The Browns have upgraded each defensive position with free-agent additions so far this offseason, but that hasn't stopped some draft analysts from projecting Cleveland to snag a defensive end in Round 1 of the 2021 NFL Draft.
ESPN's Todd McShay is one of many mock drafters in that category. After originally projecting the Browns to take Tulsa LB Zaven Collins in his first three mocks, McShay envisioned the Browns taking a different route in his fourth edition. He, as well as numerous other analysts, believes the edge position is now the team's top priority, and he predicts Miami's Gregory Rousseau will be their top target at pick No. 26.
"I just feel like putting another edge rusher on the opposite side would benefit Cleveland," McShay said Monday in a Zoom call with reporters. "The offense seems to be set, and I think the defense is where they need to continue to upgrade. I think that would be a really good spot for Cleveland in the first round to take an edge rusher."
McShay is one of many people who pegged Rousseau to the Browns in some of the first mock drafts following free agency. Cleveland added four-year veteran Takkarist McKinley in addition to four other defensive veterans — S John Johnson III, CB Troy Hill, LB Anthony Walker and DT Malik Jackson — but are still widely projected to select an edge rusher early in the draft.
Recent draft speculation suggests the Browns will have plenty of talented defensive ends to pick if that's the path they choose.
After the San Francisco 49ers traded with the Miami Dolphins to acquire the third overall pick — a pick many believe will be spent on a quarterback — most mock drafts suggested a slight drop on when the first edge rushers will go off the board. Quarterbacks, wide receivers, offensive linemen and maybe even running backs could be selected before the first defensive end, which would be great news for the Browns, who could make their pick with a number of the draft's top defensive players still available.
McShay doesn't have a defensive end being selected until pick No. 21, with Michigan's Kwity Paye going to the Indianapolis Colts.
The next defensive end off the board? Rousseau to Cleveland.
"Rousseau is probably the second-best (edge rusher)," he said. "Some teams think he's the best edge rusher in this year's class. You can just see the athleticism and ability to finish and get home as a pass rusher. There's not many guys that can get home the way that he does."
Rousseau, who's 6-foot-6 and 266 pounds, opted out of the 2020 season but accrued plenty of draft stock in 2019, when he totaled 15.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and 19.5 tackles for a loss. He became the next defensive beast out of the University of Miami, and he's always been mentioned as a potential first-round pick.
At the beginning of the offseason, Rousseau was widely mocked to fall several picks before the Browns had their first selection. But as more quarterbacks, wide receivers and other non-defensive end players rose up draft boards, the top-tiered edge rushers began to slide down.
Now, it appears much more likely for Rousseau to still be on the board.
"If you can get (Miami defensive end) Jaelan Phillips or Rousseau in the second half of the first round, you're getting lucky," McShay said. "This year is so loaded with quarterbacks and pass catchers early that these guys are going to fall a bit."
It wouldn't be surprising, however, to see the Browns choose another defensive position over edge rusher with their first pick.
Collins, one of the top linebackers of the draft class and another popular mock pick to the Browns, could be too good to pass up if he's still on the board. The cornerback position is very much in play, too, if South Carolina's Jaycee Horn, Virginia Tech's Caleb Farley or Northwestern's Greg Newsome II fall past the middle of the first round and land within striking distance of Cleveland.
But if a slide in edge rushers does indeed occur, McShay believes the Browns can grab a game-changing player and further solidify a defensive line already set to thrive with Myles Garrett.
Rousseau would help them do just that.
"If he continues to develop in terms of his strength and being more physical, he can be an every-down defensive end," McShay said. "But right now, you can plug him in and he's going to provide you pass rush ability right away."