Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

BEREA, Ohio – Few teams made a more concerted effort to buttress their secondary, or bolster the pass rush, than the Cleveland Browns. It was a fundamental tenet of their offseason, solidifying them as AFC contenders in the eyes of many.

But it's how they did it that seems to get glossed over or overlooked.

Despite a pandemic, and with the salary cap plummeting, the Browns appear to be much improved in numerous prior positions of need, without draining anything from a potent offense in the process. Instead, they actually may be improved both throwing and running the ball by keeping one of the game's premier offensive lines in place looking even deeper at receiver with Odell Beckham, Jr. on his way back from another injury-marred season, and managing to extend stud running back Nick Chubb for three more years in the process.

Oh, and Kevin Stefanski, a coach of the year candidate in a rookie season in which the very idea of coaching and teaching was reframed by Covid, actually gets to spend individual time with his players now, and stay after practice with them and have them saunter into his office to speak their mind and hash things out. He doesn't have to rely on tablets and internet connections to impress his offense upon them and get to know them as men and players. All of it has me believing in the Browns in a way in which I never really have before, as their ability to not have to rob Peter (Baker Mayfield's supporting cast) to beef up Paul (Myles Garrett's new supporting cast) on the other side of the ball.

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"It takes a lot of planning … and we really do try to manage things with the long term in mind," general manager Andrew Berry told me. "We try to be very deliberate in how we use our resources, whether they are draft picks or dollars, and we also are benefactors of the fact that a lot of our core still is on their rookie deal. So It allows us a little bit of additional flexibility in terms of our planning, but we try to be very selective in how we address needs."

Whatever Berry and Stefanski are doing, it's working. This roster is loaded with blue chip, or potential blue chip, veterans and also is very deep at critical spots. Furthermore, watching the Browns practice and seeing their players up close, their combination of speed, and burly size, is quite powerful. They are big and strong at the point of attack, with no shortage of burners or jitterbugs in the backfield and downfield as well.

"AB and coach Stefanski, their strategy to me since they have been together, it's calculated," top slot receiver Jarvis Landry said. "Everything they say and do is calculated.

If their calculated gambles on defense pay off, then consider me among those who believe they can give the Chiefs a game at Arrowhead with the Super Bowl in the balance (like they did a year ago, only maybe even with a different result). In particular, it's difficult not to see the bookend potential of Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney on the defensive line and not get excited.

Yes, Clowney had another lost season a year ago due to injury, and sure, some have been burned signing him in the past, but at this price, on this team, with Garrett a potential Defensive MVP, and with the Browns analytical approach and sports-science acumen, I believe they will find a winning combination of snap limits and packages to bring out the best of the dynamic edge presence. He is a unique body type with special characteristics setting the edge and improving the run defense, and can also still use power and spin moves to create pressure.

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So far, the transition has been seamless.

"A really good fit," Stefanski said. "Culturally, he has been great to be around. A fun teammate. Enjoys practice. He is having fun. I think he talked about it with you guys – he is healthy so he is feeling good and moving around. Then the fit, schematically, he has played in systems similar to this, so it's fun to see him be very disruptive throughout the course of practice."

Berry said: "We do a lot of research and background for any signing, not just JD. Whether it's character, medical, their performance over the past couple of years, whatever it may be, because we are very deliberate in terms of who we add to the roster and who we add to the locker room.

"In JD's case, we thought he's been one of the most disruptive players in the NFL when he has been on the field. We do realize he has missed a little bit of time over the past two years, but we felt like he did a great job of attacking his rehab this offseason, and we ultimately felt comfortable with the long-term medical prognosis. We think he's a perfect schematic fit for what we want to accomplish and will be a versatile and disruptive piece up front."

This goes much deeper than sacks, people, though he will pick up a bunch with Garrett on the opposite side. It's the ability to be stout and limber and force opponents to block you in specific ways. The Browns are an advanced analytical team, and there is randomness and luck involved in sacks, but other ways to quantify overall presence and productivity. I asked Berry if he feels like sacks are more like batting average, and not on-base percentage, to put it in baseball metric terms.

"That's entirely right - there are plenty of defensive linemen around the league who make their presence felt and are productive players that may not necessarily have gaudy sack numbers," Berry explained, "because there is a little bit of chance that plays into that. So we definitely look beyond the aggregate sack numbers to get a sense of that."

