The Browns front office knew which direction it wanted to head in with the 2021 offseason before the 2020 season even began.
Executive Vice President and GM Andrew Berry admitted that notion after Day 2 of the 2021 NFL Draft. Their direction was all about the defense, where the Browns added upgrades at every level of the group before the draft began with six free agent additions.
"Quite honestly, that is something that we really looked at a year and a half ago," Berry said in a video call with local reporters. "This offseason has had a little bit more of a defensive lean because we did realize that that is not an area that had been as heavily invested over the past couple of offseasons."
The Browns put an exclamation on that point with their 2021 draft class.
Five of their eight picks were on the defensive side of the ball, and none of the players selected will be asked to become an immediate starter — a luxury and compliment to how well the Browns have already addressed the defense.
CB Greg Newsome II and LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah will provide, at minimum, quality depth to positions that struggled in that area in 2020. Both players will certainly receive opportunities to start come Week 1, too.
DT Tommy Togiai, LB Tony Fields II and S Richard LeCounte III will have a chance to carve roles for themselves, too, but they'll be given plenty of time to develop — their positions were padded with veteran players before the draft began.
Take a look anywhere on the Browns defense. Every position contains clear-cut starters with little question marks. Every position contains a clear plan for depth should injuries mount.
"It is true that they are going to have to prepare a bunch of new players and we are going to teach the system to a bunch of new guys and reteach it to a bunch of guys," head coach Kevin Stefanski said following the Browns' final pick of the draft. "We all have our work cut out for us, but in terms of external expectations or anything like that, I just think it is something that we all recognize the second we walk into this building every day; we are trying to just do everything we can for the Cleveland Browns."
There was one defensive position, however, that went unaddressed in the draft despite plenty of hype suggesting it was one of the Browns' top needs: edge rusher.
They didn't. That's a token of confidence for who's already on the roster. Porter Gustin and Curtis Weaver, a 2020 fifth-round pick whom Cleveland claimed off waivers last season, will be given a chance to enter the rotation. So will Joe Jackson and Cameron Malveaux.
"We liked the position group coming into the draft," Berry said. "There were a number of prospects at that position who we also liked, but like I told you guys, we are going to draft with a long-term vision for the team, and ultimately, we are not just going to pick for need or perceived need. The value has to be there, and we have to feel comfortable with whoever we are bringing into the building, but we like our group."
So how did the Browns get here? How did they arrive to a position where they could devote the majority of their offseason resources to the defense?
The answer lies in last offseason, when Cleveland spent a chunk of its salary cap and draft picks on the offense. The Browns addressed depth needs at a few offensive positions with the selections of WR Anthony Schwartz, OT James Hudson and RB Demetric Felton, but the work from the 2020 offseason ensured the Browns could return every key offensive contributor for 2021.
"We knew that going into the 2020 season our primary focus would be on the offensive side of the ball, and first and foremost, supporting the quarterback and making sure that the quarterback got the support that he needed to be as effective as possible," Berry said. "We felt good about that unit. We felt good that we were able to keep a large part of it intact."
The strategy flipped this offseason.
Eleven new players have now been added to the defense since the beginning of free agency, and that group is now set to possibly become one of the most improved units in the entire league in 2021 — just how the front office envisioned over a year ago.
And with the plan they executed with the 2021 draft, the brunt of their work appears to be complete.