Cleveland Browns free-agency overview: Team looking to bolster defense

play
Should the Browns extend Baker Mayfield? (2:04)

Tim Hasselbeck insists Baker Mayfield is only going to improve under Kevin Stefanski. (2:04)

BEREA, Ohio -- The Cleveland Browns enter 2021 NFL free agency coming off a 11-5 season in 2020 and have 16 unrestricted free agents. The Browns offense is almost entirely under contract and should return largely intact.

But there’s work now to do defensively, as Cleveland looks to surround star pass rusher Myles Garrett with more talent. On top of that, the Browns have several decisions to make on their own free agents on that side of the ball. Here’s what to expect from the Browns when the NFL offseason hits high gear with the start of free agency on March 17:

QUARTERBACK

Under contract: Baker Mayfield, Case Keenum, Kyle Lauletta

Game plan: The only question here is whether the Browns can get a long-term extension done with Mayfield, who is coming off a breakout third season in the league. Keenum proved to be a valuable presence in the locker room after the Browns signed him in free agency last season.

RUNNING BACK

Under contract: Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, D’Ernest Johnson, John Kelly, Andy Janovich

Game plan: Chubb and Hunt showed why last year they might be the best running back duo in the league. Cleveland extended Hunt last year and would seem inclined to do the same with Chubb, who, as a former second-round pick, doesn’t have a fifth-year option.

WIDE RECEIVER

Under contract: Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Ryan Switzer, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Ja’Marcus Bradley, Derrick Willies

UFA: Rashard Higgins, JoJo Natson, Taywan Taylor, Marvin Hall

Game plan: The Browns face a quandary here. Cleveland could clear another $15 million or so in cap space, to reinforce its defense, by trading Beckham. However, could the Browns get value back for a player still working his way back from an injury? Higgins won’t be taking the minimum this time around either, which means this group could get expensive for a team that utilizes multiple tight ends as much as any offense in the league.

TIGHT END

Under contract: Austin Hooper, David Njoku, Harrison Bryant, Jordan Franks, Kyle Markway

Game plan: In an interview with Jim Rome, Njoku hinted that he’s still not happy in Cleveland. The Browns, however, already picked up Njoku’s fifth-year option, giving him little leverage. Hooper and Bryant are the future at the position, but Njoku will still help in 2021, should the Browns avoid trading him.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Under contract: Jack Conklin, J.C. Tretter, Joel Bitonio, Chris Hubbard, Jedrick Wills Jr., Wyatt Teller, Nick Harris, Drew Forbes, Blake Hance, Colby Gossett, Michael Dunn, Drake Dorbeck, Cordel Iwuagwu, Javon Patterson, Malcolm Pridgeon, Alex Taylor

UFA: Kendall Lamm

Game plan: Cleveland’s entire starting offensive line returns under contract after a collective breakout season for the league’s sixth-most efficient offense. The Browns could even look to extend Teller, a free agent next year, after he posted the highest grade among guards, according to Pro Football Focus, in his first season as the full-time starter.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Under contract: Myles Garrett, Adrian Clayborn, Trevon Young, Cameron Malveaux, Joe Jackson, Curtis Weaver, Sheldon Richardson, Andrew Billings, Jordan Elliott

UFA: Olivier Vernon, Larry Ogunjobi, Vincent Taylor

Game plan: Despite a terrific 2020 season, Vernon is 30 and now coming off a ruptured Achilles injury, leaving Cleveland on the hunt for the pass rusher to complement Garrett. Despite a terrific 2020 season, Vernon is 30 and now coming off a ruptured Achilles injury, leaving Cleveland on the hunt for the pass rusher to complement Garrett. The Browns missed out on J.J. Watt, who signed with Arizona, but they have other free agent pass rushers out they like, too.

LINEBACKER

Under contract: Jacob Phillips, Sione Takitaki, Mack Wilson

UFA: B.J. Goodson, Malcolm Smith, Elijah Lee

Game plan: Goodson had a solid one season for the Browns and would definitely be worth bringing back as a veteran stabilizer and leader. But Cleveland needs to add some speed, covering ability and playmaking to this position -- either through the draft or through free agency -- as Wilson, Phillips and Takitaki continue to develop.

DEFENSIVE BACK

Under contract: Denzel Ward, Greedy Williams, M.J. Stewart, A.J. Green, Grant Delpit, Sheldrick Redwine, Ronnie Harrison, Montrel Meander, Jovante Moffatt, Elijah Benton

UFA: Karl Joseph, Andrew Sendejo, Kevin Johnson, Terrance Mitchell

Game plan: The overall strength of this group hinges heavily on the rehabilitations of Williams (shoulder) and Delpit (Achilles), Cleveland’s last two second-round selections who both missed all of last season with injuries. Because of that, and the defensive back depth in this draft, Cleveland seems more likely to commit free agency money bolstering its front seven, then reinforcing the secondary later through the draft.

SPECIALISTS

Under contract: P Jamie Gillan, LS Charlie Hughlett, K Matt McCrane

UFA: K Cody Parkey

Game plan: Parkey performed well after being brought after the season started, replacing Austin Seibert after one game. Parkey made 19 of 22 field goals. There’s a case to bring him back, but the Browns will be on the lookout for help in the kicking game, as well.