Browns' Top Players to Prioritize in 2021 NFL Free Agency

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistMarch 10, 2021

Browns' Top Players to Prioritize in 2021 NFL Free Agency

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    Kevin Sabitus/Associated Press

    The Cleveland Browns have some money to spend on improving a playoff roster, but spending it wisely will determine the success of the offseason. 

    It isn't often that Cleveland has been in this position as a franchise. They go into free agency and the draft with some clear needs on an otherwise talented roster. But now isn't the time to just throw money around, the Browns have to be wise in identifying who can provide them value at the right cost. 

    That means finding players who can provide some long-term stability to certain positions, bolster a defense that desperately needs some upgrades and finding the ones who actually have a chance to be worth more than their contracts. 

    The Browns are likely to be connected to several big names in the coming weeks. That's what happens after a successful season and you have a projected $19.9 million to spend. 

    The following are some players who might not be the best available at their respective positions but can offer good value for what they are likely to command on the open market. Each one addresses a need that Cleveland has or will have in the near future. 

DE Trey Hendrickson

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    One of the Browns' top needs is another pass-rushing threat off the edge to pair with Myles Garrett. Olivier Vernon did a fine job of playing that role at times in 2020, but a torn Achilles at the end of the season makes it unlikely he returns to that level of play at his age. 

    If the Browns are going to spend big money on any position, this should be the one. A pair of pass-rushers who can get to the quarterback consistently can make things easier for all three levels of the defense. 

    The good news is there are a lot of options who could be on the market. However, Trey Hendrickson is the best combination of value and upside. 

    Hendrickson had a breakout year in New Orleans with 13.5 sacks. The argument against him is that he's a bit of a one-year wonder, but that ignores the fact that he previously had to split snaps with Marcus Davenport across from Cameron Jordan.

    In 2019, he put up 4.5 sacks while only playing 38 percent of the snaps. So it makes sense that he amassed a much higher total while playing 53 percent of the snaps in 2020. 

    In Cleveland, he would be asked to play the same role he was in New Orleans. Line up across an elite pass-rusher in four-down lineman sets and take advantage of one-on-one blocking. Other options such as Pittsburgh's Bud Dupree or Baltimore's Matthew Judon are used to blitz-heavy schemes that put them in position for pass-rush production. 

    Hendrickson will likely be cheaper because he only has one productive season, but the Browns should be confident they can duplicate that success. 

CB Troy Hill

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    Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

    The Browns have many needs on the defensive side of the ball. Some should be addressed through the draft while others are more suited for a free agent. A slot cornerback is among those the Browns should be looking to free agency to fill. 

    Despite the increased usage of sub-packages across the league, a good slot corner still doesn't seem to be highly valued in free agency. For instance, Brian Poole, who is an excellent third corner, only got a one-year $5 million deal from the Jets last season. 

    Thus, there's value to be found by addressing the position in free agency and few options are more intriguing than the Los Angeles Rams' Troy Hill. The 29-year-old was an important piece of a good Rams secondary. He was the 27th-rated corner in the league by Pro Football Focus. 

    Yet, the site projects that he will only receive a two-year, $10.5 million deal from the Rams. If that's the case, the Browns should be looking to outbid his current team. Denzel Ward is the only sure starter, and with Terrance Mitchell heading to free agency, the position group has a lot of questions. 

    Hill would immediately make the Browns more comfortable in nickel and dime packages while not breaking the bank. Those are the kinds of signings the Browns should be looking at to bolster the defense. 

WR Rashard Higgins

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    It's fun to speculate about which new names the Browns could be bringing in this offseason, but good teams hang on to their homegrown talent as well. There aren't a ton of outgoing priority free agents for the Browns this offseason, but Rashard Higgins is the closest thing. 

    Higgins is probably worth more to the Browns than most teams. His chemistry with Baker Mayfield going back to the quarterback's rookie season is evident. Higgins' only down year in the last three seasons coincided with his quarterback's own bad season. 

    Under Kevin Stefanski, Higgins was once again a big part of the Browns offense. He saw the third-most targets on the team and took the role of de facto No. 2 receiver when Odell Beckham Jr. went down with an ACL injury. 

    The Browns offense is pretty much set to return with the same cast as last season. For a franchise that has had more turnover than anyone over the last decade, that's not a bad thing. 

    Cleveland has just over $30 million committed to the duo of Jarvis Landry and Beckham next season, but both are set to hit the market after 2022. Higgins is only expected to command a yearly salary of around $6 million by Spotrac over a four-year contract. 

    That would give the Browns receiving corps some stability as they figure out what to do with Landry and Beckham.