The circumstances differed in a variety of ways, but the preparation, approach and execution remained the same.
The Browns, for a second consecutive year under EVP of Football Operations and GM Andrew Berry, were aggressive from the very start of the new league year, adding six new faces to the roster while also retaining a number of key players from last year's run to the playoffs. One year after devoting significant resources to the offense, Berry hammered away at the defense, acquiring five players at five different positions to fortify a unit that is poised to have a different look in 2021.
"The general mindset entering free agency any year is to try to be opportunistic and address improving all areas of the roster," Berry said. "I think we were in a position where we had enough flexibility from a cap perspective where if we felt there was a player who aligned with our needs, if their skillset matched what we want to do within our scheme and they fit the profile of smart, tough, accountable, young, durable, then we can go aggressively and attack that player.
"We were able to do that with John Johnson III, but really even after that, I think a lot of the free agent activity and how we navigate the free agent market is to try to be opportunistic buyers. I think that's something we were really able to accomplish with the guys we added."
The Browns struck quickly with the signing of Johnson, a talented player entering the prime of his career whom Berry described as someone who "doesn't usually make it to the free-agent market."
Johnson, who is entering his fifth season, comes to Cleveland after racking up a team-best 105 tackles, an interception and eight passes defensed for a Rams defense that finished No. 1 in the NFL in total defense and No. 1 in pass defense. Pro Football Focus gave Johnson a grade of 85.3 for the 2020 season, putting him third in the league among safeties.
"We thought he was one of the more versatile safeties in the NFL," Berry said. "He can play free safety, strong safety and he can play in the box in the nickel or dime. His breadth of skills that he brings to the table, that he can play man coverage, he can play center field, he can support the run and really do everything at a pretty high level. It's perfect for what we want to be as a defense.
"On top of that, you have his intelligence and his natural leadership. That's something we'll always look to add to the mix, and we feel like we're fortunate that he was available."
DE Takkarist McKinley, a former first-round pick out of UCLA, spent the majority of the past four seasons with the Falcons. He appeared in 49 games with 25 starts, four of which coming at the start of the 2020 season before an injury led to his exit from Atlanta. McKinley compiled 17.5 sacks and 45 hits on the quarterback during his time with Atlanta. His most sacks came in 2018, when he posted seven in his first year as a starter.
"We view Takk as a young edge player with a very high motor. He's got speed, he has power and he has quickness. He really plays with his hair on fire," Berry said. "He had a really strong start to his career, and I know the past couple years he's dealt with a few injuries, but we think his playing style and skillset marries really nicely with what we look for out of our defensive ends in this system, and he's a guy we think really has a ton of upside and fits nicely with what we want to do on the defensive line."
CB Troy Hill spent the past five seasons with the Los Angeles Rams and steadily took on more and more responsibility before he was utilized as an every-game starter in 2020, the most productive season of his NFL career. Hill, playing primarily in the slot, started all 16 games, registered a career-high 77 tackles and intercepted three passes, two of which he returned for touchdowns. Hill also recovered a fumble and returned it for a touchdown, giving him an NFL-best three defensive scores.
"Troy is a versatile corner that has played inside and outside. He's a smart football player who can play man coverage, zone coverage, turn the ball over and is a sound tackler," Berry said. "We all viewed him as a really big part of the defensive success in Los Angeles this past year, and for us, the ability to have a corner that can play at a high level on both the outside and inside gives us a lot of flexibility with who we currently have on the roster and who we may add moving forward."
LB Anthony Walker, a regular starter and leader for the Colts over the past three seasons, appeared in 57 games with 48 starts over the past four seasons. A fifth-round selection out of Northwestern, Walker took over as a full-time starter in his second season and promptly became one of the Colts' most productive players, amassing 105 tackles in 2018 and a career-best 124 in 2019.
"The name of Anthony's game is really speed and instincts," Berry said. "He is one of the fastest linebackers in the league. He's a very quick processor and is very smart. We think he's a guy whose range and tenacity fits really well with how we view the modern day linebacker. We also think that he's a good cover guy, specifically with his ability to match running backs out of the backfield.
"Much like John Johnson, on top of that, he has a level of veteran experience. He called the defense in Indianapolis and he's played MIKE and WILL. He's an exceptional human being both on and off the field and will have a really strong presence in our locker room."
Check out photos of defensive lineman Malik Jackson
DT Malik Jackson, who spent the past two seasons with the Eagles, will enter his 10th year in the NFL in Cleveland. Jackson has appeared in 126 games, including 73 starts, dating back to his rookie season in 2012. He did not miss a single game from 2013-18, a stretch that saw him take over as an every-game starter with the Broncos during their 2015 Super Bowl season.
"Malik is a self-made defensive tackle who had been with Joe Woods in Denver before as well," said Berry, who overlapped with Jackson for a season in Philadelphia. "What we like most about Malik is his ability to impact the quarterback as an interior rusher. He played three-technique and has played what we call "the Big End." But what we love about him is his length, quickness and tenacity as an interior rusher to give us more of a presence in passing situations over guards and centers."
T Greg Senat comes to Cleveland after finishing last season with the Dallas Cowboys. Senat appeared in 10 games for Dallas and played almost exclusively on special teams. A sixth-round pick by the Baltimore Ravens in the 2018 NFL Draft, Senat spent the majority of his first two NFL seasons on injured reserve, first with the Ravens in 2018 and the Chiefs in 2019. He began the 2020 season on the Browns' practice squad.
"He's a very physically gifted tackle who is still new to the sport. We thought he made a lot of progress on our practice squad last year and we tried our best to retain him when Dallas signed him to their active roster," Berry said. "We feel fortunate that we're able to get him back with Bill Callahan and Scott Peters and add him to the mix to compete for our fourth tackle job. We think he's a very physically gifted guy. He's very studious and is a hard worker, and he fits the profile for guys that usually do well for us."
On top of the new faces, the Browns retained a number of players from the 2020 team who entered the new league year as free agents. That group included multiple starters, including WR Rashard Higgins, LB Malcolm Smith and K Cody Parkey.
"We're all very thrilled to get guys like Rashard, Malcolm, JoJo (Natson) and Cody and guys like that back because it doesn't always work out that way," Berry said. "Those guys played a major role for us last year, and we look forward to the role they'll play for us in 2021."
Though the bulk of the Browns' activity in free agency is complete, the work to construct the best possible roster never ends. Berry said he would monitor the market while preparing for the 2021 NFL Draft, where the Browns hold nine selections, starting with the 26th overall pick.
"We're a pretty active front office, and we'll stay that way year-round," Berry said. "The big part of it is making sure you stay updated and relevant with everyone's most recent situation who you've targeted throughout the offseason."