Thoughts on Browns free agency and beyond: Nate Ulrich's Takeaways

Nate Ulrich
Akron Beacon Journal
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Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree (48) is a free-agent edge rusher that could possibly fill a need with the Browns. [Philip G. Pavely/USA TODAY Sports]

The free-agency negotiating period for the Browns and the NFL's other 31 teams opens at noon Monday, when players with expiring contracts can begin agreeing to deals with other clubs.

This offseason edition of takeaways includes thoughts about the Browns in free agency and beyond.

A starting defensive end is on the way

The theme of the offseason will be upgrading all three levels of the defense. The most prominent of those needs is a starting defensive end, and the market is flooded with them this year. Shortly after the negotiating period started on a Monday in 2020, General Manager Andrew Berry reached agreements with right tackle Jack Conklin and tight end Austin Hooper.

This year, by far the likeliest splash Berry would make out of the gate is at defensive end. The new starter opposite All-Pro Myles Garrett would be able to sign beginning at 4 p.m. Wednesday, when free agency officially begins. Armed with about $25 million in salary-cap space, the Browns will be aggressive in their pursuit of Garrett's partner. They telegraphed their approach by having discussions with J.J. Watt's camp last month before he chose the Arizona Cardinals and by releasing end Adrian Clayborn last week.

More:Browns offseason priorities: Defensive line. Focus is on getting Myles Garrett some help

Cincinnati Bengals free-agent defensive end Carl Lawson is one of many defensive ends on the market who could draw interest from the Browns. [USA TODAY Network]

AFC North offers attractive options

Last year, Berry got a defensive lineman to leave another AFC North franchise and sign with the Browns. It was former Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Andrew Billings. Billings opted out of the 2020 season because of COVID-19 concerns, but he's projected to enter the upcoming season as a starter. Now four big-name edge rushers give Berry a chance to create a similarly appealing defection within the division. They are the Pittsburgh Steelers' Bud Dupree, the Bengals' Carl Lawson and the Baltimore Ravens' Yannick Ngakoue and Matthew Judon.

More:Browns' Andrew Billings awaiting COVID vaccine on comeback trail after opting out of 2020 season

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree celebrates a sack of Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield last season. Weakening a division rival while filling a hole on the defense could make Dupree especially attractive to the Browns. [Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press]

Speed kills and Bud kills the division

Garrett will embrace whoever becomes the replacement of Olivier Vernon, who had nine sacks in 2020 before suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon in the Jan. 3 regular-season finale. But there's also no doubt Garrett has a ton of respect for Dupree's game as a speedy pass rusher. Of the aforementioned impending free-agent edge defenders, Dupree has done the most damage in the division — 18 of his career 39½ sacks have been against AFC North foes. He has played outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, and he's coming off a torn ACL, so there would be risk, but also presumably a discount. Trey Hendrickson (New Orleans Saints), Romeo Okwara (Detroit Lions), Jadeveon Clowney (Tennessee Titans) and Haason Reddick (Arizona Cardinals) are among the other possibilities on the edge.

San Francisco 49ers safety Jaquiski Tartt could be a target for Browns General Manager Andrew Berry when the NFL free-agency period begins this week. [USA TODAY Network]

More change on horizon in back seven

More:Browns offseason priorities: Safeties. A healthy Grant Delpit would be big lift, but insurance needed

The Browns' free-agency haul should also include a free safety, a linebacker and at least one cornerback, where nickelback figures to be a priority. Bottom line: The defense needs to get faster. Safeties worth monitoring include Anthony Harris (Minnesota Vikings), John Johnson III (Los Angeles Rams), Jaquiski Tartt (San Francisco 49ers), Malik Hooker (Indianapolis Colts) and Duron Harmon (Lions). I'll believe Berry will spend big money on a linebacker when I see it. Kevin Pierre-Louis (Washington), Eric Wilson (Vikings) and Nicholas Morrow (Las Vegas Raiders) probably have a better shot than more expensive options to catch the GM's eye. Available cornerbacks who can cover the slot include Desmond King (Titans), Mike Hilton (Steelers), Troy Hill (Rams) and Brian Poole (New York Jets).

More:Browns offseason priorities: Cornerbacks. Denzel Ward is elite, but an upgrade opposite of him is possible

Cornerback Terrance Mitchell is among the Browns' free-agents who could return. [Phil Masturzo/Beacon Journal]

Which in-house free agents will return?

Cornerback Terrance Mitchell and wide receiver Rashard Higgins are good players who would probably be able to make more money if they sign with a team other than the Browns.

More:Browns notebook: GM Andrew Berry would like to have Rashard Higgins back

Mitchell and Higgins headline the list of 16 Browns players who are set to become unrestricted free agents. Others who seem to have a chance to be re-signed are linebackers Malcolm Smith and B.J. Goodson, safety Karl Joseph, cornerback Kevin Johnson, kicker Cody Parkey, defensive tackle Vincent Taylor and kick returner JoJo Natson.

Vernon and defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi are not expected to be back. A major injury foreshadowed Vernon's exit. And Ogunjobi appears to be in Joe Schobert territory, meaning he's a solid player who can probably make more money from another club than Berry would like to invest in him. The same rule might apply to Mitchell and Higgins.

If Higgins isn't coming back, Berry should be in the market for a receiver like Breshad Perriman (Jets), Kenny Stills (Houston Texans) or Damiere Byrd (New England Patriots).

More:Kevin Stefanski: Browns in 'good spot' to keep Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry despite cost

Northwestern cornerback Greg Newsome could be a draft target of the Browns with the 26th pick in the first round. [USA TODAY Network]

A premature forecast of the NFL Draft 

Defense will almost certainly be the focus in the first round of the April 29-May 1. The picture will become more clear after a few weeks of free agency, but right now, outside cornerbacks like Jaycee Horn (South Carolina) and Greg Newsome II (Northwestern) would make sense at No. 26 overall. Adding speed at receiver would be a logical goal in the second round, with Elijah Moore (Mississippi) and Tutu Atwell (Louisville) among the names to know.

More:2021 NFL Draft: Northwestern cornerback Greg Newsome II has Browns listening to sales pitch

Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield is a certainty to have his fifth-year option picked up before May 3 but could be in line for an extension this summer. {USA TODAY Network]

More money on the way

It will be a formality when Berry exercises the fifth-year options on the rookie contracts of quarterback Baker Mayfield and cornerback Denzel Ward before the May 3 deadline. That will lock in guaranteed salaries for the 2022 season for Mayfield at $18.858 million and Ward at $13.294 million. I believe the Browns will probably give Mayfield a contract extension this summer. They might be more inclined to wait until next year to secure Ward long term. And of the two notable players eligible for extensions this offseason who don't have fifth-year options involved, I think running back Nick Chubb is more likely to receive an extension before the 2021 season than right guard Wyatt Teller.

More:GM Andrew Berry: With Baker Mayfield, Browns no longer stuck in neutral

Browns running back Nick Chubb is another of the Browns' young stars who could receive a contract extension this summer. [Charlie Riedel/Associated Press]

Nate Ulrich can be reached at

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