The Cleveland Browns, against all odds, accomplished a lot in 2020 and, yes, 2021. The AFC North franchise reached the postseason for the first time since 2002 and even won its first playoff game since 1995. The team's 11-5 regular season record was the best since that fabled run in 1994, but most would agree that Cleveland arrived a year sooner than expected. No one anticipated a playoff run that would extend into the divisional round, given so many question marks and holes on the roster.
When executive vice president of football operations and general manager Andrew Berry was hired in January, he set out to upgrade the offensive structure surrounding former No. 1 overall selection Baker Mayfield. Cleveland signed Jack Conklin in free agency then drafted Jedrick Wills at No. 10 overall in the 2020 NFL Draft to serve as bookend tackles. In addition, the team signed tight end Austin Hooper and re-signed running back Kareem Hunt. Perhaps the most important addition, however, was not a player. Offensive line coach Bill Callahan has worked his magic to construct one of the league's best units.
Kevin Stefanski's offense is largely complete outside of potentially making a few financially motivated subtractions, such as center J.C. Tretter or wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. Those moves would not be made without a viable replacement plan. Beckham is scheduled to count $15.75 million against the salary cap next season. Although significant, the wide receiver's 2021 salary cap hit is just No. 7 among wide receivers. At the time of the deal he paced the league, but it now pales in comparison to the lucrative cash drops at the feet of Julio Jones and Amari Cooper, for example.
Those moves COULD be made, but they don't NEED to be made in the short-term. The Browns have much more pressing issues, specifically on the defensive side of the ball. Similar to the team's commitment to the offensive side of the ball last offseason, Berry now needs to funnel that same energy to the defense; that is where the keys to fixing the Browns begin:
Stabilize the defensive line
Myles Garrett has established himself as one of the best edge rushers in the NFL. The returns at the other three starting positions have been inconsistent. Edge rusher Olivier Vernon and defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi are scheduled to become free agents this offseason and it sounds likely that Vernon and his current employer will part ways. Cleveland should look to retain both if the price is right.
Regardless, it would benefit the Browns to add a few more pieces to that group. Edge rusher is one of the positions most likely to be targeted by the team in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. Although this year's class lacks a high end option like Joey Bosa, Nick Bosa or Chase Young, Berry should be able to make a splash selection to pair with Garrett.
Cleveland's defense ranked in the bottom half of the league in passing and rushing yards allowed. They need to add personnel that will be more stoic in run stopping situations as well. The team allowed 30-plus points in seven of their 18 games this season.
Add a starting caliber cornerback
Greedy Williams was selected in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft but he has missed 20 regular season games, including the 2020 regular season in its entirety. Veteran Terrance Mitchell has been asked to step in and fulfill a prominent role for the organization over the past two years. However, it has felt as though he has been on the cutting block at every turn. Veteran Kevin Johnson is also scheduled to become a free agent. To make matters worse, Denzel Ward has missed at least three games each of his three seasons in the NFL. Cleveland can ill afford to be reliant on the health of players that have not yet held up their end of the bargain. A high pick should be invested to shore up the unit. The Browns would then either have insurance in the event of unavailability or three capable starting cornerbacks.
Re-sign wide receiver Rashard Higgins
When Odell Beckham Jr. went down with an injury, there were concerns about whether the team had the players capable of stepping up and filling the void. Higgins, a former fifth-round pick and one of Mayfield's closest friends on the team, rose to the occasion. He had some miscues along the way, notably the goal line fumble that resulted in a touchback against Kansas City, but recorded 39 of his 44 receptions in the 11 games after Beckham's injury. The Colorado State product returned to the team on a one-year deal and his play has warranted a longer look.
Upgrade the talent floor at linebacker
Joe Woods' defense has a lot of linebackers that are worthy of being on a roster -- Mack Wilson, Sione Takitaki, Malcolm Smith, B.J. Goodson and Jacob Phillips -- but none are promised to be around long-term. They all have blind spots in their game. Coverage has been an issue for that group. Berry is not believed to value the position enough to spend an early round selection unless the right player is available. In an ideal world, they would add one of the top options but not at the expense of a player at a more high-profile position.
Find a safety combination that works
Cleveland anticipated Grant Delpit being an impact starter for them as a rookie. An Achilles injury cost him the season and the team was never able to witness the talent that led them to pick him in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft. His return should be a boost to the secondary but it will not solve all of its tackling issues. Beyond the LSU product, the team should be able to find some combination of Ronnie Harrison Jr. and Sheldrick Redwine to solidify that group. It would be wise to retain veteran Karl Joseph if a reasonable rate can be reached.