’s the general picture you [are going to] get from our defensive front.”

The Browns will likely need to sign another pass-rusher to replace Clowney. Alex Wright and Isaiah Thomas, Cleveland’s top two replacement options on the roster, combined for only one sack in their rookie seasons last year.

Linebacker: Needs work

A beleaguered linebacking corps was another reason why Cleveland’s run defense was so porous. Four different players that started as inside linebackers -- Anthony Walker, Jacob Phillips, Sione Takitaki and Deion Jones -- wound up suffering season-ending injuries.

The Browns will consider bringing back Walker, their Week 1 starter, provided his health and contract are right. Walker’s leadership and experience were sorely missed, as the run defense cratered after his Week 3 quad injury, finishing eighth worst in yards per rush (4.79) and third worst in total rush EPA (-16.17) during that span.

If the Browns don’t re-sign Walker, they are sure to be on the hunt for another veteran inside linebacker.

Takitaki, who said he hopes to be healthy in time for training camp after tearing his right ACL in early December, stood out in his moments at inside linebacker and stands a good chance of being re-signed, as well.

“Both [Walker and Takitaki] played good football for us,” Berry said, “and they were really good in the locker room.”

Phillips, with one year left on his contract, will have another opportunity to make the rotation after battling various injuries during his three years in the league.

Following a banner 2021 rookie season, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah struggled in Year 2, especially matching up against the run from his weakside linebacker spot. Whether it’s him adding weight or being utilized more effectively in Schwartz’s scheme, JOK must produce more than he did in 2022 for the Browns' defense to reach its potential.

Cornerback: Set

After committing considerable draft equity to the position in recent years, cornerback is the one spot defensively that appears to be in terrific shape. While the Browns secondary struggled with coverage busts at inopportune moments last year, Cleveland still led the NFL in opposing QBR (34.4) while in man coverage.

The biggest challenge for Schwartz will be figuring out how best to use Martin Emerson Jr., Denzel Ward and Greg Newsome II, who all started in Cleveland’s nickel sets last year.

Newsome was unhappy manning the slot, as he struggled at times transitioning from outside to inside corner. But given Emerson’s range and Ward’s Pro Bowl cover ability, Newsome in the slot still seems to make the most sense -- if the Browns can convince him to return there.

Backup corners Greedy Williams and A.J. Green are both free agents. The Browns will need to re-sign one, or find another veteran, to solidify their corner rotation.

Safety: Needs work

The Browns already have announced that they’re releasing John Johnson III after his two years in Cleveland. That will save the Browns roughly $9.75 million if he’s released with a June 1 designation. But it also means Cleveland needs another starting safety alongside Grant Delpit.

Delpit quietly surged late last season after a rough start. That has generated optimism that the 2020 second-round pick could finally begin to realize his potential after overcoming an Achilles tear in his first season. But D'Anthony Bell is the only safety on the roster (free agent Ronnie Harrison Jr. is not expected back).

Cleveland is likely to commit more resources to bolster its defensive line. But the Browns will still need to sign a veteran starting-caliber player here to replace Johnson.

“As we always do, we will stay flexible, we will stay adaptable,” said Berry, when asked what the Browns could do at safety, “and try and map our resources to opportunities.”