Over the next several weeks, Andrew Berry and the Browns' front office will be working diligently to trim an always-lengthy to-do list for the start of free agency, the NFL draft and other preparations for the 2021 season.
That list looks a lot different than it did a year ago.
The Browns have nearly a 100 percent return rate on front office and coaching staff members, which should make the spring slightly easier for Berry and the rest of a staff that will be on the same page for 2021 following the playoff-driven triumphs of last season.
Berry, the Browns' Executive Vice President of Football Operations and General Manager, dove into his to-do list Wednesday on a video call with local reporters and offered several insights into how he's approaching his second offseason in Cleveland.
1. Browns aim to stay aggressive in free agency
Last year, the Browns kicked off the start of free agency with a wave of signings that signaled Berry's urgency to bring more talent to the roster.
RT Jack Conklin, TE Austin Hooper and QB Case Keenum were the Browns' three top signings. All carried large roles that helped push the offense to new heights in 2020, and all lived up to the vision the Browns had when they signed new deals.
Berry never wants to lose that aggressive approach. He continuously said Wednesday his staff will take hard looks at every top free agent available and won't hesitate to make a push if the fit is right, but that process will be done with a selective eye.
"We always want to be known as an aggressive front office," Berry said. "How people define aggression may vary from person to person. That does not always mean we're going to be heavy spenders, externally. I would not necessarily pigeonhole us into any particular approach, just because what we did last year may not always necessarily apply in years moving forward."
The Browns certainly will have a shot to be among the most aggressive NFL teams when free agency opens March 17. With a flexible amount of anticipated cap space, the Browns are well-equipped to acquire free agents that will help fill some of the biggest roster holes, should they opt to take that route.
"I think we have enough flexibility to adjust and maneuver as is appropriate," he said. "If there is a player we think has the right value, I think we have the capability to be aggressive in pursuit."
2. Monitoring the salary cap
For the past year, NFL teams have braced for a widely-projected decrease to the league's salary cap as a result of some of the financial shortcomings the league absorbed due to COVID-19.
In recent years, that cap number has steadily increased and has allowed free-agent contracts and internal extensions to grow bigger and bigger. Those big deals might not fly at the same frequency in 2021 — ESPN reported in February the final figure likely will be between $180-$185 million, which would be a significant drop-off from the $198 million salary cap set in 2020.
Berry didn't deny that the figure's probable decrease will affect the Browns.
"Everybody across the league is going to feel that squeeze," Berry said. "We're not excluded from feeling that effect."
But Berry doesn't anticipate a potential decrease to make much of a change in the Browns' desired options of the free agent pool. The Browns still had a sizable amount of cap space after their big ticket signings last season, and they figure to have another decent amount to work with in 2021.
"I do think that we are in a healthy position where we can adapt and adjust and continue to improve the team," Berry said. "But to suggest that that's going to have zero impact, I think that that would be disingenuous."
3. All settled at quarterback
For the second straight offseason, the Browns are all set at the position Berry values as the most important on the roster: quarterback.
Actually, he views the position with a slightly larger lens ...
"The quarterback position is, in my mind, the most important position in professional sports," he said. "Until you have a baseline of winning-level quarterback play, I think it's really difficult to land and make progress in the NFL."
Berry has Baker Mayfield, who threw 26 touchdowns and a career-best eight interceptions in 2020 and played arguably the best football of his career in the second half of the season to take the Browns to the playoffs.
Life is always easier for a GM when they don't have to make decisions at quarterback. Berry isn't completely decision-free — the Browns must decide by May 3 whether to pick up the fifth-year option from Mayfield's rookie contract — but he can safely fill out QB1 on the depth chart, a luxury that a large chunk of NFL teams can't currently complete.
Berry is just thankful to have a young quarterback coming off a terrific season, and he's excited to see how Mayfield could develop with another year under head coach Kevin Stefanski.
"We have been pretty consistent with our messaging around Baker, and we think he had a really strong season for us," he said. "He has endured an enormous amount of adversity in his young career, just quite honestly, with the changes he has gone through with coaching staffs, front offices [and] offensive systems. He has risen above it all. I think we all saw him grow from week to week to week last year and we expect him to continue that progress and have a fantastic 2021 season for us."
4. Big decisions are ahead
Berry doesn't prefer to discuss contract scenarios, interest levels or opinions on contractual futures with any player on or off the Browns' roster, but he did admit the front office will have plenty of big decisions ahead.
The fifth-year option scenario for Mayfield mentioned in the previous section is one of them. So are decisions yet to be made on impending free agents whom the Browns must either re-sign before March 17 or risk losing to another team.
"We have a lot of major decisions we're going to make," Berry said. "The first of those comes with guys who have an expiring contract within the next two and a half weeks."
We covered which players fit that category earlier this week, but Berry could also weigh decisions regarding the rookie contract of RB Nick Chubb, who has one year left on the deal he signed after being drafted in the second round in 2018. Other contract extensions with current players who are set to return for 2021 could be weighed as well.
"All those big decisions are things that we have to figure out the overall big picture as we navigate the next several months," he said.
5. Defensive outlook
It's no secret that some of the Browns' biggest decisions will come on the defensive side of the ball in coming weeks. That area is where the Browns have the majority of their impending free agents and where many analysts believe Cleveland will target in the upcoming draft.
Berry, of course, won't share any hints about how they're planning to mold the defense, but he did say the Browns have kept open dialogue to several impending free agents while also exploring all available options for upgrades in free agency and the draft.
"That's the challenge of the job," Berry said. "We pride ourselves on having an open line of communication and as much transparency as possible, but it's an enormous challenge. In an ideal role, you keep every single one of your players. We all know on this call that is not possible from year to year, so we are just left with big decisions.
"There are good players that are going to be available. There are going to be players that are available in unrestricted free agency, and there are going to be good players that are available in the draft."
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