The secondary looks much deeper with a more interesting collection of athletes and body types. Berry prioritized former Rams defensive backs John Johnson and Troy Hill in free agency, and took corner Greg Newsome with their first pick (opinions on him varied pre-draft but he's quietly earning rave reviews here). The staff believes there is a role for former first-round corner Greedy Williams, who is back in pads after season-ending injury, and are excited to see rangy safety Grant Delpit, who missed his rookie season to injury. That should provide some help and cover for top corner Denzel Ward. In the past, the secondary tended to bottom out without him (and wasn't all that even with his strong play), but now there are more options, and a ramped up pass rush will only help this group as well.

"We think we have a group that has a lot of talent and has a lot of depth and versatility," Berry said. "We're looking forward to them coming together as we go through camp."    


  • I wouldn't extrapolate a ton from Josh Allen's new contract as it pertains to Mayfield and an extension for him. The vibe here is not nearly what it was a week ago when I was in Buffalo, with all sides knowing something was getting done relatively soon, with it just a matter of when. It's clear that Mayfield has won over this regime – which did not select him first-overall – and in a very good place. He seems more at ease than ever before to me. "He's really taking ownership of (this offense), because he just has a full and intimate understanding in terms of what we're trying to accomplish and his comfort level in terms of what we do schematically," Berry said. "It's been great to see his growth."
  • Yes, the Browns have all the yuckety yuck about the offense being better without OBJ. No, they aren't buying it. I'm not either. Beckham is committed to his recovery from November knee surgery and his individual work (he is not taking part in full team drills yet) has been impressive. He is focused on footwork and running refined routes within the scope of this offense. Color me impressed. "That is one guy I know for sure that will never stop trying to get better," said Landry, his college teammate. "That's why he gets so much respect from the guys around the league. I look up to him. I look up to him for the way he works and the way he approaches this business and the man he is." As for the conspiracy theory – "Were we not supposed to try to win the games (without Beckham), you know what I mean?" Landry said. "We had to do what we had to do with what he had, but again, man, I don't know how to really answer that question. But the biggest thing is trying to keep everybody healthy, because when we're all together and healthy we can do some damage."
  • All the whispers I heard about Donovan Peoples-Jones looking like an impact receiver proved true at practice. With Landry and OBJ watching, DPJ was a stud. He latched on to deep balls in 11-on-11, lined up from multiple spots and the 2020 sixth-round pick looked dangerous throughout the session. "He's the MVP of camp right now," Landry said. "He's very different from the second-year guys I have been around, from his mindset and from a thought process," Landry said. "It might be because he's an only child ... He has the ability to be a star." Berry said: "He is a super disciplined and very smart kid who actually changed his body this offseason. and has taken a big step so far. He's made the most of his opportunities, and can play all three spots in our offense.''
  • The Browns must have the biggest group of tight ends in the NFL. It started a bit with former GM John Dorsey and continued with a group all of whom are at least 6-4, and range up to 6-8. This is not a coincidence, with Stefanski all about 12 and 13 personnel with multiple TEs deployed in multiple ways. "It's important because those guys really have to be dual-faced performers," Berry said. "They really have to be able to hold their own at the line of scrummage, because we are a wide-zone team and then they are also really incorporated into the passing game, in particular in our keeper game, in our play action package. We put a premium on that spot and certainly feel that our guys reflect that." Indeed.
  • FWIW, one of the electric runs from Friday's practice actually featured the Browns running out of spread with much smaller personnel (all tight ends were called off the field as the play came in). Nick Chubb bolted outside left for a huge gain, in a look not unlike some of the personnel groupings the Ravens gashed people out of a year ago.
  • Second-year linebacker Mack Wilson was very candid before Friday's practice about considering walking away from the game his rookie season. He missed time with injuries and didn't feel like himself, but credited becoming a father with getting him focused on being the best player he can possibly be.  "I was in a dark place but I was able to climb back," Wilson said. "I just wasn't myself." Stefanski has been impressed by his work thus far in camp, including a very athletic interception last week. "We're really pleased with where Mack is mentally and physically." His development could really boost a position group that the Browns have been trying to upgrade for a while.