Much like he did with the Cleveland Browns offense in 2020, Andrew Berry hit free agency determined to improve his defense.
He started off by making one of the top-ranked deals so far, landing safety John Johnson III at a bargain price.
Cornerback Troy Hill followed Johnson to Cleveland, filling the slot corner hole and adding an outside option.
#Browns general manager Andrew Berry describes the team as "opportunistic buyers" so are in free agency.
He addressed the team's new additions, saying safety John Johnson III as someone who "doesn't usually make it to the free-agent market" and can "really do everything."
— Tom Withers (@twithersAP) March 25, 2021
Berry finally landed Takk McKinley after multiple attempts last season to add him to the edge rusher rotation.
With lots of serviceable veterans still available and a deal on the table for Jadeveon Clowney, Berry probably isn’t done sifting through free agents.
Cleveland owns 9 draft picks this season, too.
But the biggest “additions” won’t make any transaction lists.
Browns Defense Growing From Within
Greedy Williams declared himself healthy and ready to contribute after missing 2020 with a shoulder injury.
Grant Delpit was supposed to be the biggest addition last season, but he’ll make his NFL debut in 2021 instead.
And folks around the league are waiting to see how big a mistake Miami made exposing edge rusher Curtis Weaver to waivers.
The Browns got zero snaps from 2019 2nd-round pick Greedy Williams and 2020 2nd-round pick Grant Delpit due to injury this past season. The duo could be a big boost to the Cleveland secondary in 2021.
— Mike Clay (@MikeClayNFL) February 9, 2021
Cleveland grabbed the 2019 Mountain West Conference Player of the Year after he was waived/injured.
Berry was willing to pay the rookie’s salary to sit on the Browns IR list for a year before throwing him into the mix.
It was a move that falls completely off the radar after Berry’s free-agent signings.
Similar boldness led the Cleveland Browns to an impressive offensive turnaround last season.
But did Berry do enough to believe the Browns finish with a top-5 defense in the NFL in the upcoming campaign?
Buy: Why The Browns Might Have a Top-5 Defense
There are lots of reasons the John Johnson signing ranks among the best so far, and they are not all financial.
Johnson was the leader of the top-ranked NFL defense, even though he wasn’t the biggest star on the Rams.
He will not only provide an upgrade in coverage over Andrew Sendejo, but he will also call the defensive signals.
Troy Hill can play slot or outside corner, allowing some flexibility to Joe Woods’ play calling.
— Scott Patsko (@ScottPatsko) March 22, 2021
Jadeveon Clowney would cement the best edge-rushing rotation in the league for Cleveland.
Myles Garrett will draw attention from his opposite number, assuming Garrett has recovered from his Covid experience.
But the combination of Takk McKinley, Curtis Weaver, and Porter Gustin is what actually puts them over the top.
Keeping the star bookends fresh throughout the game will only serve to make the 4th-quarter defense stronger.
Greedy Williams and Denzel Ward‘s one-on-one coverage skills give the pass rush an extra second to hit the passer.
And the combination of Delpit, Troy Hill, and Johnson can seal off most escape options for the offense.
Sell: Why The Browns Might Not Have a Top-5 Defense
It is hard to argue the Browns are not a better defense with an improved secondary and pass rush.
But despite weakness in the second and third level last year, the pass defense was not the biggest problem.
Cleveland ranked as the 11th best unit against the pass last year, and only 21st in yards-per-rush (24th overall).
Luring Clowney would provide another edge rusher equally adept at stopping the run as rushing the passer.
Browns fans, are ya'll in on adding Jadeveon Clowney alongside Myles Garrett? pic.twitter.com/WhqXaUgP4a
— CBS Sports HQ (@CBSSportsHQ) March 24, 2021
But his signing is far from a sure thing, leaving the Browns with the draft or lesser free-agent options.
Elliot showed promise as a rookie but did not record a sack or a tackle for a loss.
Jackson is far from the powerhouse he was earlier in his career but is motivated to prove he can still do the job.
The Verdict: Browns Defense Probably Falls Short
Andrew Berry undeniably strengthened the Browns’ defense through free agency.
With 9 draft picks and a few intriguing veteran free agents, that trend will likely continue.
But concerns about the run defense aside, another factor will decide if the Browns are a top-5 defense.
That is, the other 31 teams vying for a spot among the elite, including the other teams in the AFC North.
Baltimore and Pittsburgh finished 2nd and 3rd in scoring defense last year.
Berry is having a great free agency picking and choosing without blowing a lot of money or mortgaging down the line. It’s a nice start after a really good offseason last year. And the #Browns aren’t done. At least 1 more good piece (and possibly 2) can/will be added on defense. https://t.co/3WORVwKOvj
— Charles Robinson (@CharlesRobinson) March 18, 2021
They each lost some key players, but neither is expected to fall too far from their 2020 performance as a result.
Cincinnati is feeling good about their free agency haul, too, after finishing one spot behind Cleveland last year.
Likewise, the top-ranked Rams and #5 New Orleans might slip, but not too much, after some free agency losses.
And the rest of last year’s top ten expect to fill any top-5 holes that open up.
The likes of Washington, Miami, New England, and the Giants all added to their stout units.
And Tampa Bay re-signed every single player from its #9-ranked, Super Bowl-winning defense.
Per multiple sources that I trust, #Browns defense has improved today
— Browns Beat Toaster (@BrownsToaster) March 15, 2021
The good news is Cleveland won 11 games with a lesser defense than they have now.
And Kevin Stefanski promises a more explosive offense in 2021.
So, top-5 or not, the defense is improved enough to make realistic Super Bowl predictions for the Browns.