The goal of an NFL team’s offseason: Retain what works, get rid of what doesn’t, and improve as much as possible while doing it within a salary cap and team-building philosophy. The Cleveland Browns are no exception and looking ahead at the 2021 NFL Draft, they should be able to come away with a few defensive gems at various positions.
Build through free agency or the draft?
Improvement is not always as easy as it sounds, however. Of course, teams will always do to the best of their ability but there will always be some difficult circumstances to work through. The free agency era creates constant movement across the landscape of the NFL.
With a new coaching staff in place under head coach Kevin Stefanski, first-year defensive coordinator Joe Woods is tasked with improving a defensive unit that ranked 20th in points per game (24.6) allowed and 22nd in total yards allowed (361.6).
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Like is true of the team as a whole, the Browns are a team that is littered with talent on all levels. The allure surrounding free agency can be looked at as a quick fix with immediate return. More often, however, teams are built through the draft.
When looking at their potential holes on defense, it luckily aligns with the strengths of what the 2021 NFL Draft has to offer. So what do the Browns and the fans have to look forward to? Let’s examine the biggest defensive holes to fill and which players are the early favorites to potentially fill them.
What to watch in 2020: The Browns’ Cornerback Room
Despite dealing with some durability concerns, third-year pro Denzel Ward has proven to be a really nice selection for the Browns after being selected with the fourth overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. He will again be counted on as the team’s top cornerback for the 2020 season.
On the other side of Ward, second-year pro Andraez “Greedy” Williams will have every opportunity to prove the potential that once made him the favorite at the position the summer before the 2018 college football season.
His rookie season was largely up and down but there were some positive moments to hold on to. The 2020 season will be a huge indicator of how large the position need is when the 2021 NFL Draft comes around.
Behind Ward and Williams, players like Terrance Mitchell, Donnie Lewis Jr., and newly acquired Kevin Johnson make up the depth for the rest of the group. The depth is intriguing and should provide some valuable reps behind the assumed top two.
Worth noting is this – the contracts for Mitchell and Johnson are set to expire after the season. If Greedy doesn’t take the next step and Mitchell/Johnson aren’t retained, the cornerback room could look much different entering the 2021 season.
2021 Cornerback Draft Class
Shaun Wade, Ohio State Buckeyes
The Browns wouldn’t have to look too far to find the answer to their cornerback needs… in fact, they won’t even have to leave the state of Ohio. Ohio State Buckeyes CB Shaun Wade looks to continue a string of defensive standouts in the secondary for Ohio State.
Having played mostly in the slot last season, Wade is set to make the full time move to the outside in 2020. With continued production making the move, Wade has a chance to be the first defensive back off the board with this type of coverage versatility.
Patrick Surtain II, Alabama Crimson Tide
As has been the case for many years, the SEC conference sports some of the most talented defensive talent across the landscape of college football. The same can be said in the secondary.
Sporting a very recognizable name, Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II is a long athlete that has been the trend for the Crimson Tide on the backend.
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Like his former Pro Bowl father of the same name, Surtain has some outstanding coverage awareness, showing the ability to make plays in both man and zone coverage.
With consistent play over his first two seasons, the 2020 season will be a huge indicator of what the overall upside is for the former five-star recruit.
Jaycee Horn, South Carolina Gamecocks
Ready for another blast from the past? The name Joe Horn is going to ignite a lot of memories from the former New Orleans Saints pro bowl wide receivers’ career. Multiple Pro Bowl selections, outstanding production, charismatic celebrations… Horn captivated “Who Dat?” nation for the better part of a decade.
Making an impact on the opposite side of the ball, South Carolina defensive back Jaycee Horn has a chance to be amongst the biggest risers in the 2021 NFL Draft class. With experience at both nickel and on the outside, Horn has some absurd transitional quickness for a player of his size and length.
The minute he nabs a couple of interceptions this season, look for Horn’s athletic profile and strong bloodlines to begin to buoy him near the top of the class.
Eric Stokes, Georgia Bulldogs
After flirting with entering the 2020 NFL Draft, Georgia cornerback Eric Stokes opted to return to Athens for his redshirt junior campaign. Stokes has failed to record an interception during his career so far. But, that statistic can be very misleading.
With some incredibly smooth hips and legit 4.3 speed, Stokes has some of the best man coverage reps in the 2021 class. He is able to stay in phase well with his high-level athleticism and length, rarely being put into a bad position.
Similar to Horn, the box score does not tell the full story. As soon as he is able to pull down an interception or two, Stokes will begin to rise to the early portion of the 2021 NFL Draft conversation.
Caleb Farley, Virginia Tech Hokies
Caleb Farley has been the toast of Draft twitter this offseason. The talent is easy to see, standing at an opposing 6’2” and 207 pounds with plus long speed and short-area quickness.
There is still a rawness to his game technically. He does not live up to his size near the line of scrimmage, having some false steps working to stay in phase down the field.
