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Browns Mailbag: What are the biggest remaining areas of need after free agency?

Senior Writer Andrew Gribble answers your questions every week

The Browns Mailbag took the week off last week to accommodate all of the action of free agency.

We're making up for it this week with a double dose.

We're rolling out Part 1 today with Part 2 set to follow in the coming days. The questions are understandably overflowing as the Browns embark on the next stage of the offseason.

The Browns have fortified their defense. Will this draft be a means of obtaining depth in view of all the injuries last season? And with nine draft picks, what are the biggest needs? — Rob M., Charleston, West Virginia

The Browns, just like last year, ensured they wouldn't enter the draft with any glaring needs thanks to some robust action in free agency. Yes, Cleveland still needed a left tackle when it entered the 2020 draft, but its signing of Jack Conklin lessened the urgency just a touch. 

The lay of the land in 2021 was much different for a variety of reasons — the biggest, of course, being the Browns were coming off one of their best seasons in a generation and didn't have quite the list of needs it had to address just one offseason earlier. The other big difference? The Browns didn't have much work to do on the offensive side of the ball, allowing EVP of Football Operations and GM Andrew Berry to put the defense squarely into focus. The result? The Browns added a potential starter at all five positions on defense with the signings of S John Johnson III, DE Takkarist McKinley, LB Anthony Walker, CB Troy Hill and DT Malik Jackson. Those acquisitions, on top of the retention of a number of key players from last season, open up the Browns' options in the 2021 NFL Draft, allowing them to truly add the best players available who will make the roster even better in 2021 and beyond.

That's a long way of answering the first part of your question. Last year's injuries have nothing to do with it. The Browns are always looking to fortify all of their positions with depth and talent when they make picks in the draft. This year will be no different in that regard. Perhaps the only difference is Cleveland is now in a position where it can feel pretty good about the talent on hand at most areas on the roster.

Now, let's get to those biggest needs — something we discussed in detail on the latest episode of Best Podcast Available.

My personal list (Disclaimer: Not the Browns' official list) hasn't changed much in the wake of the Browns' free agent signings. The top five are all on defense, and defensive end/pass rusher remains at the top even after the signing of McKinley, who could be poised for a bounce-back season in a new environment. The Browns will continue to look for more depth and talent at the position after the release of Adrian Clayborn and potential loss of Olivier Vernon to free agency. The Browns already have one of the best pass rushers in the NFL in Myles Garrett, but the more help they can give him on the opposite side of the line, the better off the defense will be.

Secondly, the cornerback position is always high on any team's list, and the Browns are no different. Hill helps the Browns out in a big way in the slot and he's also more than capable on the outside if necessary. Still, there's been more subtraction than addition up to this point, as Terrance Mitchell, Kevin Johnson and Tavierre Thomas have signed deals elsewhere. Cleveland returns Greedy Williams, who was out for all of 2020 with a shoulder injury, but there's still room for more talent and depth at a position where no coach or general manager ever feels like they have enough.

From there, safety, defensive tackle and linebacker fall in an order that can differ depending on who you ask. The acquisition of Johnson was massive for the team's safeties, which return young and promising players Ronnie Harrison Jr., Grant Delpit and Sheldrick Redwine. Walker's signing, along with the return of Malcolm Smith, leaves the Browns in a solid position at linebacker and the addition of Jackson to defensive tackle, along with the return of Andrew Billings, should help ease the burden of losing three-year starter Larry Ogunjobi.

As for the offense ...

LET'S TALK OFFENSE! Everyone is talking about the defense, so let's talk offense. When, where, and what position do Browns take first offensive player in the draft? — Greg R., Elida

This is a surprisingly tough one to answer! And I think that's a good thing.

We've yet to find a mock draft under the sun that projects the Browns to take an offensive player with the No. 26 pick. Most of the mocks that go all the way to the third round don't offer up much offense, either. That said, there are a couple of positions to monitor. 

First, the Browns are rolling it back at wide receiver thanks to the re-signing of Rashard Higgins and tendering of KhaDarel Hodge. They're in good shape for 2021 but will be in the same situation next year because of Higgins' and Hodge's respective one-year deals. Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. will also be one year closer to the end of their contracts. GMs are always thinking about more than just the upcoming season, and the 2021 NFL Draft, which is once again loaded with talented wide receivers, could offer an opportunity for the Browns to build their depth and talent at the position for the future.

Another position of interest could be tackle, where the Browns are very much set from a starting standpoint but could always use more depth. Behind Jedrick Wills Jr. and Conklin, the Browns have Chris Hubbard, who is coming off a late-season knee injury, and the recently signed Greg Senat. Kendall Lamm, who played an invaluable role amid a slew of injuries on the offensive line last season, signed with the Titans, leaving the door open to some opportunities for competition at a position where, like cornerback, you can truly never have too much depth.

When can Drew Forbes and Andrew Billings resume team activities? — Tim M., Palmyra, New York

Both players, along with Colby Gossett, were moved back to the official active roster at the start of the new league year and are able to participate in all team activities. The Browns had a total of five players opt out for the 2020 season. T Drake Dorbeck and G Malcolm Pridgeon have since been waived.

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