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Free Agency

Malcolm Smith believes Browns defense can reach 'another level' after agreeing to new contract

Smith was one of the top defensive players and leaders on the Browns in 2020

Malcolm Smith didn't want to experience just one year of winning football with the Cleveland Browns.

Smith, a nine-year veteran who played 15 games at linebacker for the Browns last season, will never forget how it felt to bring wins to the franchise after it went 18 years without a trip to the playoffs. He was one of the most seasoned veterans on a defense full of youth, and as Smith went into the offseason as a free agent, he always kept the door open for a second season with the Browns.

On Thursday, Smith's decision became official: He agreed to terms on a fresh contract with the Browns and will return to Cleveland for 2021.

"I think the prospects at success are what had me most excited," Smith said in a video call with local reporters. "There's a level of familiarity here. It was about making the best decision for my family too, as far as taking them to Cleveland and what I saw from being in the city."

What Smith and the Browns saw on the field together was great, too. He finished second on the defense last season with 72 tackles — his highest since 2016 — and added an interception and forced fumble to complete the comeback year he hoped for when he signed his contract during training camp. The linebackers room dealt with several injuries throughout the season, but Smith was a reliable veteran prepared for whatever work came his way.

That position group was also one of the youngest on the Browns, and it likely will hold that label again in 2021. Jacob Phillips (21 years old), Mack Wilson (23) and Sione Takitaki (25) all could see bigger roles as they continue to grow into the NFL, but it's wise for Cleveland to pair them with a veteran leader who can continue to be a tutor.

Smith, whose biggest career achievement is winning MVP of Super Bowl XLVIII, is comfortable in that role. He embraced it from Day 1 in Berea last fall, when he prioritized his leadership over any other duties he had with the team.

"I'm just trying to add my sauce and bring what I can to the mix," Smith said at the time. "That has been my thing so far and trying to impart whatever wisdom I have on the guys in the room and take what I can from them. Just trying to build every day."

The defense had their ups and downs in 2020 — that was expected as the unit dealt with injuries and attempted to give their younger players room to grow — but Smith saw the potential for greater success. In addition to several key players set to return, the Browns have prioritized defensive upgrades early this offseason by signing safety John Johnson III, one of the top defenders on the free-agent market, and defensive end Takkarist McKinley, a four-year veteran looking to revive the success he built with 13 sacks in his first two seasons.

The defense is on track to be significantly stronger in 2021, which is why Smith wanted to be a part of it.

"We're going to add some pieces and develop the guys that we have," he said. "There's going to be a learning curve for certain situations, but we're not going to be starting at the basics for everybody. That foundational growth should help us reach another level."

The Browns believe Smith will help them reach that level. Regardless of which players, old and new, are on the defense, they can count on him to lead and be a serviceable player on gameday.

So they brought him back. They see plenty of potential left in Smith, and he sees plenty of potential in the rest of the defense.

"For me, it's just about being happy, going out there and enjoying every step of the way," he said. "'ll be 32 years old in football and have an opportunity to play at this level. I'm thankful."

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