After a year that saw the Cleveland Browns post a 12-6 record, make the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and win a playoff game for the first time since 1994, it’s time to take a look at how the Browns can improve in the offseason.
Keys to a Successful Browns Offseason
Hold Off on Extending Baker Mayfield
Throughout the final stretch of the regular season and in the two playoff games, Baker Mayfield proved to everyone that he was their quarterback of the future. Mayfield had a slow rise to the top, but his improvement on and off the field this year should be all anybody needs to see to believe he’s the man.
He improved upon nearly every aspect of his game this year. His interception rate dropped from 21 in 2019 to only eight in 2020. Mayfield and Deshaun Watson were the only two quarterbacks to go the entire month of November without an interception. His scoring numbers didn’t rise all that much, only 26 touchdown passes this year compared to 22 last year. However, the fact that he only threw eight interceptions makes that stat all the more impressive. His passing yardage and completions took a small dip from 2019, but that can be attributed to a potent running attack, along with a new offensive scheme. The most important number in all of this, in my opinion, is that Mayfield was only sacked 26 times this season, compared to 40 last season.
However, the Browns may hold off on signing Baker to an extension for a couple of reasons. As noted by Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com, the Browns will be sure to pick up Mayfield’s fifth year option by May 3, which should be about $18M. Picking up the option will give the front office more time to evaluate Mayfield in his second season within Kevin Stefanski’s offense. Another reason to hold off would be the recent cautionary tales of Carson Wentz and Jared Goff. If their cases prove anything, it’s that rushing a first-round quarterback into an extension isn’t always the best move.
Improve the Secondary
Even though the Browns were ranked 22nd in the NFL in passing yardage allowed per game, there are some bright spots in the secondary. Denzel Ward has all the makings of a top cover corner in the NFL. PFF ranked him 13th in the NFL in outside cover grade in 2020, and he tied for third in the league with 14 forced incompletions. He just needs to stay healthy and on the field. Ronnie Harrison Jr. was a great surprise in the secondary this season. He was traded to the Browns from the Jaguars, for only a fifth-round pick pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. This year, he ranked 14th in defensive grade by PFF (76.6). He was also 15th in coverage grade (76.7) and was the only Cleveland defender to average 70 across the board by PFF (71.0 run defense, 72.8 tackling, 74.6 in pass rush).
Unfortunately for the Browns, the rest of their secondary was pretty much abysmal. Kevin Johnson, M.J. Stewart and Tavierre Thomas were all underwhelming in the slot. Each of the three logged at least 100 snaps at the position, and produced a sub-50.0 coverage grade at the position. Even though Thomas was poor this year in the slot, he was excellent on special teams, logging 29 tackles and one forced fumble. Terrance Mitchell, who filled in for the constantly-injured Greedy Williams, had a decent year, but made no big plays, totaling zero interceptions throughout the year. On top of it all, the free safety position was an absolute disaster for the Browns in 2020. Andrew Sendejo had a sub-50 coverage grade, and his back-up, Sheldrick Redwine, didn’t fare much better, producing a coverage grade just above 45 in his limited playing time.
The biggest roster hole on the Browns is at the free safety position, and they can’t rely on a rookie next year, unless he has an outstanding year, such as the one from Antoine Winfield Jr. of the Buccaneers. So, the Browns’ best bet is to hit free agency looking for a safety, and luckily, some above average safeties are going to hit the open market this off-season.
One safety that has been on the Browns radar for a while now is Justin Simmons. At 28 years young, Simmons will attract a lot of teams, but the Browns are one of the few teams that made the playoffs this past year to have ample cap room this summer. Since 2019, Simmons has been PFF’s highest graded cover safety, with an exceptional 90.5 grade.
Two other more realistic options are Anthony Harris and Tre Boston, who are both on the down swing of their careers, but are still solid options.
The other issue in the secondary is the corner position opposite Ward. The Browns seem to have struck out with Greedy Williams. The guy can’t even seem to get on the field, so while it isn’t a bad idea to be hopeful and hang on to him, the Browns need a real option at the corner next season.
Re-Sign Rashard Higgins
Another offseason, and another summer of not knowing what will happen with the Browns and young receiver Rashard Higgins. Last Spring, Higgins signed a one-year deal worth $910,000 to come back and play for the Browns. However, after a strong season, the receiver might have more options in free agency than one may think. Higgins, entering his sixth NFL season next year, has over 1,500 receiving yards in his career to go along with 11 touchdowns.
