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Joe Woods expects Browns D to be 'more versatile' after signing key free agents

Woods explained why he believes the free-agent acquisitions will put the defense in a position to confuse opposing offenses in 2021

Joe Woods has received plenty of gifts he can't wait to use as a defensive coordinator in 2021.

Those gifts, of course, came in the form of six defensive free agents the Browns signed within the last month. Executive Vice President of Football Operations and GM Andrew Berry has already inserted new, veteran players at every position of the defense that should see vast improvements from 2020, when the unit was ranked 21st in the league.

Woods, who is entering his second season as the Browns' defensive coordinator, will have new weapons in S John Johnson III, DE Takkarist McKinley, CB Troy Hill, LB Anthony Walker, DT Malik Jackson and DE Jadeveon Clowney, the three-time Pro Bowler who signed with the Browns last week. 

"It's definitely great for our whole organization and our whole team to get these players," Woods said Thursday in an interview on Cleveland Browns Daily. "It really says something about what we accomplished last year that guys are making a decision to join our team."

Each player brings a special caliber of talent that should provide an upgrade to Woods' defense, but that's not quite what he's most excited about.

For Woods, the free agent class brings a level of versatility that should help the defense attain a variety of looks that will make game preparations for an opposing offense significantly harder.

Check out photos of Jadeveon Clowney

Woods hoped to sustain a similar plan last season, but injuries to several key players — most notably, the season-ending injuries suffered by S Grant Delpit and CB Greedy Williams — blocked Woods from coming close to fully executing that plan. 

He provided one key statistic explaining how the plan fell short: At the beginning of the season, he strived to use the dime formation, which is when six defensive backs are on the field, for roughly 400 snaps for the season. The number is similar to what Woods reached in his past decade holding roles as a defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach.

In 2020, the Browns only ran 16 dime snaps.

"You can see the impact that we could have," Woods said. "It's really about putting more speed on the field and creating matchups where you feel like you have an advantage."

With the breadth of new players inserted to the defense, Woods is confident he can return to that plan.

No position on the Browns will feature more new players than the secondary, which will combine S Ronnie Harrison and CB Denzel Ward with Johnson, Hill and possibly another player who could be added early in the NFL Draft next week. Williams is also set to return to the group as he continues to return from the shoulder injury that shut down his second NFL season.

That secondary is arguably the biggest asset Woods has to create a deep variety of looks each week. Not many teams have the potential to play three safeties for the majority of a game, but the Browns could do just that. 

Johnson, who joined Cleveland after four years with the Los Angeles Rams, was one of four safeties to play every defensive snap last season. Harrison, who recorded an interception and seven passes defensed, became one of the Browns' most reliable defenders when he began to receive consistent snaps midway through the regular season. Delpit missed his rookie season due to an Achilles injury in training camp, but he's expected to make a full return for 2021 and provide another versatile chip to the secondary. 

"It could be series to series, game to game," Woods said. "We can let those guys move around on their own. We can create a special package with them just because of their versatility."

Other new additions should help solidify Woods' diverse set of plans for 2021, too. 

Clowney, the first overall pick of 2014, will join forces with Myles Garrett, the first overall pick of 2017, to create one of the strongest defensive end packages in the NFL. Jackson, a 10-year veteran who has played a variety of D-line positions in the past, will join them. McKinley, a first-round pick in 2017, should benefit from playing alongside two Pro Bowlers in Garrett and Clowney and potentially allow Clowney to take snaps in the interior, where he may find more success reaching the quarterback without facing a potential double-team from the offensive line.

For an opposing offensive coordinator, the possibilities appear headache-inducing.

For Woods, the possibilities appear like presents under a Christmas tree.

"The ability to move them around and create matchups that we want to create, get the one-on-ones — that's definitely part of the plan," Woods said. "We did a little of that last year, but we'll definitely be able to do more of that, regardless of the guys that are inside or outside."

The defensive makeover might not be finished, either. 

Despite all of the additions, the Browns are still heavily projected to select another defensive player in the first round of the draft at pick No. 26. Every defensive position remains a possibility.

No matter what the Browns do, Woods is confident his defense will see a remarkable improvement in 2021. The unit is loaded with the skills, versatility and speed needed for Woods to implement his plan.

And he truly can't wait to see how it works.

"We'll be able to be more versatile with what we can put on the field," Woods said. "There will be a lot of versatility, for sure."

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