Browns' Last-Minute Guide to 2021 NFL Free Agency

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistMarch 14, 2021

Browns' Last-Minute Guide to 2021 NFL Free Agency

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    It's been a relatively quiet offseason on the shores of Lake Erie after an 11-5 season that included a playoff win, but with free agency just around the corner, that should all be changing in a matter of days.

    The legal tampering period is set to begin Monday, while teams can officially sign players and get deals done Wednesday. While some teams have done quite a bit in terms of restructuring, releasing and trading players in preparation, the Cleveland Browns have remained nearly silent in the build to the signing frenzy.

    That doesn't mean it's going to stay that way, though. The Browns made big moves last season, signing Austin Hooper and Jack Conklin, among others, in the open market. Many of their signings were contributing factors to the most successful year in Cleveland since the franchise was reborn in 1999.

    Now they enter this time of year as a contender with some money to spend to fortify a roster that has already proved its strength.

    As we prepare for the whirlwind of free agency, here's a last-minute look at the Browns' cap situation, biggest needs and potential targets.

Cap Situation

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    Justin Berl/Associated Press

    2021 NFL Cap: $182.5 Million

    Cap Space: $24.4 million, per Spotrac

    The financial impact of playing a season under the restrictions set by the COVID-19 pandemic is going to be felt by some teams this season. The salary cap across the league took a hit, going from $198.2 million in 2020 to just $182.5 million in 2021.

    Fortunately, the Browns have been frugal over the years and are well under that number, especially considering the amount they were able to roll over into this season.

    Overall, the Browns are in the middle of the pack when it comes to space. Their $24.4 million pales in comparison to teams like the Jets and Jaguars, who will have around $70 million to spend, but there are still teams like the Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints who are still over the cap.

    Cleveland is in good shape financially and still has some deals that could stand to be restructured. For instance, Sheldon Richardson is set to make $13.7 million this season but only $1.7 million is guaranteed.

    Odell Beckham Jr. ($15.8 million), Jarvis Landry ($14.8 million) and Jack Conklin ($13 million) are among the biggest cap hits on the docket. The Browns also have some players who are going to be looking for big deals soon in Baker Mayfield, Denzel Ward and Nick Chubb.

Notable Free Agents

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press
    • DE Olivier Vernon
    • CB Kevin Johnson
    • CB Terrance Mitchell
    • DE Adrian Clayborn
    • S Karl Joseph
    • LB B.J. Goodson
    • S Andrew Sendejo
    • LB Malcolm Smith
    • DT Larry Ogunjobi
    • WR Rashard Higgins
    • K Cody Parkey

    The vast majority of the Browns' free agents are on the defensive side of the ball. That's good news because the offense was great last season and the defense is in need of some personnel upgrades.

    There aren't a lot of names on this list that would be devastating losses for the Browns. Olivier Vernon would have been a priority, but a torn Achilles ended his season and leaves him as a questionable asset moving forward.

    Kevin Johnson and Terrance Mitchell were a major part of the cornerback rotation, while Andrew Sendejo and Karl Joseph were major players at safety. Mitchell would be nice to have back, but the others are expendable.

    Sendejo was atrocious in coverage at times last season. He and Joseph gave up more touchdowns than anyone in the secondary with seven apiece.

    Ogunjobi has been a constant presence on the defensive line over the last three seasons but actually saw a reduced role in 2020. He played 60 percent of the snaps after two seasons of more than 70 percent. The team should be cautious about giving him too much money with Richardson already on the payroll.

    B.J. Goodson and Malcolm Smith both saw extensive playing time at linebacker, but the team could stand to improve their athleticism in that area, so they are far from guaranteed to be brought back.

Biggest Needs

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    Defensive End

    There are times when it feels like the Browns are putting a Bobby Boucher-esque expectation on Myles Garrett. He's expected to win the game himself on defense.

    Olivier Vernon stepped up to lighten that load at times last season. But seven of his nine sacks came in three games last year. Garrett is one of the best pass-rushers in the league, but to get the most out of him, the Browns have to pair him with another guy who can consistently win the one-on-one matchups their best player creates.

    This could be addressed in the draft, but the free agents available would make a bigger impact sooner. The Browns can't afford to wait on development in this area.



    Assuming a long-term deal is reached with Denzel Ward eventually, the Browns have one outside cornerback spot filled for the foreseeable future. Who will start opposite Ward is a question the Browns must have an answer to before next season.

    As the Browns look to play their nickel and dime packages more, the question of an inside corner is important too. Last season, Mitchell was the main starter on the outside and Kevin Johnson manned the slot position.

    Neither played well enough to be high on the Browns' priority list, but they need to find real answers to who will replace them. Greedy Williams missed the entire 2020 season with a shoulder injury, but they can't rely on him being 100 percent.



    The Browns are at a point where they need to start thinking about the kind of teams they are going to have to beat in the playoffs. That's unfamiliar territory, but after losing to the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round, it's not outrageous.

    That means figuring out ways to cover the likes of Travis Kelce in Kansas City, Mark Andrews in Baltimore and even someone like Mike Gesicki in Miami. That's not happening with the likes of B.J. Goodson and Malcolm Smith in the middle.

    Again, this is a position that might wind up being addressed in the draft, but the Browns have to start putting more athleticism in the middle of the field.

Top Targets

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    The good news for the Browns is there are potential solutions on the market for each of their biggest needs that would make sense.

    There are pass-rushers aplenty set to hit free agency. The New Orleans Saints' Trey Hendrickson would make a lot of sense. He's only 26 years old and is coming off a career year in which he registered 13.5 sacks. Romeo Okwara and Carl Lawson are also possibilities who may have their best football ahead of them and would be good fits in the Browns defensive system.

    The cornerback market doesn't have too many names that offer guaranteed production, but there is a lot of volatility built into the position. The odds of a bounce-back season for someone who may sign for a reasonable deal is higher at the position.

    That list would include names like Chidobe Awuzie and Quinton Dunbar. Both are relatively young players who have shown good form in the past but are slightly risky. If the Browns are looking for a long-term fix on the outside, it's probably coming from the draft.

    The same doesn't have to be said for the slot corner position. There are plenty of good options there, and they don't tend to cost big dollars. The Browns should be ecstatic if they can land someone like Troy Hill, Mike Hilton or Brian Poole to take over Johnson's role from last season.

    The elite linebacker options were taken off the market. Matt Milano is returning to Buffalo, while Lavonte David was re-signed by the Buccaneers.

    However, Jayon Brown or K.J. Wright would still likely be upgrades at the position.