After their exciting and successful 2020 season, the Cleveland Browns were no longer known as a “poverty franchise” like they had previously been. For the first time in forever, they are being seen as a threat. A top team. A powerhouse. Now, usually when a reporter or analyst raves about the Browns, they’re raving about the offense. The Cleveland defense is a unit that had many struggles last season. Other than star players like Myles Garrett, Denzel Ward, and Ronnie Harrison, the Browns defense was severely underperforming. And what better way to add to that unit than free agency. As of the date this article was written (April 9, 2021), the Browns have made seven new signings and six re-signings. Let’s take a look at who they’ve brought in, starting with the new players.
John Johnson III
As one of the best safeties in the free agency class, John Johnson III will bring much needed star power to the Browns’ secondary. Last year, Johnson had a combined 105 tackles, 8 passes defended, and 1 interception (with a total of 8 interceptions in his 4 years in the NFL). He fills a gap at the safety position that the Browns very much felt on deep passes last season. He also brings some versatility, playing both the strong safety and the free safety positions at some point in his career. Johnson is undoubtedly the biggest signing for Cleveland, and from the looks of it, he already loves it here.
As a defensive end, Takkarist McKinley will bring depth to the Browns defensive line, something they had at the top of their priority list going into free agency. After failing to sign him off waivers, they’ve acquired him on a one-year deal. McKinley only played 4 games last season, but in his 4-year long career he’s posted 17.5 sacks, 79 combined tackles, 45 QB hits, and 2 forced fumbles. Takk’s ability to charge the quarterback is something the Browns were looking for after deciding to let Olivier Vernon walk in free agency, and in 2021 they hope he shows his potential.
Another former Los Angeles Ram, Troy Hill is a 29 year old cornerback who had his best season by far in 2020. He brought in 77 tackles, which is solid, but his 3 interceptions are even more impressive, especially when you learn that two of those picks were returned to the house. And on top of that, he even scored off of a fumble recovery. As an NFL veteran, Hill will hopefully be able to mentor players like Greedy Williams and M.J. Stewart, and he might even be able to help Denzel Ward push his game even further. He will likely play the CB2 role, and will fit into it nicely for Cleveland.
One of the biggest gaps for the Browns last season was their linebacker core. Anthony Walker is a player who can add so much to that core, and he can even step into the defensive play caller role (the same role that B.J. Goodson had last season). Walker received a lot of praise from his all-pro teammate Darius Leonard, who said “Crazy to see such an amazing person, leader, player, and a friend leave a locker room.” With his 92 tackles last season, the Browns hope Walker will step into the leading linebacker role and help the LB group improve greatly.
To many (including myself), this was a surprising move, as there were no prior rumors that the Browns had their eyes on defensive tackle Malik Jackson. But this is an underrated move. Jackson was a pro bowler in 2017, and he won a Super Bowl with the Broncos in 2015, so he clearly has the experience. At 31 years old, Jackson will replace DT Larry Ogunjobi, who left for the Bengals. Over his 9 year career, he’s gotten 35 sacks and 267 tackles. Jackson will certainly bring veteran presence to the young Browns defense.
This surely isn’t a big signing, but Greg Senat will bring depth. Senat is an offensive tackle who was with the Browns earlier in 2020 before being cut and signed by the Cowboys. Senat is 26 and can provide help as a backup tackle.
Next, we’ll take a quick look at the players the Browns have re-signed.
A fan favorite, Higgins had a solid 2020 season as the WR2. He provides a great connection with Baker Mayfield and is a good guy to have in the locker room. Last season he recorded 599 yards on 37 receptions, and scored 4 touchdowns.
As a former Super Bowl MVP, Malcolm Smith brought great play and experience to the Browns defense last season, grabbing 72 tackles and an interception. Smith is 31, but shows no sign of slowing down.
One continuing problem the Browns have had in recent memory is finding a franchise kicker. Cody Parkey went 19 for 22 on field goals and 43 for 47 on extra points last season. Solid numbers for Parkey, and obviously good enough to get him re-signed.
JoJo Natson was signed last free agency to be a WR/KR combo. He had a solid start to the 2020 season but unfortunately tore his ACL in the third game. The Browns will bring him back to give him another shot.
Elijah Lee is a linebacker who was brought in last season to play on special teams. The Browns must have liked what they saw, because he’s back for 2021.
After spending a game with the 49ers last season, Brian Allen was released. The Browns picked him up mid-season, but he never got on the field. However, they’ll bring him back for next season.
Overall, the Browns have had a very solid free agency. As we head into the draft, Cleveland still has its eyes on a few free agents, most notably Jadeveon Clowney. More is to come, but for now, the Browns are improving and getting ready for another dominant season.