Browns' banner free agency could set up big 2023

Wideout Elijah Moore is one of a number of smart acquisitions by the Browns this offseason. AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn, File

BEREA, Ohio -- The Cleveland Browns didn’t make the splashy move, like last offseason when they traded for quarterback Deshaun Watson.

But quietly, the Browns have had a banner free agency, addressing every one of their glaring needs on either side of the ball. As a result, Cleveland is positioned to challenge for a playoff spot and potentially more in 2023.

“All of the pieces are here,” said safety Juan Thornhill, who joined the Browns earlier this month on a three-year deal worth $21 million after winning two Super Bowl with the Kansas City Chiefs.

The latest piece arrived last week when the Browns landed slot receiver Elijah Moore in a trade with the New York Jets. Cleveland gave up its second-round pick (No. 42) to get Moore (the Browns did net a third rounder back in the deal). But the speedy Moore, a former second-round pick himself in 2021, could provide the one missing element on Cleveland’s offense -- if he can regain the form from his promising rookie season when he caught 43 passes for 538 yards and five touchdowns.

Last year, Moore eventually requested a trade because he was unhappy with his role in the Jets offense. But in 2021, 38.3% of Moore’s receiving yards came after the catch, which ranked 18th in the league among players with at least 75 targets.

That big-play potential should be a boon for Watson. Last season, Cleveland’s receivers ranked 31st in average separation (2.6), according to NFL Next Gen Stats, and 30th in yards after the catch per reception (3.4). As a rookie, meanwhile, Moore averaged 4.79 yards after the catch per reception.

Of course, the Moore trade wasn’t the only notable move the Browns have made, as they opened free agency focused on filling their holes defensively.

Thornhill, 27, steps into a Cleveland secondary that, despite multiple blown assignments last year, has the talent to be stout. Even with continuous busts in coverage, which plagued the Browns all year, Cleveland still finished No. 6 in opposing QBR (48.0). When playing man coverage, the Browns ranked No. 1 in the league in opposing QBR (34.4).

Cornerbacks Denzel Ward, Martin Emerson Jr. and Greg Newsome, who all excel in man coverage, are back. But Thornhill could add some much-needed playmaking to a group that has struggled to create game-changing plays. Thornhill had three interceptions last season, and a pick-six earlier in this career in Kansas City. The Browns, on the other hand, had only 11 interceptions total in 2022.

“I want to be that guy who can take control of a game and go get the ball when it is in the air and cause fumbles when it is that time to make that big play,” said Thornhill, who will replace John Johnson III (just one interception last season) in the lineup. “I think I’m that guy who can cover from sideline to sideline. No matter where the ball is going, I can see myself going to get it.”

Though Thornhill figures to be a key acquisition, the most notable move the Browns have made defensively is up front, signing 325-pound, run-stopping defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson.

Last year, Cleveland’s run defense Expected Points Added (EPA) was 11th-worst (-23.11) in the league over a span of the last decade. And ineffective play from a young defensive tackle rotation was one of the biggest reasons for those struggles. In Tomlinson, 29, the Browns landed one of the top defensive tackles on the market.

“There’s always a lot of pressure to stop the run because if you can’t stop the run, you’ll never get to pass rush,” said Tomlinson, who signed a four-year, $57 million deal. “[I] just want to come in and help everybody across the whole front, so we can be one unit to stop the run as much as possible.”

Though Tomlinson’s 33.2% run stop win rate ranked only 32nd out of 68 qualifying defensive tackles last season, it was still better than anyone the Browns had. Playing alongside All-Pro Myles Garrett and in a scheme under new coordinator Jim Schwartz that puts defensive tackles in position to make plays, Tomlinson could be far more disruptive in Cleveland than he was while with the Minnesota Vikings.

“The defensive scheme. ... is based all on attacking and getting off the ball,” said Tomlinson, who added that he was “super excited” to play with Garrett. “Being able to use my power more to my advantage, attacking everybody I line up against and just getting off the ball, I feel like it’s the best fit for me.”

Cleveland’s third big defensive move could prove to be a fit, as well. The Browns also signed former Houston Texans defensive end Ogbonnia Okoronkwo to a three-year contract worth $22 million. Okoronkwo, 27, only has 9.5 sacks in his career. But he’s also coming off his best season in which he ranked 13th in pass rush win rate (19.0%) despite facing the eighth-highest double-team rate (22.6%). Playing opposite Garrett, Okoronkwo should have far more one-on-one opportunities in Cleveland.

“Playing on the other side of Myles Garrett, I think it speaks for itself,” Okoronkwo said. “He has been one of the best pass-rushers in the league year in and year out. Being able to play alongside him will open up a lot of things for me, so I am excited about that, as well.”

The Browns have plenty to be excited from this offseason. Watson now has all the weapons he should need offensively. While Thornhill, Tomlinson and Okoronkwo give Cleveland’s defense the pieces -- along with the re-signing of inside linebacker and locker room leader Anthony Walker -- to be significantly improved, if not, as Thornhill suggests, potentially elite.

“We have that capability, of getting [to the postseason] and making a splash in the playoffs and making it to the Super Bowl,” Thornhill said. “I have all the confidence in that.”