Out of the gate, the Browns made one of the NFL's biggest splashes, committing a franchise record $63 million in guaranteed money to tight end Austin Hooper, right tackle Jack Conklin and backup quarterback Case Keenum.
Yet ever since that first day on March 16, Cleveland's priorities in free agency have focused on patching up what had quietly become a rather depleted defense by signing a series of undervalued veterans to short-term deals.
Over the past two weeks, the Browns have inked safeties Karl Joseph and Andrew Sendejo, nickel corner Kevin Johnson, cornerback Donovan Olumba, linebacker B.J. Goodson, defensive tackle Andrew Billings and, most recently, defensive end Adrian Clayborn.
Joseph and Sendejo almost certainly will start. Johnson and Goodson will play key, if not starting, roles as well. Billings and Clayborn are locks to be in the rotation along the defensive line.
And yet, only Clayborn and Olumba were given two-year contracts. The rest signed for one year only, underscoring an interesting and potentially shrewd offseason strategy for the defensive side from Cleveland's new front office.
Signing so many players to one-year deals figures to achieve at least three objectives for the new Browns regime as they attempt to retool the defense for the new coaching staff. The one-year tact provides the Browns with the opportunity to evaluate these veterans for long-term fit without the long-term financial commitment. It bridges the gap as promising young prospects such as safety Sheldrick Redwine, linebackers Mack Wilson and Sione Takitaki, defensive end Chad Thomas and whomever Cleveland might draft on the defensive side later this month continue to develop.
And it sets up the Browns to cash in on compensatory picks, should any of these newcomers leave after the season. In the new collective bargaining agreement, free agents who sign one-year deals that still make at least $1.75 million factor into the gains in the losses in the compensatory formula. Not so coincidentally, of all the free agents the Browns have secured via one-year deals, only returner JoJo Natson signed for less than the $1.75 million threshold.
Meanwhile, in the short term, these offseason additions stand to bolster a defense that, like the offense, also underperformed last year, finishing 23rd in the NFL in efficiency.
Joseph is a former first-round pick who still has upside. Alongside him, Sendejo has the flexibility to man either strong or free safety. Goodson proved to be a solid two-down linebacker in Green Bay. Johnson, when healthy, has been a willing and able tackler out of the nickel, which is paramount in new coordinator Joe Woods' defense. And Billings gives the Browns an athletic depth piece inside, which Cleveland lacked last year behind starters Sheldon Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi.
Off the edge, Clayborn, Cleveland's latest signing, provides the Browns with another capable pass-rusher, which the Browns severely missed following Myles Garrett's season-ending suspension. In fact, of the 111 players with 500 snaps against the pass over the past two seasons, Garrett and Clayborn rank first and second in the NFL in quarterback pressure rate, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Cleveland's defensive collapse down the stretch last year after Garrett's suspension was overshadowed by the overall ineptitude of the offense. But to finally snap the NFL's longest playoff drought, the Browns must make dramatic improvement defensively, too.
These new additions give Cleveland the chance to do so without compromising the flexibility of its future.