The Cleveland Browns are coming off their best season in a quarter-century—an 11-win 2020 campaign that included a dominant victory over the rival Pittsburgh Steelers in the Wild Card Round. But it was clear heading into the offseason that if the Browns were going to build on that success, the franchise desperately needed to upgrade a below-average defense around star edge-rusher Myles Garrett.
Cleveland had already fared well in that regard, adding impact players in the defensive backfield, upgrading the linebacker corps and bringing in a recent first-round pick and a former Pro Bowler along the defensive line.
General manager Andrew Berry struck again Wednesday, signing another potential impact player in edge-rusher Jadeveon Clowney. In doing so, Cleveland has cemented its status as the most balanced team in the AFC North. The one to beat in the division.
And a threat to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC.
The Browns kicked the tires on Clowney in free agency last year, and then again a few weeks ago. But per ESPN's Adam Schefter, the defender's second visit to northern Ohio did the trick—the 28-year-old signed a one-year deal with Cleveland that could be worth up to $10 million.
It caps a courtship of Clowney that reportedly goes back to when Berry was in the Philadelphia Eagles personnel department, per Yahoo's Charles Robinson. The Browns offered the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft multiple pacts in 2020, but he eventually signed a one-year deal with the Tennessee Titans.
That season in Nashville was an injury-marred mess—just 19 total tackles and no sacks in eight games before a meniscus injury ended his campaign. Injuries have certainly been an issue, as he's missed 29 games in seven seasons. And Clowney has never quite lived up to the ridiculous potential he showed with plays like his dehelmetation of Michigan tailback Vincent Smith in the 2013 Outback Bowl.
Watching that play never gets old.
But while Clowney hasn't had a 10-sack season, he's made three Pro Bowl trips. When healthy, he is one of the league's most ferocious run-stuffers off the edge. And before last year's backslide, he hadn't missed more than three games since his rookie year.
Berry said in a statement he expects Clowney to make a major impact in his new home:
"We love his relentless style of play. He's one of the more disruptive players in the game and we think he's going to add an element of ruggedness along our defensive line and will pair nicely with many of the guys we have on the roster already. The other thing we love about Jadeveon is his versatility, his ability to play all across the front and impact the game regardless of his alignment. ... Jadeveon's play-to-play impact on the game, whether it's the run game as a rusher, lined up as a three-technique or lined up as an end, is something we really value. We think he'll really be beneficial for us in our defensive system."
In 2017 and 2018 while with the Houston Texans, Clowney averaged 53 total tackles and piled up 18.5 sacks. Now, for the first time since leaving Houston, he'll play opposite an elite talent in Garrett. In fact, Cleveland's defensive line is bookended by a pair of No. 1 overall picks.
After a phenomenal offseason from Berry and the Browns, the Cleveland defense is about much more than Garrett—or Clowney, for that matter.
As Jeff Schudel reported for the News-Herald, Berry said the Browns entered free agency with the goal of aggressively upgrading the roster wherever possible:
"The general mindset entering free agency any year is to try to be opportunistic and address improving all areas of the roster. I think we were in a position where we had enough flexibility from a cap perspective where if we felt there was a player who aligned with our needs, if their skillset matched what we want to do within our scheme and they fit the profile of smart, tough, accountable, young, durable, then we can go aggressively and attack that player."
They accomplished that goal on defense.
In addition to bringing in Clowney up front opposite Garrett, the Browns signed 2017 first-round pick Takkarist McKinley to add pop in the pass rush. They also signed veteran tackle Malik Jackson to help fortify the middle of the line. When Cleveland takes the field in Week 1, all four starters on the defensive line (Garrett, Sheldon Richardson, Jackson and Clowney) will have Pro Bowl seasons to their names.
In the secondary, the team signed one of the top safeties in this year's free-agent class in John Johnson III of the Rams and then picked Los Angeles' pocket again by agreeing to terms with cornerback Troy Hill. A shaky linebacker corps got a sizable boost with the addition of middle linebacker Anthony Walker.
And Cleveland could still add another impact player on that side of the ball with a draft selection like Miami edge-rusher Jaelan Phillips, Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins or Florida State cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. with the 26th pick.
The Browns didn't add a ton of offense in free agency, but that's because they didn't have to. After a shaky second season, quarterback Baker Mayfield rebounded in 2020. In Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, the team has arguably the league's best one-two punch at running back.
Pro Football Focus ranked Cleveland's offensive line No. 1 in 2020. And with Rashard Higgins back and Odell Beckham Jr. presumably healthy after a torn ACL, the Browns' passing-game weaponry compares favorably with the other teams in their division.
Oh, and Cleveland has an offensive-minded head man in Kevin Stefanski, who was named NFL Coach of the Year in 2020.
As Robinson wrote, it's not just that the Browns appear markedly better. How Berry upgraded the roster is almost as important:
"It's not the talent haul of free agents retained by the (Tampa Bay) Buccaneers. And it's also not the lavish spending of the (New England) Patriots, who blew out their free agency budget this offseason. But it's a class with a lot of potential for relatively little money. Showcasing a smart, patient and impressive offseason that continues a new trend of the Browns looking like a franchise that suddenly knows what it's doing."
Johnson turned down more money to join the Browns, per Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com. Hill signed for a more-than-reasonable $4.5 million per year. McKinley, Walker and Clowney were all brought in on one-year deals.
These weren't panic moves. The Browns are both better in the short term and set up with long-term flexibility. It may seem strange to see competence and Cleveland in the same sentence, but the Browns aren't making the mistakes that plagued the front office for so many years.
While the Browns were getting stronger and addressing weaknesses, the Steelers were hamstrung by cap concerns—Pittsburgh lost one of its top edge-rushers (Bud Dupree) and cornerbacks (Steven Nelson) and suffered significant turnover along the offensive line. The Baltimore Ravens lost their top two pass-rushers (Yannick Ngakoue and Matthew Judon) and (with all due respect to Sammy Watkins) whiffed on bringing in a high-end target in the passing game.
On paper at least, the Browns look the part of favorites in a division that fielded three playoff teams last year. But this squad should set its sights even higher in 2021. After two straight conference championships, the Chiefs are the kings of the AFC until someone knocks them off that perch. A 13-3 season and AFC title-game trip has earned the Buffalo Bills the status of the top contender to do that.
But the Browns gave Kansas City all it could handle in the divisional round last year, and Cleveland has done more to improve in the offseason than either of those clubs. Assuming the momentum carries into the 2021 draft (Berry's first draft class in 2020 would seem to indicate it will), the Browns are going to be right there with the AFC's big boys when the regular season starts.
In 2019, more than a few pundits predicted the Browns could be headed toward a Super Bowl run after going 8-7-1 the year before. The team imploded, going 6-10 under first-year head coach Freddie Kitchens.
That hype machine is firing up again. But this time feels different. This time, it's about more than just a talented roster short on glaring weaknesses.
As Cleveland's fantastic offseason has shown (an offseason punctuated by the Clowney signing), this time the folks running the team are just as talented as the players on it.
And a berth in Super Bowl LVI is a realistic possibility.