One year ago, the Browns deployed a targeted strategy to beef up the depth on their defense. Cleveland signed a number of veteran players, many of whom were hitting the primes of their respective careers, to one-year deals and watched them grab a hold of key roles all across the defense.
Now, one year later, the Browns have what EVP of Football Operations and GM Andrew Berry described as "big decisions" to make with a number of players who played hundreds, even thousands, of valuable snaps for a defense that had its ups and downs but delivered plenty of game-changing plays all throughout the Browns' memorable 2020 campaign.
"We have a lot of guys who have expiring contracts who played significant roles for us and were a big part of our success," Berry said. "In an ideal world, you keep every single one of your players. I think we all know ... that is not possible from year to year so we are just left with big decisions."
Cleveland's decisions on defense go beyond the players who signed one-year deals in 2020. In fact, the Browns have one fewer decision to make than they expected at this point last year because DT Andrew Billings had his one-year deal carry over to 2021 after he opted out for the 2020 season.
All told, the Browns have eight significant contributors from last year's defense poised to hit free agency at the start of the new league year, which is set for Wednesday, March 17, at 4 p.m. Cleveland has an exclusive window to negotiate new contracts with those players in the meantime, and Berry indicated he has an open line of communication with the representation of a number of those players.
It's set up a slightly different situation than the one Berry faced at this time last year, when most of his high-profile signings were needed on the offensive side of the ball.
"I do think that we have some core areas that are a little bit more solidified than they were last year," Berry said. "On the flipside, there are areas on the team where we do have players who are no longer under contract or that we do have to make decisions on. It is a little bit of a balancing act, but I do think we all feel optimistic about the foundation that we have in place going into this offseason."
Starting up front, the Browns have two of their four main starters from 2020 headed to free agency: DE Olivier Vernon and DT Larry Ogunjobi. Vernon put together one of his best seasons in years and registered nine sacks before tearing his Achilles tendon in Cleveland's Week 17 win over the Steelers. Ogunjobi, a third-round pick in 2017, has appeared in 60 games with 47 starts over the past four seasons.
Berry said he would "not necessarily" consider the defensive end position opposite from Myles Garrett as the defense's biggest need.
"OV was very productive for us this year and we are going to have to make sure that we are able to maintain a level of effectiveness along our front," Berry said. "We will have time on all of that and we will have plenty of opportunities across the defense to make sure that we continue to be effective on that side of the ball."
The Browns' two most productive linebackers from 2020, B.J. Goodson and Malcolm Smith, are poised to hit free agency after coming to Cleveland on one-year deals.
Goodson, one of the Browns' first signings at the start of the 2020 league year, led the team with 91 tackles despite missing two games. He emerged as a leader in the middle of the defense alongside Smith, the former Super Bowl MVP who signed with Cleveland during training camp.
The secondary contains even more, as two of the team's top cornerbacks and two of the most active safeties from 2020 are set to become free agents.
Veterans Karl Joseph and Andrew Sendejo were signed this time last year and wound up logging the most snaps of any Browns players at the position. Joseph appeared in 14 games with eight starts and finished with 64 tackles, an interception, four passes defensed and two fumble recoveries. He came up big in the playoffs, scoring an unforgettable touchdown on the first play of Cleveland's Wild Card win over the Steelers and adding an interception the next week against the Chiefs. Sendejo started 14 games and played nearly every snap when he was healthy.
Cornerbacks Terrance Mitchell and Kevin Johnson are set to hit free agency after playing pivotal roles on the defense in 2020. Mitchell, who signed with the Browns in 2018, is coming off the most productive season of his career after playing the most snaps of anyone on Cleveland's defense while Johnson, who came to Cleveland on a one-year deal last March. was the Browns' regular starter in the slot.
"We would like to bring all of our guys back if we could," Berry said. "Again, all of these guys who are going to hit the market or are going to be free agents, it is something that is going to have to go through both sides.
"Terrance was a big part of what we did this past year. Again, we are going to stay in communication with him and his reps as we typically do. I will not go into the details of those discussions, but he was obviously a very productive player for us this past year."
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