The first two months of the NFL offseason are complete, and so are some of the biggest moves the Browns will make in an offseason that follows their best season in decades.
Episode 1 of the 2021 edition of Building the Browns captured all of the action. Coaches returned to their offices and free agents arrived in Cleveland to begin an offseason full of high anticipation to get back to work and build on the success of 2020.
The Building the Browns crew captured all of the behind-the-scenes action that can't be seen anywhere else. Here were the biggest takeaways from their first installment of the year:
1. Coaching continuity eased Browns into offseason
For the first time in two years, the first days of the Browns' offseason in Berea weren't full of introductions, handshakes and headlines about new personnel coming to Cleveland to begin a new coaching regime.
The Browns will have a nearly 100 percent return rate on all coaches from 2020. That meant the team headquarters were calm and quiet as personnel trickled back into team headquarters near the end of February to begin the offseason. Building the Browns caught quick interviews with nearly every assistant coach and coordinator to signify what coaching continuity means to them and how crucial it will be for the Browns in 2021.
"I think coaching continuity is a huge deal," head coach Kevin Stefanski said. "We're so fortunate to bring everybody back. I think in Year 2, we understand each other, we understand our kind of schemes, we're pushing each other, and I think that should, in theory, show up with the players as you begin to teach your systems again."
The theme of coaching continuity will be one of the top storylines during training camp. A second straight year with the same coaches should help quarterback Baker Mayfield, who will start his first season ever with the same head coach as the previous year. It should also help the defense, as the Browns attempt to mold their young crop of players with several key free agent signings that should provide a big boost to the unit.
"I'm really proud of what Coach Stefanski was able to do," defensive coordinator Joe Woods said. "From Day 1 and the first meeting we had on Zoom and starting the process for which type of culture we were going to have under him."
2. Scouts take extra strides to complete pre-draft reports
While all things might have seemed quiet and comfortable on the coaching front, Browns scouts were in the midst of navigating through one of their most unique offseasons ever.
Many of the typical activities they go through at the NFL Scouting Combine were moved to virtual settings due to the pandemic. When they weren't on a screen chatting with draft prospects, they were coordinating pro day visits, which offered them their only chance to see college players in person and on turf for a workout.
"One of the biggest priorities in planning for pro days is the scheduling component," said Max Paulus, an area scout. "Really, this is just to ensure we have a presence and proper coverage of pro days across the country mainly to get the measurable and verified information on all the various prospects."
As Paulus outlined the logistics, player personnel coordinator Megan Rock was shown scribbling the dates of all of the top college pro days on a massive white board calendar. Last season, the NFL was able to complete the scouting combine before COVID-19 changed the country. This season, scouts needed to complete their whole offseason under virtual protocols, which provided several scheduling and meeting challenges when attempting to speak with prospects.
Rock's white board schedule showed just how tall of a task that can be.
"In a pre-COVID world at the combine, we knew the exact schedule for when we'd be interviewing the players," Rock said. "The players had their schedules. This year, you're working with an agent and player and calling and texting them — and relying on them to make an appointment, keep the appointment and remember the appointment."
Executive Vice President of Football Operations and GM Andrew Berry, however, believes the whole process couldn't have been much smoother.
"Typically you get a pretty good sense of guys in February, but it's nothing that's been insurmountable," he said. "We'll be where we need to be by the time the draft comes."
3. Browns free agents feel Cleveland love upon arrival
Stefanski and the rest of the Browns coaches missed out on being able to shake hands with their new free agents last spring.
That was the small price of completing deals at the beginning of the pandemic. Now, as coaches and new acquisitions take daily tests, both sides can exchange a warm, in-person exchange. Masks were still worn, but nothing could hold back the smiles of coaches and players before they sat down to discuss their big plans for 2021.
"That's a big deal, to be able to see your players in person, shake their hand and look them in the eye," Stefanski said. "That was something we missed and didn't get to until training camp of last year. I see great value in that human interaction we've all been missing, and hopefully that becomes the norm when we're able to be in-person with all our players."
For safety John Johnson III, the first free-agent domino to fall the Browns' direction this offseason, the love was felt as soon as he arrived in Downtown Cleveland.
"I just felt people looking at me, and I was like, 'There's no way they know who I am,'" Johnson said with a smile. "And then I see someone who was like, 'Hey! Just do your thing this year!' and I was like, 'What?!'
"(It hasn't even been) 24 hours here. That's what type of town it's going to be, so imagine what it's going to be like when I start making plays."
Check out photos of cornerback Troy Hill
4. Troy Hill comes home
A few days after the Browns' bolstered their defense with Johnson, DE Takkarist McKinley and LB Anthony Walker, they made a push for another top defensive free agent still on the market: CB Troy Hill.
For Hill, who grew up in Youngstown, signing with the Browns was extra special. He was coming home after leaving Northeast Ohio as a teenager to complete high school and attempt a football career.
By joining the Browns, Hill's journey was coming full circle.
"I'm a hometown kid," he said. "I came back to a city like Cleveland that's been through so much, has been fighting through adversity and has been building. I feel like this is a perfect match for me."
Hill's background makes him a tremendous fit for the Browns, but so does his versatility on the field. With Hill, the Browns have a player capable of starting in the slot, which was one of the holes they needed to address this offseason. He can also play on the outside and should provide quality depth behind Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams, the current players projected to play on the outside.
"The ability to have a corner who can play at a high level on both the inside and outside gives us a lot of flexibility with who we have on the roster and who we may add moving forward," Berry said.
5. Excitement builds after stellar free agency
Once the action from the first week of free agency settled, the Browns received rave reviews for how they navigated their signings.
The primary emphasis, of course, was placed on defense, where five free agents — one for each position — were added. Every signing added depth, versatility and the possibility of a new starter to upgrade a unit that ranked 21st in the league last season.
"There are four overwhelming favorites in the AFC," said Colin Cowherd on The Herd. "Kansas City, Buffalo, Indy and Cleveland. It is go time."
And the Browns aren't done. They're in position to add another top playmaker early in the NFL draft and add depth to several other positions via their nine total picks.
All that work will be covered in the next Building the Browns.
After Episode 1, however, it's evident the Browns are pleased with how the offseason has begun.
Catch the next episode of Building the Browns on Sunday, April 25, at 11 a.m. on News 5 or the Browns' YouTube Channel.