Cleveland Browns Have Entered Super Bowl Contention During 2021 NFL Draft

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistMay 1, 2021

Cleveland Browns fans celebrate the second round pick, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, linebacker for Notre Dame, at the NFL football draft, Friday, April 30, 2021, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David Dermer)
David Dermer/Associated Press

I know some of you are still becoming comfortable with the notion that the Cleveland Browns are no longer bad. The idea is accompanied by an uneasy feeling in a football fan's gut—one borne from years of witnessing dysfunction, poor decisions and all-around underachievement in Cuyahoga County.

There were just so damn many mistakes by the lake.  

As a result, the Browns are not easy to trust, but they're coming off their first winning season since 2007, their first playoff campaign since 2002 and their first postseason victory since 1994. That was a stepping stone year, and it was important because it provided proof the reborn Browns are legally allowed to win. 

But the reality is this version of the Browns hasn't even scratched the surface. The 2020 campaign created promise as they grew despite a global pandemic interfering with their ability to adjust to a new coaching staff and a retooled offense.

Ron Schwane/Associated Press

Thus far in 2021, it's a whole new ballgame. The adjustments are complete and the Browns keep building through free agency and the draft, which is fittingly taking place in their backyard on the Lake Erie shoreline just as they become relevant on a Super Bowl-scale for the first time this century.

The Browns absolutely nailed the first three rounds of said draft, with a particular focus on bolstering a defense that broadly remained a liability in 2020 but has already been turned into an asset this offseason. 

It started with the additions of safety John Johnson III, edge defender Takkarist McKinley, linebacker Anthony Walker Jr., and cornerback Troy Hill; it continued when veteran defensive linemen Malik Jackson and Jadeveon Clowney joined the fray; and the cherries on top came Thursday and Friday night when general manager Andrew Berry selected two immediate-impact defenders in first-round corner Greg Newsome II and versatile second-round steal Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah

Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

It's finally time to bury your doubt. The Browns have arrived. 

The offense was already there late last year. With a stacked line, a strong receiving corps and one of the best 1-2 running back punches in the NFL, all it took was a breakout season from improved third-year quarterback Baker Mayfield for Stefanski's sneaky-efficient unit to move into the top 10 in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) at Football Outsiders.  

But the defense ranked in the bottom quarter of the NFL in that metric. Myles Garrett is one of the best pass-rushers in the league and Denzel Ward put together a third consecutive strong season in coverage, but Cleveland lacked support for those two stars and that depth issue was exploited often. 

They turned the ball over just 16 times in 16 regular-season games but generated just 21 takeaways and surrendered 26.2 points per outing. 

Dan Orlovsky @danorlovsky7

The @Browns are a freaking problem with this new regime man. #NFLDraft2021

They entered the offseason needing more punch opposite Garrett, more talent around Ward and more speed and range off the ball at safety and linebacker. And in a span of seven weeks, they've checked every single one of those boxes.

  • The 25-year-old Johnson is coming off a 105-tackle, 16-start season with the Los Angeles Rams. He was the third-highest-graded safety in the NFL at Pro Football Focus in 2020, and he also had four interceptions and 119 tackles in 2018. 
  • Hill intercepted three passes, scored twice during a breakout season covering the slot for the Rams. In 2019, only four cornerbacks who started the majority of their team's games surrendered lower passing ratings on throws into their coverage than he did (61.3). 
  • They'll get that needed speed element in the middle from Walker, who should help the run defense with his strong tackling skills after three productive seasons for the Indianapolis Colts. 
  • McKinley and Clowney are both former first-round picks in their 20s. The former couldn't consistently deliver for the Atlanta Falcons, but he still compiled 13 sacks in his first two seasons and he's only 25. A fresh setting with less pressure could change everything for him. And while Clowney hasn't been a consistent factor the last couple seasons, the 2014 No. 1 overall pick is a proven playmaker, a strong run defender and a three-time Pro Bowler at 28. 
  • Jackson's also been a Pro Bowler, and he should at the very least play a situational role alongside 2020 COVID-19 opt-out Andrew Billings in place of the departed Larry Ogunjobi and Sheldon Richardson. 
  • Newsome possesses a nice combination of size (6'0", 192 pounds) and elite speed (4.37-second 40-yard-dash), and he's coming off a season in which he allowed the lowest passer rating in coverage among all Power Five defenders, according to PFF. If he can stay healthy, he'll be a great immediate fit for Cleveland's Cover 4-heavy scheme.
  • Per 247Sports, ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. called Owusu-Koramoah one of the "best pure football players in this draft" earlier this year. The B/R Scouting Department ranked him as the second-best defensive player in the entire draft class, and the consensus at NFL Mock Draft Database had him in the top 20 overall. And yet the Browns landed the reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year and Butkus Award winner in the No. 52 spot. It represents unbelievable value for a player an explosive playmaker who possesses top-notch coverage skills and can play multiple roles right away. 

Put it all together and they're now better in every single phase. And don't forget that third-year second-round corner Greedy Williams should return from the shoulder injury that caused him to miss his sophomore campaign, while 2020 second-round pick Grant Delpit—who missed his rookie season due to an Achilles tendon tear—should factor in with Johnson, veteran Ronnie Harrison Jr. and possibly even JOK at safety. 

Robert Franklin/Associated Press

Oh, and of course the offense didn't have three-time Pro Bowl receiver Odell Beckham Jr. for the second half of that breakout 2020 season, but he too should return from injury to join standout Jarvis Landry, the reliable Rashard Higgins and rookie burner Anthony Schwartz. 

So while it feels strange to see only five teams with better Super Bowl odds than Cleveland at DraftKings, the Browns' trajectory might indicate they're being sold short there. 

On paper, we have to start talking about the Browns as a team that—if all goes right—could overcome the Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and anybody else in their way to capture their first-ever Vince Lombardi Trophy. 

It's weird, I know. But you just might get used to it.


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Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @Brad_Gagnon.