Andrew Berry is a brilliant person, and the Browns need to him to be equally impressive as a general manager this offseason.
No GM aces every move, yet Berry has adequately checked many boxes in his first two years in charge of the Browns’ roster.
Coming off a season defined by disappointment, the decisions Berry makes alongside coach Kevin Stefanski and Chief Strategy Officer Paul DePodesta in the next few months will determine to a large extent whether the Browns live up to their potential as a playoff team in this regime’s third year or again fail to qualify for the postseason.
The 2021 offseason was primarily about revamping the defense, and Berry orchestrated an aggressive overhaul highlighted by signing defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and safety John Johnson III and drafting cornerback Greg Newsome II and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in the first two rounds.
Now the mission is reviving a passing game that fell apart and became the No. 1 culprit in the Browns stumbling to a record of 8-9 in 2021 after they had gone 12-6, including 1-1 in the playoffs, with Stefanski serving as a first-year head coach in 2020.
Mayfield, of course, desperately needs to rebound because he struggled mightily while playing through a completely torn labrum in his left, non-throwing shoulder for virtually the entire 2021 season and underwent surgery Wednesday. The team expects him to begin throwing in April and to make a full recovery by the time training camp starts in late July.
This past April, Berry exercised the fifth-year option on Mayfield’s rookie deal, so the top overall pick from the 2018 draft is under contract through next season for $18.858 million guaranteed.
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Although the Browns could deviate from the QB plan Berry publicly stated, trading for Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers, Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks or Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans is far-fetched, and even dealing for a starter in a second tier formed by Jimmy Garoppolo of the San Francisco 49ers, Derek Carr of the Las Vegas Raiders or Kirk Cousins of the Minnesota Vikings doesn’t appear to be highly likely.
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Keeping Mayfield and acquiring someone to push him seems to be the most realistic option. Impending free agents who could fit this scenario are Teddy Bridgewater of the Denver Broncos, Mitchell Trubisky of the Buffalo Bills, Marcus Mariota of the Raiders and Jameis Winston of the New Orleans Saints.
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A draft pick is another potential route, though the class headlined by Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett, Mississippi’s Matt Corral and North Carolina’s Sam Howell is not considered a strong one.
Dane Brugler, draft analyst for The Athletic, projects those three quarterbacks to become first-round picks and three others to go in the second round: Desmond Ridder (Cincinnati), Malik Willis (Liberty) and Carson Strong (Nevada).
The Browns are slated to select 13th and 44th overall in the first two rounds.
Finalizing how to proceed at the game’s most vital position is undoubtedly Berry’s top priority, but there are plenty of other items on the to-do list.
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The legal negotiating window for free agency opens at noon March 14, with the signing period starting at 4 p.m. March 16. The draft will run April 28-30.
Until those key dates pass, expect plenty of speculation about the Browns signing a veteran wide receiver in free agency and drafting another player at the position, with a lot of buzz centered on the first round.
The reason is simple: When Odell Beckham Jr. divorced the Browns in early November, the franchise was left without a No. 1 receiver.
Five-time Pro Bowl receiver Jarvis Landry dealt with a sprained medial collateral ligament and other issues with his left knee throughout the season. His future with the team is in doubt because he would have a cap hit of $16.5 million in 2022, the final season of his contract, but a dead cap hit of just $1.5 million if he were released.
Rashard Higgins is an impending unrestricted free agent, so the only virtual locks to be back in the receiving corps are 2020 sixth-round pick Donovan Peoples-Jones and 2021 third-round choice Anthony Schwartz.
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If the Browns aren’t planning to keep Landry — a restructured contract would probably be necessary for his return — the need for a veteran receiver would become urgent.
Even with Landry on the books, the Browns should be in good shape from a salary-cap standpoint. Spotrac.com and OverTheCap.com project them to have about $28 million in room, which would put them in the top half of the league for most space.
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All-Pro Davante Adams (Packers) is the most coveted impending free agent in the NFL, but he’s a prime candidate to receive a franchise tag if a long-term extension isn’t reached. The deadline for teams to tag players is 4 p.m. March 8.
ProFootballFocus.com ranks Adams and fellow receivers Chris Godwin (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), Mike Williams (Los Angeles Chargers) and Allen Robinson II (Chicago Bears) in the top 10 of the entire free-agent class, regardless of position.
