CLEVELAND — For the first time in a long time, the Cleveland Browns are not scrambling to find a quarterback or head coach in the offseason. In fact, the Browns have their core intact and have the ability to focus on adding talent in order to, in their words, “evolve” their schemes in the 2021 season, and how they do so will involve choices they have to make about contract extensions and free agency.
So how is general manager Andrew Berry approaching these decisions?
Let’s take a look at each position the general manager addressed at his latest press conference on Wednesday (and some that he discussed in January).
It’s no question that Baker Mayfield proved himself to both the team and most fans that he’s the franchise quarterback the Browns for which the Browns have long searched.
Clearly there won’t be any changes to the quarterback position (wow, does that feel good to write) but there are decisions to be made surrounding Mayfield’s future with the Browns
Mayfield is headed into his fourth year in the league, and his fifth-year contract option is on the table, but Berry isn’t going to speak publicly on that matter, he said.
“We have been pretty consistent with our messaging around Baker that we think he had a really strong season for us,” Berry said. “We like the maturation and the growth, both on and off the field, and we are looking forward to him continuing to take strides in his second year in the offense.”
Although he wouldn't talk about the contract, it does bode well for Mayfield that Berry went on to praise his production last season, noting the adversity the young quarterback has had to overcome over the years.
“Look, Baker is the first quarterback in – you guys probably know the years more than I do – who has led this organization, led this team to the playoffs and a playoff victory. He has endured an enormous amount of adversity in his young career, just quite honestly, with the changes he has gone through with coaching staffs, front offices and offensive systems, and he has risen above it all,” Berry said. “I think we all saw him grow from week to week to week last year, and we expect him to continue that progress and have a fantastic 2021 season for us.”
The Browns have until May 3 to decide if they want to pick up Mayfield’s fifth-year option.
But Berry did make it clear that the position is the most important of them all.
“The quarterback position is in my mind the most important position in professional sports. Until you have a baseline of any level of quarterback play, it is really difficult to win and make progress in the NFL,” Berry said. “Oftentimes if that position is not productive or it is not solidified, it can feel a lot like operating in neutral. That is something that is certainly not lost on us and it is definitely not lost on us as an organization.”
Head coach Kevin Stefanski is well known for his use of multiple tight ends, so the position is one of great significance for the Browns.
Last season, the Browns signed Austin Hooper in free agency, adding depth to a roster that includes David Njoku, Harrison Bryant and Stephen Carlson.
On Friday, the team tendered Carlson, who was an exclusive rights free agent—but questions around Njoku still linger.
Reports of Njoku’s desire to be traded from the team last season have found new life with a message from the tight end on Twitter last week.
“Whatever happens I appreciate all the love from all my loyal fans. I’ve kept quiet for a while but I wanted to express that at least for now. I love u guys,” Njoku wrote.
Whatever happens I appreciate all the love from all my loyal fans. I’ve kept quiet for a while but I wanted to express that at least for now. I love u guys https://t.co/1ZjGfSMGzY— Chief David Njoku (@David_Njoku80) February 27, 2021
When asked about free agent Kyle Rudolph, who was recently released by the Minnesota Vikings, Berry said that while they are always looking to explore their options at every position, Njoku is a young productive player who they appreciate.
“We are really pleased with our tight ends room. I think that group did a nice job for us this past year, and it is obviously a focal point in Kevin’s offense,” Berry said. “I thought David played really well for us last year. He did a nice job with his teammates. He did a nice job with his role within the offense. We think he is a very young, productive player.”
Last season, the Browns lost wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. for the season after he tore his ACL in the Week 7 match-up against the Cincinnati Bengals. In a true testament to the “next man up” mentality the team rallied around, Rashard Higgins, KhaDarel Hodge and Donovan Peoples-Jones stepped up to fill the void next to Jarvis Landry.
While Peoples-Jones returns for his second year in the league, there are some decisions to be made about many of the other wideouts.
There are three certainties in life—death, taxes, and Odell Beckham Jr. trade rumors.
But despite the rumors, the Browns continue to express their commitment to him returning this season, which according to the team, he’s “right on track” to do.
“I think he is a dynamic player who can be incredibly productive in this system, so we are looking forward to getting him back healthy,” Berry said.
Also circulating the internet this offseason are notions that the Browns should move on from Landry, but Berry has spoken openly about how much Landry means to the team, seeming to put those notions to rest.
“He played really well for us last year. He is one of our team leaders,” Berry said on Wednesday. “We like Jarvis a lot.”
In January, Berry sung the praises of Landry and the production he’s brought to the Browns in his time in Cleveland.
“Jarvis is just a fierce competitor. He is obviously very skilled. He is versatile. Has outstanding hands. He turns into a running back with the ball in his hands after he catches it, but he is also just an outstanding competitor,” Berry said. “That mentality really permeates throughout the offense. Obviously, Jarvis is a big part of our success this season, and we are very, very pleased with his impact across the team.”
