In 2021, those might be Cleveland’s only returning defensive starters.
One year after revamping the offense to great effect, Browns general manager Andrew Berry has put the finishing touches on an overhaul of Cleveland’s defense in the hope it will make a similarly dramatic improvement after ranking just 19th in efficiency last season.
In free agency, Berry signed a pair of surefire starters in the secondary in arguably the top safety on the market in John Johnson III, as well as nickelback Troy Hill. Berry also landed former No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney to pair with Garrett, the pass-rusher Cleveland drafted first in 2017. Then with his first two picks in last week’s draft, Berry selected two more potential starters in Northwestern cornerback Greg Newsome II and Notre Dame weak-side linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.
Factoring in numerous other additions through free agency and the draft, as well as the healthy returns of cornerback Greedy Williams and safety Grant Delpit, and the Browns figure to feature a completely different -– and more talented -– unit around Ward and Garrett.
“We knew that going into the 2020 season our primary focus would be on the offensive side of the ball, and first and foremost supporting the quarterback and making sure that the quarterback got the support that he needed to be as effective as possible,” said Berry, who took over as general manager after the 2019 season. “Naturally, this offseason has had a little bit more of a defensive lean because we did realize that that is not an area that had been as heavily invested.
“This roster construction was largely done with the two-year plan in mind.”
As Berry pointed out, the first year of the plan focused on remaking an offensive line that had struggled to protect Baker Mayfield. During the 2020 offseason, Berry signed All-Pro right tackle Jack Conklin, then drafted left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. with the 10th overall pick. That, combined with the emergence of Wyatt Teller at right guard, transformed Cleveland’s offensive line from one of the league’s worst to one of its best. In turn, the Browns' offense rebounded from a dismal 2019 performance to rank sixth in efficiency behind a dominant running game featuring Nick Chubb and a resurgent season from Mayfield.
Now, the entire two-year plan has been implemented. And with the versatile talent defensively to match an overpowering offense, Cleveland suddenly has the look of a potential Super Bowl contender for the first time in three decades.
“I think we just really set out this offseason to not only improve our team but really attack (the defensive) side of the ball,” said Glenn Cook, Cleveland’s vice president of player personnel. “Guys like Greg and JOK add a ton of athleticism and versatility. I think you will hear that over and over again. Just the versatility that those guys add to this defense, it’s really exciting.”
The two draftees won’t be the only new additions.
The Browns also inked 2017 first-rounder Takkirst McKinley to play alongside Garrett and Clowney off the edge. The defensive tackle rotation will be mostly new with COVID-19 opt-out Andrew Billings joining free-agent signee Malik Jackson, 2020 third-round pick Jordan Elliott and last week’s fourth-round addition Tommy Togiai out of Ohio State.
Veteran free-agent signee Anthony Walker is likely to take over at middle linebacker, while Koramoah-Owusu could eventually join him in the starting lineup.
And in the secondary, the Browns aren’t just adding Johnson, Hill and Newsome, they’re getting back Delpit (Achilles) and Williams (shoulder), who were both projected starters before suffering season-ending injuries in training camp last year.
The resulting tally could be up to nine new defensive starters, with several other newcomers likely to play key reserve roles.
And a remade defense elevating budding expectations in Cleveland even higher.
“We’re excited,” Berry said. “I think the team is coming together, and the shared vision that we all have, but to be quite honest, we still have a lot of work to do. We’re pleased with where we are at this point, but it’s by no means a destination.”