Browns Mailbag

Browns Mailbag: Which defensive position group will receive most offseason attention?

Senior Writer Andrew Gribble answers your questions every week

Six-question Friday?

Six-question Friday.

Enjoy the latest edition of the Browns Mailbag!

With eyes on the defense this offseason, what position group do you think the Browns WILL focus on the most? If it were me, I would say LBs. Someone with eyes and feet to chase down Lamar Jackson. — John M., Saluda, North Carolina

This is going to sound like a cop-out answer, and I promise you it's not. I just truly believe every level of the defense is going to be addressed in similar fashion because the potential holes to fill and areas to grow are fairly equal. The one difference, and why you might be inclined to pinpoint linebacker, is the Browns have a Pro Bowl player on the defensive line (Myles Garrett) and secondary (Denzel Ward).

As it stands today, the Browns have multiple starters from each level of the defense poised to hit free agency. Let's break it down by position, and we'll include everyone from each group to get a full picture.

Defensive Line

Larry Ogunjobi

Olivier Vernon

Vincent Taylor

Porter Gustin (exclusive rights)

Linebacker

B.J. Goodson

Malcolm Smith

Elijah Lee

Defensive Backs

Kevin Johnson

Terrance Mitchell

Andrew Sendejo

Karl Joseph

Tavierre Thomas (restricted)

When it comes to linebacker, the Browns have three young players — Jacob Phillips, Mack Wilson and Sione Takitaki — who played valuable snaps in 2020 and are poised to improve. The room undoubtedly will look different in 2021. It's just not a given that the Browns devote more resources here, whether it's through free agency and the draft, than they would, say, in the secondary, where four players who started games are poised to become free agents next month, or the defensive line, where the Browns are always looking to improve depth and have two every-game starters and major contributors in Ogunjobi and Vernon poised to hit free agency.

Needless to say, the next few months will go a long way toward determining what the defense will look like for the 2021 season and beyond.

"I think it is a fair observation to realize that the resources this past year that we had going into this past fall were predominantly oriented to support the offense and support the quarterback, but that does not mean that we did not make some investments all across the team," Browns EVP of Football Operations and GM Andrew Berry said. "We can have improvement anywhere. Understand that obviously we think we can certainly boost the defense as we go into 2021. It is probably too early to make any declarative or definitive statements, but certainly understand the strengths and weaknesses of the team."

What are expectations for Jacob Phillips and Grant Delpit? — Rob M., Charleston, West Virginia

Starting with Phillips, the third-round linebacker had a really strong finish to his 2021 season. He took over as a starter for the final few games and helped the Browns at multiple spots in the defense. His speed really stood out, and he's certainly a player to watch entering next season.

"He is a see-ball, get-ball guy," defensive coordinator Joe Woods said late in the season. "When the lights come on, he plays with his hair on fire, and that is what you like about him. He is physical and very competitive. He is just going to keep getting better with every rep he gets."

As for Delpit, the former second-round pick continues to rehab from his season-ending Achilles injury. The Browns are optimistic he'll be ready to go and ready to contribute in 2021.

Here's an NFL history question: In 1972, Miami finished the regular season 14-0, and beat the Browns in the divisional round of the playoffs. Yet, the AFC championship game the following week was in Pittsburgh. What were the rules then that had the undefeated Dolphins playing on the road in the conference title game, and when were those rules changed to the current format? — Peter F., Columbus

I'm not sure if you're testing me with this one or you genuinely didn't know. I, for one, did not know this, so I looked it up. This was an open-book quiz, right?

CBSSports.com tackled this question last year and answered it in thorough fashion, but here are the CliffsNotes. Playoff seeding as we know it today wasn't a thing until 1975. Instead, homefield for the playoffs rotated among the divisions in each conference. The only team that was guaranteed to play on the road was the Wild Card team in the first round.

Will Andrew Billings be on the roster when the new year begins or do they lose out on his services after opting out this past year? — Ryan S., Parma

Billings, who signed with the Browns last March after four seasons in Cincinnati, will be on the roster when the new league year begins. Players who opted out of the 2020 season simply had their contracts paused and carried over to the next season.

I was reviewing our 2021 opponents for a 16-game schedule. Didn't the league negotiate with the Players Association a 17th game for the regular season and reduce the preseason to three games? I appreciate your response. — Joe S., Avon

And I appreciate the questions! Keep 'em coming.

According to an NFL.com report in late December, that announcement won't be made official until the media contracts are renegotiated to accommodate the extra game. We'll learn in the coming weeks and months more about the details of the schedule and who would be a potential new opponent for the Browns if it passes.

Last year was a great draft class for offensive tackles and Jedrick Wills Jr. had an excellent season. Is the draft class strong at any particular position this year? — Rob M., Charleston, West Virginia

It's early in the projection process, but a handful are sticking out more than others. 

First, it's a pretty good year for quarterbacks, though that's not too relevant when it comes to the Browns. NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah has five QBs in his top 50 overall prospects.

As far as positions that matter just a little bit more to Cleveland, it's another good year for wide receivers. CBSSports.com has 15 wide receivers, led by Heisman trophy winner DeVonta Smith, in its top 100 overall players. This would mark the second straight year in which the position is absolutely loaded.

Another good one is linebacker. Though it's not heavy on first-round talent, there's depth to be found in the later rounds. CBSSports.com has just two linebackers in its top 25 but includes nine in its top 100.

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