BEREA, Ohio — Even after pulling off one of the NFL’s biggest trades last offseason, the Cleveland Browns stumbled to another losing season.
Cleveland landed quarterback Deshaun Watson in a deal with the Houston Texans. After sending the Texans a haul of draft picks – including three first-rounders – the Browns beat out the Saints, Falcons and Panthers for Watson by giving him a new five-year worth a league-record $230 million guaranteed.
Watson, however, was suspended 11 games for violating the league’s personal conduct policy by committing sexual assault, as defined by the NFL, on massage therapists.
Despite the steady play of backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett, the Browns went 4-7 without Watson. And when Watson returned, Cleveland went just 3-3, as Watson struggled after such a long layoff, ranking 26th in QBR (38.3) over the final six games.
Now, with a bloated payroll, and several key players in their primes, the pressure is building on Cleveland to make the playoffs in 2023. The Browns first must address a couple of glaring holes on the roster in free agency, which starts this week.
Here’s what to watch for from Cleveland as the NFL offseason cranks up:
All eyes on DT
Defensive tackle is the position to watch. The Browns had an awful run defense last season, ultimately leading Cleveland to fire defensive coordinator Joe Woods after three years. Cleveland’s run defense EPA was 11th worst (-23.11) of any defense over the last decade. Among other issues, the Browns’ young defensive tackles couldn’t hold up against the run, which is why Cleveland will be on the hunt for a difference-maker up front in free agency for new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, whose schemes in Philadelphia were predicated on disruptive defensive linemen.
Look for the Browns to canvass Schwartz’s old team for help, beginning with Javon Hargrave, arguably the top defensive tackle on the market, who, according to team sources, is at the top of Cleveland’s free agent wish list.
Hargrave, 30, had a career-best 11 sacks for the Eagles last year, with a pass rush win rate of 17.2%, which ranked third in the league among interior defensive linemen (Cleveland defensive tackle starters Jordan Elliott and Taven Bryan had pass rush win rates of 8.3% and 7.2%, respectively).
Hargrave, who starred for one of the league’s top run defenses in Philly, would obviously help the Browns plug those holes against the run, too.
Hargrave won’t come cheaply, and Cleveland figures to have plenty of competition to land him. If the Browns strike out on Hargrave, they could kick the tires on his Philly teammate, Fletcher Cox, who thrived while playing under Schwartz. While the six-time Pro Bowler is 32, Cox remains productive (although he did rank in the 40s along with Elliott and Bryan with a run stop win rate of 31%).
Cleveland native and former Ohio State standout Dre’Mont Jones of the Denver Broncos and Dalvin Tomlinson of the Minnesota Vikings — two of the other top free agent defensive tackles available — make plenty of sense for the Browns, as well.
If Cleveland fails to find its man in free agency, it could still explore trade opportunities. DeForest Buckner of the Indianapolis Colts would be a notable name to watch. Buckner ranked 14th among defensive tackles last year with a run stop win rate of 37.3%.
Whatever the Browns do, they must land a playmaking defensive tackle to pair with All-Pro pass rusher Myles Garrett.
What else on defense?
The Browns have work to do elsewhere defensively in free agency. Among those needs are defensive end, inside linebacker and — in the wake of moving on from two-year starter John Johnson III — safety.
Cleveland could address inside linebacker internally. Last year, the Browns sorely missed the experience, leadership and tackling of Anthony Walker, who suffered a season-ending quadriceps tear in Week 3. Bringing back Walker would help fill the massive hole the Browns had at inside linebacker after his injury. Re-signing Sione Takitaki would help, as well. Takitaki briefly shined after getting an opportunity to start at inside linebacker in the middle of the year before he himself suffered a season-ending right ACL tear (Takitaki, however, might not be ready for the start of training camp as he rehabilitates).
If the Browns look externally for linebacker help, Philadelphia, again, would be the place to start. T.J. Edwards is one of the top free agent inside linebackers, and played under Schwartz in Philadelphia, as well. Edwards had 99 solo tackles in 2022 — seventh most in the league — and showed last season he can hold his own in coverage.
Cleveland’s limited salary cap space would be an obstacle to sign a linebacker the caliber of Edwards. The same goes for Cleveland’s options at defensive end and safety, should the Browns prioritize defensive tackle, as expected.
Free agent defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is on his way out of town after a disappointing second season with Cleveland. Clowney was suspended for the season-finale after accusing the organization of favoring Garrett over him.
ESPN Eagles reporter Tim McManus reported that Cleveland had shown interest in Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham. But that was before the 34-year-old Graham re-signed with Philadelphia last week on a one-year deal worth up to $6 million. Graham is the type of pass rusher the Browns would love to add, which would give young ends Alex Wright and Isaiah Thomas more time to develop.
After defensive tackle, getting a veteran starter for a reasonable price at both defensive end and safety will be paramount for the Browns in free agency.
Jumping at Jeudy?
But if the Browns have a second big swing after defensive tackle, it could be at wide receiver. The Browns boast a competent pass-catching duo in Amari Cooper and Donovan Peoples-Jones. But a speedy deep threat would help maximize Watson’s skill set.
The Browns had hoped that former third-round pick Anthony Schwartz would develop into that receiver. But Schwartz struggled with his hands last year and eventually fell out of the rotation.
Given how lackluster this free agent receiving class is, the Browns could pursue a big-name pass-catcher via trade instead, like the move they made last year in acquiring Cooper from the Dallas Cowboys.
The Denver Broncos are one team to watch. Denver still hasn’t indicated whether it will pick up the fifth-year option on former first-round pick Jerry Jeudy. And ESPN’s Dianna Russini reported that Denver is taking calls on both Jeudy and Courtland Sutton. Either player would bolster Cleveland’s receiving corps and address the Browns’ only real glaring offensive weakness.
If Cleveland doesn’t trade for a receiver, the Browns could target one with their first pick in the draft (No. 42 overall). A rookie receiver would have a much better chance of delivering an immediate impact than a rookie defensive lineman.
Veteran backup at QB
With Brissett hoping to land a starting quarterback job, the Browns quietly have a need at backup quarterback, as well. The Browns do have former third-round pick Kellen Mond on roster after claiming him off waivers last year. But team sources say that Cleveland is aiming to address backup quarterback behind Watson with a relatively inexpensive veteran.