The Cleveland Browns enjoyed their first winning season in more than a decade and first playoff appearance in nearly two. With Cleveland in win-now mode heading into the offseason, it can bolster its biggest area of need: the defense.
Cleveland’s run defense improved after struggling to stop the run in 2019; last season, Cleveland allowed the ninth-fewest yards per game (110.8). In 2019, Cleveland allowed the third-most rushing yards per game (144.7). A myriad of factors went into this drastic jump, including better defensive play on first downs and the development of defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi and linebacker Sione Takitaki. Ogunjobi will become a free agent in March. He’s just one of the 26 total free agents in Cleveland; the others, on defense, include edge rusher Olivier Vernon, cornerback Terrance Mitchell, linebacker B.J. Goodson as well as safeties Andrew Sendejo and Karl Joseph.
Cleveland has more than $20.2 million in available cap space, according to Over the Cap. In an effort to keep up its new-found success, Cleveland would benefit from a stronger defensive line and secondary; its pass defense left a lot to be desired. Whether the team addresses these needs via the 2021 NFL Draft—where it recently landed an EDGE rusher in The Draft Network’s latest mock draft—or free agency, one thing is certain: This offseason will finally be absent of a head coach or quarterback search.
Here are three defensive free agents Cleveland should target this offseason. To add some new names to the conversation, we won’t include J.J. Watt in this article.
Yannick Ngakoue, DE, Baltimore Ravens
There’s some history here, and while the Ravens might not be willing to part with Yannick Ngakoue, if he does become available Cleveland could be a serious contender—again. Before Ngakoue was traded to the Ravens, he played six games with the Minnesota Vikings; before that deal, Cleveland engaged in “serious talks” with the Jacksonville Jaguars, who selected Ngakoue in the third round of the 2016 draft. Cleveland wanted to then pair Ngakoue with its star EDGE rusher Myles Garrett and can have the chance to do it again. Ngakoue is young—he’ll be 26 at the end of March. He’s athletic and versatile. If Ngakoue does become a free agent on March 17, he’ll come with a steep contract. He’s currently projected at $15.5 million a year, per Spotrac.
Carl Lawson, DE, Cincinnati Bengals
There are a few other high-priced pass rushers that are slated to hit the market, including Pittsburgh Steelers’ Bud Dupree, who has an $18.2 million market value. But, if Cleveland wants to strengthen its pass rush with a cap-friendlier option, the Bengals’ Carl Lawson can be disruptive off the edge at an affordable price. He’s currently projected at $8.8 million a year, coming off his rookie contract. Lawson finished 2020 with 5.5 sacks, 36 total tackles, and 32 quarterback hits; he also had his most starts to date (11). Cleveland would just be one of the team’s interested in Lawson, who should be a sought-after defensive end when free agency begins if he’s not franchise tagged. It might cost Cleveland a little more than Lawson’s projected contract, but shoring up the pass rush with more young talent is worth the price.
Troy Hill, CB, Los Angeles Rams
In the pass-happy NFL, teams’ secondaries are becoming bigger and bigger priorities. Unfortunately for Cleveland, its secondary also battled health issues. Cleveland can try and avoid some of these same issues next season. It’ll have to keep money in mind, as always, but there are a number of options that can fit into Cleveland’s available salary cap. Troy Hill not only fits what Cleveland likes in its cornerbacks, but he would come at a relatively low cost. Hill’s next contract is projected at $6.3 million a year. He can give Cleveland flexibility with its coverage—playing on the outside or in the slot—and add much-needed depth; something general manager Andrew Berry has made clear he wants. Hill had his best season to date with the Rams, finishing with three interceptions and returning two for touchdowns. Hill is durable, athletic, and productive.
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