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What the Browns need going into 2021 season: A whole lot of defense

Browns defense
Posted at 4:43 PM, Feb 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-01 13:27:31-05

The Cleveland Browns have a very important offseason in front of them that—for the first time in years—does not involve hunting for their next quarterback or head coach. However, the Browns do have a task ahead of them as they look to fortify some areas that troubled them last season.

The three biggest needs for the Browns are as follows: defense, defense and, yes, defense.

The offense was steady last season, overcoming some significant injuries during the Browns' playoff run. It was the defense that too often fell short.

While it didn’t help to lose safety Grant Delpit for the season during training camp, or to have COVID-19 sideline Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward for portions of the season, the Browns would have been focused on defense this season anyway as they spent last season bolstering the offense.

So what exactly do the Browns need and why do they need it?

Safety

Browns Steelers Football
(AP Photo/Don Wright)

The Browns would be smart to look to add depth at safety. Yes, they have Ronnie Harrison for at least one more season, Sheldrick Redwine and Delpit set to make his debut. But the future of Karl Joseph is uncertain at this point as he approaches free agency, as does Andrew Sendejo.

As fans watched last season, injuries decimated the Browns' secondary, leaving players like Sendejo, who are not NFL starter-caliber, to take the brunt of the work (and the blame).

Depth is always welcome, especially with Joe Woods’ desire to “transition into a dime system,” and after seeing the unpredictable nature of the 2020 season, it’s best for the Browns to hedge their bets by adding talent to the safety room.

Free agent safeties:
Anthony Harris - Vikings
Justin Simmons - Broncos
Marcus Williams - Saints
John Johnson - Rams
Marcus Maye - Jets
Will Parks - Broncos

Draft prospects:
Trevon Moehrig - TCU
Hamsah Nasirildeen - Florida State
Jevon Holland - Oregon
Paris Ford - Pittsburgh
Ar’Darius Washington - TCU

Linebacker

B.J. Goodson
Cleveland Browns middle linebacker B.J. Goodson. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

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 truly 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.

B.J. Goodson became a shining light at the position last season and Malcolm Smith provided veteran production, but both are poised to become free agents this season. The Browns could bring back Goodson and Smith, but they’ll still need to find talent elsewhere if they want to strengthen one of their weaker areas.

Free agent linebackers:
Avery Williamson - Steelers
Jayon Brown - Titans
Matt Milano - Bills
K.J. Wright - Seahawks
Jarrad Davis - Lions

Draft prospects:
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah - Notre Dame
Zaven Collins - Tulsa
Azeez Ojulari - Georgia
Nick Bolton - Missouri
Chazz Surratt - UNC

Cornerback

Kevin Johnson
Cleveland Browns cornerback Kevin Johnson. (AP Photo/Kirk Irwin)

In January, Browns general manager Andrew Berry addressed the cornerback position and made it clear the team could be looking to add more talent and depth.

“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.

Ward showed his playmaking ability and his raw talent last season, and Greedy Williams will be itching to return after missing the entire 2020 season rehabbing a shoulder injury.

While Williams' production this season is extremely uncertain, the Browns also have to worry about the slot with Kevin Johnson and Terrence Mitchell approaching free agency this season.

The Browns will definitely be making moves at the cornerback position this offseason.

Free agent cornerbacks:
Desmond King - Titans
William Jackson III - Bengals
Richard Sherman - 49ers
Mike Hilton - Steelers
Patrick Peterson- Cardinals

Draft prospects:
Jaycee Horn- South Carolina
Elijah Molden- Washington
Greg Newsome- Northwestern
Eric Stokes - Georgia
Shaun Wade - Ohio State

EDGE

Olivier Vernon
Cleveland Browns defensive end Olivier Vernon. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Despite contracting COVID-19 last season, Garrett was still a force to be reckoned with on the Browns defensive line. Olivier Vernon stepped up in a big way before heartbreakingly rupturing his Achilles in the final week of the regular season and now faces free agency.