As for Higgins, well, the team has some negotiating to do.
“Hollywood” is set to hit the free agent market, and although both sides would love to make a re-signing happen, that might not be in the cards financially.
“Suffice it to say, we would like to have Rashard back. He obviously played a key role for us this past year, and we have a really positive history with him. Look, free agency can be difficult, and, obviously, he has earned the right to make the decision that is most appropriate for him,” Berry said. “We will maintain consistently good communication with him and his reps. We will see where it goes.”
Hodge is also set to enter the free agent market, so the team will have to make a decision on him as well by March 17.
As for adding talent to the roster at the receiver position, the Browns may look to add a speedy wideout, be it in free agency or the draft, to provide depth and bolster the offense that finds its most success utilizing quick receivers to complement Stefanski’s signature use of his tight ends. And speed is something Berry will never say no to.
“I will always take more speed up and down the roster, whether it is defense, offense or special teams. This system is certainly predicated on speed,” Berry said in January.
Stefanski had a similar answer on Tuesday.
“Speed is an obvious thing in the wide receivers room. That is always the No. 1 trait you are looking for, but ultimately, it has to be the right fit for us,” Stefanski said.
We know that Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are the perfect duo and have created one of the most dangerous backfields in the NFL.
Hunt is locked into his contract with the Browns for the next two seasons, but Chubb is set to enter free agency after this season.
The Browns, like their fans, know how important Chubb is to the offense and that he is a special player. Typically teams don’t want to overpay running backs because their production can drastically fluctuate and their longevity is not as high as other positions.
But Chubb is far from typical and is the kind of running back that any team would be crazy not to consider extending.
“I think you all know the affinity that we have for him both as a player and as a person. He has modeled that over the first three years of his career here. I think that is something that we certainly see every day and that you all can see externally,” Berry said of Chubb on Wednesday. “We have a lot of major decisions that we are going to make, and the first of those come with guys who have expiring contracts within the next two and a half weeks. We do have a number of players who are extension eligible, of which Nick is one.”
Berry said that they will work through those extension decisions over the course of the offseason, and Chubb’s contract is definitely on the radar.
“Certainly, we like Nick – the player and the person. All of those big decisions are things that we have to figure out the overall big picture as we navigate the next several months,” Berry said.
This is perhaps the one area of the team with little to no questions surrounding it.
With JC Tretter, Jack Conklin, Jedrick Wills, Wyatt Teller and Joel Bitonio all rearing to go, the sturdy and reliable offensive line returns intact for another season, which bodes well for another season full of production from the group as they continue to grow and gel together.
The good news for the Browns is that Chris Hubbard, who became a versatile plug-and-play guy for the Browns as they dealt with injuries throughout the season, is “progressing nicely” through his knee injury that required surgery last season.
In January, Berry talked about the five o-line starters and he answered with a lot of excitement, because there's a lot to be excited about.
“I think you know I love my big guys, so I am very excited about this group and excited about the work they did. I think that is a position group where continuity is of paramount importance. That group did a fantastic job and look forward to continuing to see them grow,” Berry said.
Last season was a rough one for the Browns' linebacking corps. Pro Football Focus ranked the Browns’ linebackers second-to-last heading into last season, and they didn’t do much to prove that prediction wrong.
Mack Wilson, coming off a knee injury, had a disappointing season, posting a 41.9 overall PFF grade. Jacob Phillips missed a good part of the season with a knee injury. While Sione Takitaki showed promise last season, his numbers aren’t quite at the starter level yet.
The two most productive members of the Browns linebacking corps, B.J. Goodson and Malcolm Smith both are set to become free agents.
So now the Browns have to make some decisions.
Will they bring back Goodson and Smith? Will they add talent in free agency? Are they going to draft a linebacker in April?
Those questions will be answered soon enough, but Berry said that there are good players on the Browns' radar at the position in both free agency and the draft.
“There are good players that are going to be available. On the street, there are going to be players who are available and unrestricted free agency and there are going to be good players who are available in the draft,” he said.
In January, Berry made it clear that the cornerback position would be one of great significance to the team heading into the offseason and the 2021 season.
“In terms of the position, you can never have enough corners. You really can’t, especially in this defense. That is always an area that we will want to be deep going into the year. They are hard to find, but it is obviously an area that we want to continue to be deep,” Berry said.
Denzel Ward has proven himself to be an elite playmaker, and Berry addressed the potential of extending him back in January.
“I would like to keep as many of our good players as long as possible. That is probably the easiest way to say it. Those guys are highly skilled at what they do, and they are great people,” Berry said.
With Kevin Johnson, Tavierre Thomas and Terrence Mitchell all set to hit free agency, depth is something the team will need to make decisions about.
NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reported that the Browns do not plan to tender Thomas, and as for Mitchell, that decision is still up in the air.
“We would like to bring all of our guys back if we could. Again, all of these guys who are going to hit the market or are going to be free agents, it is something that is going to have to go through both sides,” Berry said. ”Terrance was a big part of what we did this past year. Again, we are going to stay in communication with him and his reps as we typically do. I will not go into the details of those discussions, but he was obviously a very productive player for us this past year.”
The Browns do have some additions to look forward to already, however, as Greedy Williams is ready to return to the field this season after missing the entire 2020 season with a shoulder injury.
Last season, the Browns lost promising rookie Grant Delpit during training camp after he tore his Achilles. Delpit was expected to be a major part of the Browns secondary, but in his place, Ronnie Harrison Jr. had a solid season with the Browns.
However, the future of three safeties on the Browns are rather uncertain.
Karl Joseph and Andrew Sendejo are approaching free agency, and Sheldrick Redwine’s position is not secure at this point.
As fans watched last season, injuries decimated the Browns' secondary, leaving players like Sendejo, who are not starter-caliber, to take the brunt of the work (and the blame).
There will likely be several new faces in the safety room by the start of the upcoming season not only to add depth but to add talent as the future of Joe Woods’ defense aims to transition into a dime system—but for now, the Browns aren’t talking much about those moves.
But the good news is that the team does see the progress Delpit is making to get on the field.
“I can specifically speak to Grant. I saw him in there today. He looks great. He is coming along,” Stefanski said on Tuesday. “I think with every position, you look at who is coming back, who is coming off of an injury and how they are rehabbing so that factors into all of it.”
Many Browns fans were hoping that free agent J.J. Watt would come to Cleveland to play opposite of Myles Garrett, but despite the rumors and the hopes, Watt chose to sign with the Arizona Cardinals for reasons unbeknownst to almost everyone.
Still, not signing Watt was not the only chance for the Browns to add talent to the line, which is set to have a void from Olivier Vernon, who is recovering from surgery for a ruptured Achilles and is set to enter free agency.
From Von Miller to Carl Lawson to Bud Dupree, there are a number of players across the league entering free agency the Browns could target—but Berry said on Wednesday that defensive end is not any more of a priority than any other position this offseason.
“Important. I do not know that I would necessarily single that position out among others across the defense,” Berry said. “I think that it is great to have two bookends along the defensive line – very few teams do. I think there are a number of different configurations that can make us successful on the defensive line. We will look to add talent at that spot, no different than we would all across the defense and up and down the roster, but I would not necessarily get zeroed in there.”
Berry knows that the offseason will provide plenty of options to make roster moves at the position—if they aim to do so.
“Obviously, OV was very productive for us this year, and we are going to have to make sure that we are able to maintain a level of effectiveness along our front,” Berry said. “We will have time on all of that and we will have plenty of opportunities across the defense to make sure that we continue to be effective on that side of the ball.”
The Browns want to be aggressive this offseason, as Berry pointed out on Wednesday. But aggressiveness can be perceived in many ways, so fans looking for the Browns so back up the Brinks trucks for every free agent might not get their wish.
“From my perspective, we always want to be known as an aggressive front office. Now, perhaps how people define aggression may vary from person to person to person. That does not always mean that we are going to be heavy spenders externally,” Berry said.
Penny-pinching isn’t a major concern for Berry, but lower salary caps could impact the moves this offseason.
“If you look league-wide at the available cap dollars, it is like 40% of what it has been in the past,” Berry said. “That means everybody across the league is going to feel that squeeze. We are not excluded from feeling that effect. Now that all being said, I do think that we are in a healthy position where we can adapt, adjust and continue to improve the team and retain more talent, but to suggest that is going to have zero impact on us when it is going to impact really every team in the NFL, I think that that would be disingenuous.”
Still, the Browns see themselves as set up in a way that’s very beneficial to how they approach these positions (and others not addressed by Berry, Stefanski or this article).
“I think we have enough flexibility to adjust and maneuver as is appropriate. If there is a player who we think has the right value, I think we have the capability to be aggressive in pursuit,” Berry said. “I also think we are fortunately in a position this offseason with what we have on the current roster and the overall resources, not just in terms of cap dollars and picks, where we can be very selective and also allow things to come to us.”
As free agency approaches and the 2021 NFL Draft draws near, Berry and the Browns will get to work to try and push Cleveland closer to its first Super Bowl, and a hopeful mentality heading into the next several months is a good place to start.
“I do think that we have some core areas that are a little bit more solidified than they were last year. On the flipside, there are areas on the team where we do have players who are no longer under contract or that we do have to make decisions on. It is a little bit of a balancing act, but I do think we all feel optimistic about the foundation that we have in place going into this offseason,” Berry said.
Camryn Justice is a digital content producer at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.