Browns Mailbag

Browns Mailbag: Who's poised to take a big jump in Year 2 under Stefanski?

Senior Writer Andrew Gribble answers your questions every week

At this time next week, the Browns might just have a few new players on the roster.

ClevelandBrowns.com is the place to be for all of the team's free agent activity as the Browns look to attack the new league year. We'll have you covered when the moves become official.

On with the final pre-free agency questions of 2021!

The Browns have some key players that in Year 2 of the Stefanski and Joe Woods era may make big improvements on the field, including David Njoku, Wyatt Teller, Grant Delpit, Ronnie Harrison, Jacob Phillips and Greedy Williams. Your thoughts? — Rob M., Charleston, West Virginia

The names you listed all qualify, especially the two who didn't see the field at all in 2020. The only direction for Delpit and Williams is onward and upward.

But let's start from the top. 

Njoku certainly qualifies after posting such a strong finish to 2020. The talented TE was third on the depth chart but played a pivotal role on the offense. He saved his best for last, catching five passes for 59 yards in the Browns' AFC Divisional Round loss to the Chiefs and has also shown significant improvement as a blocker. The Browns will have another offseason to scheme up ways to take advantage of his unique skill set while playing from such a valuable position.

"I think that group did a nice job for us this past year, and it is obviously a focal point in (Head Coach) Kevin (Stefanski)'s offense," EVP of Football Operations and GM Andrew Berry said. "Look, I thought David played really well for us last year. He did a nice job with his teammates. He did a nice job with his role within the offense. We think he is a very young, productive player."

Teller is coming off a monster season in which he emerged as one of the league's best guards. He'll look to continue to improve and will shoot for better injury luck after missing five games during the regular season. Another year playing alongside the same guys to his left and right shouldn't hurt, either.

Optimism is abounding for Delpit and Williams as they continue to make progress from injuries that sidelined them for all of 2020. Stefanski recently said he'd spoken with both and noted Delpit looked "great." A fully recovered Delpit and Williams could mean a lot for a Browns secondary that has a slew of key contributors from 2020 set to hit free agency.

Harrison is another player the Browns know they'll have in the back end of their defense in 2021, and it will be interesting to see what's in store for him after joining the Browns shortly before the start of the 2020 regular season. It took Harrison a little less than a month to get into the swing of things, and he proved to be a player who always seems to have his nose around the ball. Now, Woods will have a full offseason to work and plan with Harrison and get the most out of his skill set.

And then there's Phillips, the player from your list who, in this Mailbag operator's humble opinion, could be poised for the biggest leap. There are a couple of factors at play here. First, Phillips was injured for two big chunks of the 2020 season, and it hampered his ability to get the real-time snaps rookies need to get a full grasp of things in the NFL. Second, he had such a strong finish to the 2020 season, including a 10-tackle effort in the Browns' playoff-clinching win over the Steelers. The arrow is pointing up for Phillips, who flashed speed and versatility when he had the opportunity and could be in store for even more as a second-year player.

"I think I'm a whole lot smarter," Phillips said in a recent episode of Best Podcast Available. "Coming from college, watching film isn't as much of a big thing. It's basically just everyone going out and competing. Obviously there's schemes, but in the NFL, we all know it's a different level. I feel like I've got a good footing on it for next year."

If the same value in talent in a player at 26 can be found early in the second round, wouldn't it make sense to trade back and pick up further assets? — Mark F., Ashtabula

That's the calculus every general manager has to make with wherever they are picking, no matter what stage of the round they're in. Berry did just that last year in the second round when he traded back three spots (No. 41 to No. 44) with the Colts, acquired a fifth-round pick for doing so and then selected Delpit.

There's some recent Browns history to gauge what kind of assets can be acquired through this kind of move. Back in 2017, the Browns traded back into the end of the first round to select Njoku with the No. 29 pick. Cleveland parted with a second- and fourth-round selection — both of which were slated for the top of each round — to make the move.

There is lots of talk about Delpit and Williams but didn't the Browns have several other defensive players that were either injured all season or opted out, including the player they got from the Dolphins. Could any of them be an impact player in 2021? — Mark R., Anna

The player you're referring to is Curtis Weaver, a former fifth-round selection out of Boise State who spent all of 2020 on injured reserve. Weaver is the all-time Mountain West leader with 34 career sacks and he did it consistently, registering at least 9.5 sacks in each of his three seasons on the field.

"I think it remains to be seen for any of these young players," Stefanski said. "Curtis, it is really his first year really with us because he spent so much time rehabbing so it is first year with us and second year in the NFL. Those are the type of guys that we are going to give them every opportunity to grow, and they have to put the work in to make it happen. I love Curtis, and really, you can put him with the second-year players or you can put him with the rookies and say this is truly his first year with us."

The other player to watch who falls into this category is DT Andrew Billings, a free agent signing from last year who opted out for the 2020 season. He was an every-game starter with the Bengals and was particularly stout against the run. His one-year contract rolls over to 2021, and he'll be in the mix to contribute from the middle of Cleveland's defensive line.

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