The wideout from Colorado State has had an immediate connection with Mayfield from the day he was drafted out of Oklahoma. It is imperative the Browns sign Higgins this offseason. In the 13 games he played in during the season, Higgins caught 37 passes for 599 yards and four touchdowns. In games where Higgins had five or more targets, the Browns were 3-1 in the regular season. Since his rookie season Higgins has been Mayfield’s favorite receiving target behind Jarvis Landry. Barring a trade that gets Odell Beckham Jr. out of Cleveland, the Browns should go forward with the receiving room that they have already. Higgins, Donovan Peoples-Jones, and Harrison Bryant all have the ability to grow into special players by the end of their careers.
Find More Ways to Get David Njoku Involved
The relationship between the Browns front office and former first-round pick David Njoku has soured to the point where I don’t know if it’s possible to reconcile. However, if the Browns trade Njoku or let him walk, they are missing out on a talent that can get the offense to the next level. If you think about some of the best teams this year, most of them have dominant tight ends. The Chiefs have Travis Kelce, the Bucs have Rob Gronkowski and O.J. Howard, and finally the Packers even got a breakout season from tight end Robert Tonyan. The tight end is becoming more and more useful, as NFL offenses continue and try to make their offensive groups faster. David Njoku is an example of the perfect receiving tight end in the modern era. Well, he’s not the perfect example, but he’s close.
The 6-4 pass-catcher from Miami (FL) has reliable hands, but occasionally drops open passes. However, you can live with that when he makes big plays.
Reportedly, Njoku asked for a trade from the Browns around the NFL Trade Deadline. However, Njoku finished the year for the Browns, and even had some good catches in their final loss to the Chiefs in the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs. The Browns exercised the fifth-year option of his rookie contract in April 2020. That means barring a trade, the Browns have Njoku under contract through the end of the 2021 season. The Browns owe him $6M in 2021, so he is best to just suit up and play. If he plays to nearly half of his potential, his $6 Million deal will seem like a bargain.
Extend 1-2 Year Offers for Big Name Players Hitting the Market in a Positions of Need
This summer, the NFL’s free agent class is as deep and talented as any other class since 2015. Shaq Barrett, Lavonte David, Justin Simmons, Von Miller and Bud Dupree may all hit the open market this summer.
Obviously, the Browns have needs at wide receiver, pending OBJ’s 2021 status, linebacker, safety and corner, so it’s safe to say they will try and fill those needs through the draft or free agency. Would a guy like J.J. Watt be a great partner for Myles Garrett? Possibly, but it only makes sense to offer him a one-year deal worth $10-$12M. Is that worth it for the Browns? Well, yes and no, it depends on how you are looking at this championship window if you’re a Browns fan.
If you honestly think that their best chance to win one is this year or next, while Baker is on his rookie contract, then absolutely Watt would make the Browns better. However, Watt doesn’t really fit the mold of what the Browns have built their recent success on.
So yes, with big names like J.J. Watt, Jadaveon Clowney and Allen Robinson hitting the open market, there is no problem with offering some of the veteran free agents short-term deal for more money up-front. Other than Justin Simmons, who would fill a huge need for the Browns, it doesn’t make sense to offer long contracts to veterans.
The Browns and Olivier Vernon did a smart thing last summer and re-structured the defensive end’s contract. He was due to make $15.25M in non-guaranteed money in 2020. However, the Browns cut his salary and made him an $11M man, all guaranteed. This option is really only possible with receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. Landry is due to make $14.8M in 2021, making him the 10th-most expensive wide receiver in the league in terms of cap hit. Opposite of Landry, OBJ is seventh in those rankings, and he hasn’t played a full season with the Browns yet. With so many important players coming up on their first deal after their rookie contract, creating some cap space isn’t such a bad idea. Sheldon Richardson, who is due to make $13.67M in 2021, is also a candidate for re-structuring.
Obviously, the Browns have other needs to meet during the offseason, but this six-item checklist will ensure the Browns improve next year. It’s hard to believe football ended just weeks ago, and here we are talking about it again. What a great sport.