Make no mistake about it, Farley could very well be at top of the class before all is said and done. For now, let’s call him a question mark with some noteworthy potential to be a real player when all is said and done.
Going a little under the radar in this postseason evaluation period, the cornerback class is one of the more deep and talented units early on in the cycle. If Greedy Williams is not able to take his game to the next level, look for some investments to be made by the team.
How will the Browns linebacker group shake out?
With linebacker Joe Schobert leaving the Cleveland Browns this offseason, in favor of a five-year, $53.75 million contract that includes 21.50 million guaranteed with the Jacksonville Jaguars, it has left the Browns with more question marks than answers at the linebacker position.
Second year pros Mack Wilson and Sione Takitaki look in line for every opportunity for playing time in 2020. While Takitaki’s playing time was limited this past season, Brown’s fans got more than their fair look at what Wilson can bring to the table.
Despite being billed as a dynamic pass coverage linebacker while a part of the Crimson Tide program, Wilson looked lost in coverage during his rookie season. Unfortunately for the team, his impact in the run game wasn’t any better. There is talent there to work with but he remains a huge wildcard at the position, similarly to what Takitaki will provide.
To combat the loss of Schobert, the Browns did select LSU linebacker Jacob Phillips in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft. A slightly overshadowed piece of a talented LSU defense, Phillips was the leading tackler for the unit with 113 total tackles.
There was a ton to like from Phillips film but that is a lot to expect from a rookie coming in to replace a very good linebacker in Schobert. In the end, the Browns will be relying on two second-year pros and a rookie to make up the majority of the reps at off ball linebacker.
That is not an ideal proposition for any defense, especially one breaking in a new defensive coordinator and system under Woods. Luckily for the team, the 2021 NFL Draft brings a ton of talent at the linebacker position should they see fit to upgrade at the position.
2021 Linebacker Draft Class
Micah Parsons, Penn State Nittany Lions
Early on in the process, the 2021 linebacker class looks like one of the most talented in recent memory. Starting at the top, Penn State’s Micah Parsons has the early look of a top-five player in the class with the ability to fill various roles on the football field.
Originally signing with Penn State as a five-star edge rusher, Parsons has made a smooth transition to off ball linebacker, making plays from various alignments. Whether it is filling against the run, in pass coverage, or lined up at edge on obvious passing downs, Parsons is a potentially generational talent who can instantly be the face of a franchise defensively.
Dylan Moses, Alabama Crimson Tide
Going into 2019, Dylan Moses was the toast of the linebacker conversation. As a former five-star recruit coming out of IMG Academy, Moses had once been dubbed as the “LeBron James of football.” Naturally, that made his success in 2018 as a true sophomore not much of a surprise.
2019 was dubbed the season of accession, including a couple of trophies and All-American honors on his way to the NFL. That vision was interrupted by a torn ACL, leaving his draft decision in serious doubt. Ultimately, he would opt to return to Tuscaloosa for his redshirt junior season. On the field, there is a ton to like. While sporting a prototypical frame with room to grow, Moses is an exceptional athlete for the position.
Despite the impressive physical profile, his 2018 tape was slightly overhyped. He processes slower than you would like and too often gets stuck in the trash working through his run fits. 2020 is a huge year for Moses coming back from injury.
God willing that we have a college football season, there is no reason to believe that Moses can’t begin to put it all together and ascend to the potential top 20 pick that his talent warrants.
Nick Bolton, Missouri Tigers
Here’s a slight hot take to start the morning. Heading into the 2020 college football season, Missouri linebacker Nick Bolton is the second-best linebacker in the 2021 cycle behind Micah Parsons. Think Danny Trevathan with a little more thump.
Coming to Missouri after playing a ton of safety while at Lone Star High School, that athletic profile Immediately pops off the film, making plays sideline to sideline and in the passing game.
While he isn’t the biggest linebacker at 6’ and 232 pounds, Bolton is a physically imposing dude at the point of attack after he transitions downfield. Some may try to overthink him with his marginal size but that concern doesn’t pop up while watching him.
It has been some time since we have seen a linebacker class quite this talented, especially at the assumed top three of the group. For the most part, those the star talent usually runs in pairs… a la 2019 (Devin White and Devin Bush) and 2018 (Roquon Smith and Tremaine Edmunds).
Browns will be in position to draft a solid prospect in the 2021 NFL Draft
In a position group that is becoming less and less devalued the more sub-packages begin to rule the landscape, three down backers who can affect both the run and pass game still have their mark across the league. That possibility is alive and well with players like Parsons, Bolton, and Moses.
Luckily for the Browns and their draft needs, they lie amongst some of the more talented classes in the 2021 NFL Draft cycle. 2020 aligns as a huge year in the tenure of new head coach Kevin Stefanski. With his new culture and inherited talent, the 2021 NFL Draft could sit as a huge momentum builder for the franchise’s fortunes.