Adrian Clayborn and Porter Gustin provide substantial rotational talent, but having more key pieces to complement Garrett would bolster the team’s pass rush and provide invaluable depth.

There has already been plenty of free agent talk about the position, especially with a player who recently parted ways with the Texans. You know the guy. The Browns have plenty of options—spending more for bigger, proven talent, cutting a smart deal for a decent talent and, of course, looking to the draft for players to develop—so it will be interesting to see how they approach this position.

Free agent edge rushers:
J.J. Watt - Texans *(Signed with Cardinals March 1)
Von Miller- Broncos
Yannick Ngakoue - Ravens
Carl Lawson - Bengals
Trey Hendrickson - Saints
Bud Dupree - Steelers

Draft prospects:
Gregroy Rousseau - Miami
Rashad Weaver - Pittsburgh
Joseph Ossai - Texas
Jaelan Phillips - Miami
Carlos Basham - Wake Forest
Kwity Paye - Michigan
Patrick Jones - Pittsburgh

The Browns will likely make offensive moves as well this offseason, yes, but their sole focus has got to be on defense if they want to not only replicate the success they found last season, but to best it and get even closer to bringing the Lombardi trophy to Cleveland for the very first time.

Cleveland holds the No. 26 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, which is set to be held in Cleveland from April 29 through May 1 and airs on News 5.

Here are the Browns’ picks:

First round: No. 26
Second round: No. 59
Third round: No. 90, No. 92 (Saints pick)
Fourth round: No. 101 (Eagles pick), No. 123
Fifth round: No. 153 (Rams pick)
Sixth round: No. 187
Seventh round: No. 222 (Bills pick)

RELATED: After stunning season, Browns HC Kevin Stefanski wins 2020 AP NFL Coach of the Year Award

Camryn Justice is a digital content producer at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.

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BROWNS 2020 SCHEDULE

Preseason

WEEK 1 · Aug. 13-17 · At Chicago Bears - CANCELED

WEEK 2 · Aug. 20-24 · At Green Bay Packers - CANCELED

WEEK 3 · Aug. 30 · Minnesota Vikings - CANCELED

WEEK 4 · Sep. 3-4 · Tampa Bay Buccaneers - CANCELED

Regular Season

WEEK 1 · L · Sun 9/13 · Baltimore Ravens - 38, Browns - 6

WEEK 2 · W · Thu 9/17 · Browns 35, Cincinnati Bengals - 30

WEEK 3 · W · Sun 9/27 · Browns - 34, Washington Football Team - 20

WEEK 4 · W · Sun 10/4 · Dallas Cowboys - 38, Browns - 49

WEEK 5 · W · Sun 10/11 · Browns - 32, Indianapolis Colts - 23

WEEK 6 · L · Sun 10/18 · Pittsburgh Steelers - 38, Browns - 7

WEEK 7 · W · Sun 10/25 · Cincinnati Bengals - 34, Browns - 37

WEEK 8 · L · Sun 11/1 · Browns - 6, Las Vegas Raiders - 16

WEEK 9 · BYE

WEEK 10 · W · Sun 11/15 · Browns - 10, Houston Texans - 7

WEEK 11 · W · Sun 11/22 · Browns - 22, Philadelphia Eagles - 17

WEEK 12 · W · Sun 11/29 · Jacksonville Jaguars - 25, Browns - 27

WEEK 13 · W · Sun 12/6 · Tennessee Titans - 35, Browns - 41

WEEK 14 · L · Mon 12/14 · Browns - 42, Baltimore Ravens - 47

WEEK 15 · W · Sun 12/20 · Browns - 20, New York Giants 6

WEEK 16 · L · Sun 12/27 · Browns - 16, New York Jets 23

WEEK 17 · W · Sun 1/3 · Browns 24, Pittsburgh Steelers 22

Post-season

NFL Wild Card Round - W · Sun 1/10, Browns 48, Steelers 37

NFL Divisional Round · L · Sun, 1/17, Browns 17, Chiefs 22