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Andrew Berry makes defensive versatility a priority in 1st week of 2021 free agency

The Browns made it clear they wanted to upgrade their defense after the first week of free agency. But they also made it clear that they wanted to be more versatile, too

Two weeks before NFL free agency began, Browns EVP of Football Operations and GM Andrew Berry said he wanted the Browns to be known as an "aggressive" front office, one that will always have a shot at landing some of the best free agents on the market.

He certainly lived up to that label as soon as the new league year turned March 17 and teams could solidify deals with new players.

The Browns made six total free-agent agreements the following week. Five of them were additions to the defense, which will carry several new faces to the starting lineup after Berry and the front office worked quickly — as promised — to upgrade a group that ranked 21st in the league in 2020.

Each new player has a legitimate shot to have a sizable role for Cleveland in 2021, but each signing also created a clear outline for what Berry values in his defense.

Versatility.

The Browns pursued some of the most versatile defensive players on the market as soon as the curtains opened for discussions with free agents, and it's safe to say they were fairly successful in getting their top guys.

"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," Berry said Thursday. "I think a lot of the free agent activity and how we navigate the free agent market is to try to be opportunistic buyers."

Let's start with the first free-agent addition: John Johnson III, whose ability to play anywhere on the field became his best trait as a safety after four years with the Los Angeles Rams. Johnson led the Rams' top-ranked defense with 105 tackles, played every defensive snap and wore the green sticker as the defense's signal-caller in 2020.

He can provide strong coverage in the slot. He can lower the shoulder against a running back. He can patrol the massive amount of space often open behind the rest of the defense.

He can do it all, which is why he was the first player the Browns signed once free agency opened.

"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. It's perfect for what we want to be as a defense."

His signing also foreshadowed how the rest of the opening free agency period would look for Cleveland.

More defense. More playmakers. More versatility.

Five days after adding Johnson, the Browns signed cornerback Troy Hill, Johnson's former Rams teammate who built a career year in 2020. Hill corralled three interceptions — two of which were returned for touchdowns — totaled 77 tackles and racked up 10 passes defensed as the Rams' top cornerback behind All-Pro star Jalen Ramsey.

Like Johnson, Hill was a vital part of the Rams' top-ranked defense in 2020. Like Johnson, Hill rarely left the field — he played 90 percent or more of the Rams' defensive snaps in all but one game last year.

Like Johnson, Hill has become one of the most versatile players in the league at their position.

"He 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."

Berry made it clear before the 2021 offseason that he targets versatile players for his secondary. His biggest previous example, perhaps, was drafting safety Grant Delpit in the second round of the 2020 draft and immediately touting his success across several safety positions at LSU.

Delpit missed the entire 2020 season due to an Achilles injury suffered in training camp, but the Browns will undoubtedly use Delpit in a variety of looks and formations with their defense once he's back to full health.

"In terms of Grant's skillset, one of the things is we really feel like he can fit in any safety role because of his versatility," Berry said after drafting him. "I think it would be unfair to task him as just a free, just a strong or just what we would call a big nickel. The appeal is that he really does have the modern-day safety skillset from a coverage standpoint because of that versatility. That is something that we are really excited to have."

Delpit's pairing with Johnson and Ronnie Harrison Jr. at safety and Denzel Ward, Greedy Williams and Hill at cornerback could turn the Browns defense into one of the most schematically diverse units in the league. That's what defensive coordinator Joe Woods hoped to accomplish his first season with the Browns, but season-ending injuries to Delpit and Williams, who missed all of 2020 with a shoulder injury, and other secondary players limited the possibilities.

Berry ensured Woods will have ample versatile depth in his secondary, and those positions weren't the only ones that he felt needed adaptable players.

Before Hill, the Browns signed linebacker Anthony Walker, who recorded 321 tackles in his final three seasons with the Indianapolis Colts and ascended as one of the biggest leaders of the locker room. The Browns loved Walker for how he glued the Colts defense together, and they also valued him for his speed, which made him effective at both stopping the run and being used in pass coverage.

In other words, they loved him for his versatility.

"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."

The other two big free-agent additions to the defense were DE Takkarist McKinley and DT Malik Jackson. Both players should help the Browns attain a wide-array of defensive looks, too.

Check out photos of defensive lineman Malik Jackson

McKinley, who accrued 13 sacks in his first two seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, has experience as both an edge rusher on the right and left side of the line. That trait will help the Browns position All-Pro DE Myles Garrett wherever they need on the defensive line — he also is capable of playing on either end of the line of scrimmage.

For the interior, Jackson is a fit for how well he performs under different defensive line schemes. He's spent considerable time over his nine-year career practicing nearly every technique and can line up anywhere on the line.

"What you're getting in the player is someone who can line up across the front," coach Kevin Stefanski said in an interview Thursday on Cleveland Browns Daily. "He's played in two-wide technique. He's played in the three, he's played in the five and he can play defensive end. We feel strongly that he's a chess piece for Joe and the defensive staff to move around based on the fronts we're playing."

Opposing offenses can throw out just about all of the tape from last season when they prepare to scout the Browns defense in 2021. Not only will the group contain several new faces, but it also promises to contain several new looks the Browns couldn't quite roll out as frequently as they hoped a year ago.

Berry and the front office made it clear they want versatility all over the defense, and they promised to be aggressive in getting it.

Based on their early signings, that goal appears to have been accomplished.

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