Browns 2021 offseason: Resetting the team needs after the first few days of free agency

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Jeff Risdon
·5 min read
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The Cleveland Browns roster has changed quite a bit over the last few days. Free agency additions have shored up some positions but left other spots still in need of an infusion of talent.

Among the new additions:

  • Safety John Johnson

  • CB Troy Hill

  • DE Takk McKinley

  • LB Anthony Walker

  • DT Malik Jackson

Cleveland has enough salary cap room to make more free agency additions if GM Andrew Berry and the Browns choose that path. The 2021 NFL draft also offers potential contributors right away.

Where do the Browns still need help for 2021? Here’s an updated look after the first few free agency moves. The focus here is on 2021 on-field play more than the long term needs.

Defensive end

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Adding McKinley effectively replaces Adrian Clayborn as the No. 3 DE. But the team has yet to replace starter Olivier Vernon, who is still a free agent and is coming off a torn Achilles late in the season. McKinley's lack of consistency, durability and production — he's managed just 4.5 sacks in 17 games in the last two seasons — is not sufficient enough to rely on as a full-time starter opposite Myles Garrett. Porter Gustin and Joe Jackson are NFL talents but not NFL starters, at least not yet. The Browns need to replace Vernon and his nine sacks and 12 TFLs from a year ago. That player is still not on the Cleveland roster.

Outside CB

(Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

It's great that Greedy Williams is getting back to full strength. The 2019 second-round pick could be the answer as the starter opposite Denzel Ward. Could be. But given the shoulder injury, a nerve issue that kept Williams out for all of 2021, the Browns can't solely rely on a return. Reliable fill-in Terrance Mitchell is gone. And given Ward's ongoing issues with injuries of his own — he's been able to start just 12 games in each of his three seasons — depth is a requisite. Troy Hill can play outside if needed, but he's much more suited to play inside in the slot. And if Hill moves outside, the team doesn't have anyone else besides Ward who can play inside. Cleveland needs at least one more outside CB, with apologies to Robert Jackson, Brian Allen and M.J. Stewart.

Safety

(AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

The unit has taken a significant upgrade since the start of last year. Adding John Johnson, the top free agent safety on the market, dramatically improves the coverage aspect of the safety unit. Adding Johnson, getting last year's second-round rookie Grant Delpit back and healthy, and carryover starter Ronnie Harrison gives the Browns the ability to roll out a base three-safety defense. And it's a talent-laden one. But what if someone gets hurt? Browns fans saw last year the tragic dropoff from having good starters to overmatched backups in the secondary. And it could be even more radical at safety if Delpit or Johnson misses time. Sheldrick Redwine fizzled when given a chance to prove himself, and the team didn't seem too excited about Jovante Moffatt or Elijah Benton last year even in the face of dire need. This is a need that is ideally suited to the draft, but not too late in the draft.

Wide receiver

(AP Photo/Kirk Irwin)

The top five wide receivers from the depth chart in 2020 all return, and that's a great development for the Browns. Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and KhaDarel Hodge are all back and (knock on wood) healthier than they've been in the last two seasons. There is still room for a niche role player in 2021 that can emerge as something bigger in 2022 and beyond. A quicker-than-fast slot receiver who can win on short, quick-hitting plays and also work well with Baker Mayfield on broken plays is something that would augment the offense. Hodge and Peoples-Jones are also critical to special teams. If the Browns want to dedicate Peoples-Jones as the return man as his primary job, they still need a vertical threat with some size to play on the outside, too.

Linebacker

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Adding Walker in free agency pushed this one down the list. Bringing back Malcolm Smith, if only for one more season, also helps. But there is a place for a reliable tackler who can range outside the tackles and also blitz on occasion. How urgent of a need this is depends on how folks perceive youngsters Sione Takitaki, Jacob Phillips and Mack Wilson. If confidence in that group is high, then linebacker isn't much of an issue. But if there is distrust or big question marks on the young trio, LB moves up the list--especially more long-term. Keep in mind the front office doesn't appear to prioritize off-ball linebacker, so this one might not be a pressing one for Berry & Co.

Competition at specialist

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Cody Parkey and Jamie Gillan are perfectly fine as the kicker and punter, respectively. If they're back for another year, the Browns should be in fine shape. But they need to be pushed to prove it. There is enough uneasiness with both to merit a strong offseason competition for their gigs. That's how Gillan wound up winning the punting job unexpectedly over talented veteran Britton Colquitt two years ago, after all. May the best man win, but may he also not just be handed the job.

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