Michael Gallup (Dallas Cowboys) would have made sense as a target, but he suffered a torn ACL on Jan. 2. Cedrick Wilson (Cowboys), Christian Kirk (Arizona Cardinals), Marquez Valdes-Scantling (Packers), Jamison Crowder (New York Jets) and Braxton Berrios (Jets) are other options in free agency.
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Although Alabama’s Jameson Williams suffering a torn ACL in the national championship game Jan. 10 put a dent in the hype surrounding this year’s receiver draft class, it’s still widely considered a stellar group.
Brugler projects six receivers to become first-round picks: Williams, Garrett Wilson (Ohio State), Treylon Burks (Arkansas), Drake London (Southern California), Chris Olave (Ohio State) and Jahan Dotson (Penn State). In Brugler’s latest mock draft, he has Burks going to the Browns at No. 13.
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Jordan Elliott and Tommy Togiai are on the roster, but neither is proven in a full-time starting role, so help will definitely be on the way.
Folorunso Fatukasi (Jets), B.J. Hill (Cincinnati Bengals), D.J. Jones (49ers), Sebastian Joseph-Day (Los Angeles Rams) and Maliek Collins (Texans) are all in the age range of 25-27 and ranked among PFF’s top-100 impending free agents.
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It’s difficult to envision Berry using a first-round pick on an interior defensive lineman, but he enjoyed joking last year about defying one of his perceived analytics-driven rules by trading up to draft a linebacker (Owusu-Koramoah) in the second round.
To that end, Brugler has DeMarvin Leal (Texas A&M) and Jordan Davis (Georgia) projected as first-round picks and fellow D-tackle Phidarian Mathis (Alabama) as a second-round selection.
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The Browns won’t need new starting offensive tackles if Conklin can bounce back from the ruptured patellar tendon the two-time All-Pro right tackle suffered in his right knee on Nov. 28. But given the severity of the injury, insuring the position would be advisable.
Conklin being able to play when next season starts is a possibility, but it hinges on how his rehabilitation goes.
The 10th overall pick two years ago, Wills had a rough 2021 at left tackle partly because of the ankle injuries he experienced in the first quarter of the season. Next season will be crucial for Wills because a year from now, the Browns will need to decide whether to exercise the fifth-year option on his rookie contract.
Conklin missed 10 games and Wills sat out four games due to injuries in the 2021 season. Those setbacks combined with swing tackle Chris Hubbard missing every game but the opener with a triceps injury, which required surgery, forced Blake Hance and rookie James Hudson III to log significant snaps. They also underscored the need for better depth on the edges of the offensive line, especially if impending free-agent Hubbard isn’t re-signed.
Cornelius Lucas (Washington Football Team) is a swing tackle and soon-to-be free agent who has finished in the 20s in PFF’s grading for three consecutive seasons.
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Defensive end and tight end would ascend on the list of priorities if the Browns don’t re-sign a key impending free agent at each position.
The Browns want both players back.
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Linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. and safety/nickelback M.J. Stewart Jr. aren’t headliners like Clowney and Njoku are, but Walker and Stewart are players with expiring contracts who have shown they fit well with what defensive coordinator Joe Woods wants to do.
Based on the 2020 season, no one could have guessed Stewart would outshine safety Ronnie Harrison Jr. so thoroughly last year, but it happened. Harrison is another impending unrestricted free agent. He would be behind Johnson and Grant Delpit on the depth chart if he were to come back.
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The Browns have two potential restricted free agents of note — running back D’Ernest Johnson and kicker Chase McLaughlin. Tendering Johnson with the intent to bring him back is a no-brainer, but an upgrade over McLaughlin would be wise for a special teams unit ranking 30th in 2021 among the league’s 32 clubs, according to the annual list compiled by longtime NFL writer Rick Gosselin.
Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer needs to figure out punter, too. Dustin Colquitt is headed for free agency.
As for exclusive rights free agents, the Browns are not expected to re-sign McDowell due to his legal troubles, but Hance and guard Michael Dunn should stick around because offensive line depth is so valuable.
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A contract extension isn’t in the cards for Mayfield this offseason, but it ought to be for two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Denzel Ward, the fourth overall pick in 2018 from Ohio State and Nordonia High School.
Like Mayfield, Ward is under contract through the 2022 season by virtue of Berry exercising the fifth-year option on the player’s rookie deal. In Ward’s case, it amounts to $13.294 million guaranteed.
Unlike Mayfield, Ward earned a long-term commitment from the Browns with his on-field performance last year.
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Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Browns 2022 offseason focus on passing game, lines, key free agents