INDIANAPOLIS — Over the next several weeks, much of Andrew Berry's time will go toward making decisions on the large crop of Browns players set to hit free agency.
Cleveland has multiple high-role players who could be exposed to free agency once the new league year starts at 4 p.m. on March 16. DE Jadeveon Clowney, TE David Njoku and RB D'Ernest Johnson are among them, and Berry spoke about the situations with each of the players Tuesday during his media session at the 2022 NFL Combine.
In short, no decisions have been made yet, but Berry didn't rule out the Browns from making an attempt to re-sign any of the 26 players set to hit the market.
"Every year, any of our players that are no longer under contract going into the next league year, there is a little uncertainty," Berry said. "That's just the reality of it. They've gotten to the end of their deals and they really have the right to test the market. There are a number of guys that you'd like to bring back, and you'd like to be able to bring them all back. It doesn't always work out that way, but we're hopeful to assemble the best team possible over the next few weeks."
General Manager Andrew Berry speaks at his media availability at the 2022 NFL Combine in Indianapolis Indiana
Clowney, a two-time Pro Bowler who joined the Browns last offseason, is set to become an unrestricted free agent after he enjoyed one of his best NFL seasons in Cleveland. The 2014 first overall pick recorded nine sacks, his highest total since 2018, and was a force in the same position group as Myles Garrett, who set the franchise single-season sack record in 2021 with 16.
Berry clearly covets a player of the caliber of Clowney — he pursued him heavily in the 2020 offseason, too, and Clowney specifically mentioned the Browns' courtship over the years as a reason why he wanted to come to Cleveland in 2021. He knows the Browns place a high value on talented edge rushers, and he's one of them.
Berry has developed a strong relationship with Clowney in that process, but neither side knows yet how that could play into possibly keeping Clowney with the Browns.
"(The relationship) makes it easier — it doesn't make it easy — but it makes it easier when you have the more difficult conversations," Berry said on Cleveland Browns Daily. "To Jadeveon in particular, yes we still have a good relationship, but that doesn't mean we're guaranteed to re-sign him."
Njoku, a 2017 first-round pick, is also set to be an unrestricted free agent with the expiration of his rookie contract, which ran for five years after the Browns picked up his fifth-year option. He led Browns tight ends in 2021 with 475 receiving yards and four touchdowns from 36 catches, his highest totals since 2018. He's only 25, a remarkably young age for a five-year veteran, and Browns coaches have constantly echoed their belief that he's still capable of ascending even more as a tight end.
Berry repeated those sentiments again when discussing Njoku's free agency prospects.
"He's come a long way, both on and off the field," Berry said. "That's a credit to him and how hard he worked. David as a player is 25 years old, and I think he's close to maturity, and I think as his opportunities increase, his impact will as well."
Johnson is a three-year veteran who built his best career season in 2021 as the Browns navigated through injuries in their running backs room. He provided depth to the RB room, and it was immense — he collected 534 yards from 100 carries (5.3 yards per attempt) and recorded over 90 yards in his three highest usage games. His backstory, which includes a stint away from football after college when he was a mahi mahi fisherman in Florida, made his season even more remarkable.
Unlike the free agency situations with Clowney and Njoku, Johnson is a restricted free agent, which means he's free to sign an offer sheet with another team if the Browns don't finalize a new contract by March 16. The Browns, however, will have the right to match such an offer from another team.
"D'Ernest had a great year for us," Berry said. "We'll work through that over the next several months."
Some decisions could also be made on players who are set to become free agents in 2023. CB Denzel Ward, a two-time Pro Bowler, is one of them, and he could be in line for a possible extension this offseason after he matched his career-high with three interceptions in 2021 and totaled 10 pass breakups. Ward is a four-year veteran who has one year left on his rookie deal, although he's certainly already proved his value to the Browns' defense with 10 career interceptions and 50 pass breakups.
"We really like Denzel," Berry said. "Those (discussions) will stay in-house. We'll see how that plays out over time. He had a great year for us and is homegrown talent. He's obviously a big guy for us."
The Browns have two weeks to make decisions on each of the aforementioned players — excluding Ward — as well the 23 other players who could hit the market. No extensions have been finalized yet this offseason, and when Berry was asked if he prefers to settle contract situations with upcoming free agents before the market opens, he said it all depends on the player's circumstance.
"Sometimes (waiting) actually fits a little bit better depending on who the player is or where we are from the cap perspective or what the position is," Berry said. "There are some situations where you have a high degree of urgency. Each situation is unique. I wouldn't necessarily read into it, whether a guy gets done pre-market or goes to the market."