The Cleveland Browns need to build a defense to become more competitive in 2021, which is where the majority of their offseason efforts are likely to go. The general picture of where the defense seems to be going can be made out, but some of the details are a little fuzzy.
There was a fundamental understanding entering the 2020 season that the Cleveland Browns offense was going to have to carry the team as it received the lion's share of assets when head coach Kevin Stefanski and general manager Andrew Berry took over the team. While the offense got a first round and the two biggest free agent signings, the defense was largely given draft picks and one year contract players to evaluate the unit and figure out what they needed going forward.
Joe Woods, the team's defensive coordinator held up his end and produced a defense that was able to do enough... most of the season. At times, he was forced to throw what amounted to scraps on the field and try to make a functioning defense. The Browns won a playoff game with a backup gunner starting at corner in Robert Jackson as an example.
That does not mean that Woods was without flaws. There are individual calls that can be criticized as there are with the offense, but the most concerning issue with Woods in his first season as the defensive coordinator is the amount of coverage breakdowns in what appear to a result of communication issues.
There are times when it's clear that a player didn't execute their assigned responsibility or just didn't perform at a high enough level, but it was concerning, particularly against a team like the New York Jets in December to see Browns defensive backs turning and pointing at each other after a blown coverage yielded a wide open touchdown.
It was easier to dismiss early in the season when they were forced to bring in so many different defenders, particularly in the secondary who were all trying to learn the scheme on the fly. In December, it was just bad football and those communication issues must be corrected heading into a second season.
What made Woods such a fascinating hire was the forward looking defense he coached with the Denver Broncos, having learned under Wade Phillips. Smaller, faster, it was a great scheme to play with a lead because it had a number of great coverage players as well as pass rushers that could create turnovers and close out opponents. If they needed to play bigger and stop the run, they could bring in players with that designed purpose.
Given the landscape of the NFL currently, that's the most logical approach to defense. Stop the pass, pressure the quarterback and have players that can come in and focus on stopping the run as needed.
When Woods was hired by the Browns, one of the ideas he mentioned was aspiring to run a defense that has three corners and three safeties with four defensive linemen and just a single linebacker as its base. This fits right in line this forward looking approach to defense.
It matches up well with a division that features at least two teams within the division that aren't afraid to use three and four wide receivers consistently and it can be effective defending against quarterbacks that like to run. Outside the division, the Browns got to see how challenging the Kansas City Chiefs are to defend. The Buffalo Bills is another team that appears to have staying power that can spread teams out and have their quarterback run the ball.
This coincided with a decision by the Browns to completely deemphasize the linebacker position, both in terms of money and draft assets. The Browns want to minimize their use, but when they need to them, they can get players that can prescribed roles at lower costs.
The Browns didn't have the personnel necessary to pursue a 4-1-6 in 2020 and their coverage options were extremely limited. Once Grant Delpit, the defense's biggest prize of the offseason, and Greedy William went down with injuries, they were largely reduced to playing Cover-3 and quarters.
It's not entirely clear if Woods is comfortable just living in zone akin to a team like the Seattle Seahawks or if he wants the ability to utilize man coverage with the Browns. If he's comfortable with zone, the Browns don't need to spend much to address the corner spot opposite Denzel Ward. However, if they intend to play man, they need to upgrade the position significantly.
One thing is clear in terms of their corners and the defense in general. They want to increase speed across the board. Whether it's so they can man up opposing weapons or simply get downhill to chase the ball, the Browns recognize they need to play much faster.
Much of the offseason will be about finding the right group of safeties and corners to execute their defense. They'll need a strong, free and rover, plus depth. In a perfect world, the Browns would be able to get to a point where they'd bring in another defensive back, be it corner or safety and take out linebackers altogether, putting a safety at middle linebacker.
If Karl Joseph is willing to re-sign and become a full time rover, the Browns might have their three safeties. Joseph really shined there when he played it. Ronnie Harrison is already playing strong and hopefully a fully healthy Delpit can become the free safety he was intended before the injury.
Should Joseph decide he wants to be a deep safety again, he will likely sign elsewhere, which would open up some options for the Browns. They could focus their attention on finding a specific position or the best safety overall and adjust the personnel around him, perhaps moving Harrison to rover and Delpit to strong for example.
If the Browns were fortunate enough to have their starting safety trio, able to focus on depth, they could really amp up their efforts on finding solutions at corner, be it through free agency or the draft.
Outside of Ward, the Browns have basically nothing but question marks. Terrance Mitchell and Kevin Johnson are both free agents (neither is likely to be back) and they were the next best two this season as Greedy Williams is now a complete mystery. Williams struggled as a rookie, especially after suffering a hamstring injury and then his second year was wiped out entirely with a nerve issue in his shoulder.
The Browns shouldn't give up on Williams as he's still on his rookie deal, has talent and teams can't have too many corners as the 2019 thoroughly proved, but it's difficult to bank on him as well. He's depth with a chance to compete to be more. That forces them to operate as if they need two starting corners - a boundary and slot corner.
On the defensive line, the Browns had agreed to a deal with Andrew Billings to be their run stopping nose as well as B.J. Goodson to be play against the run. Billings opted out of the season due to concerns over COVID-19, which took what was to be a huge strength and make it a weakness.
The Browns ultimately brought in Vincent Taylor to try to help the situation and he played pretty well at the end of the season, but losing Billings was a significant setback. The Browns are scheduled to have Billings back in 2021, healthy and refreshed, ready to drive opposing offensive interiors into the backfield, helping to generate more obvious passing situations.
The Browns still have to decide what to do at defensive tackle as Larry Ogunjobi is scheduled to be a free agent. Sheldon Richardson, Jordan Elliott and Billings are under contract for 2021. The draft class is poor when it comes to defensive tackle and free agency could be tricky in terms of the financial aspect.
On the edge, Olivier Vernon was outstanding down the stretch and it looked like they should just extend him to continue playing opposite Myles Garrett. A ruptured Achilles' in week 17 against the Pittsburgh Steelers saw that idea go up in smoke. Vernon, perhaps could come back on a cheap deal, but he'd be a depth rusher and it's not entirely clear when he'd even be able to contribute.
The Browns must now find a starting defensive end as well as continue to upgrade their depth. If Vernon were to come back, whenever he is healthy, he and Adrian Clayborn could be a formidable second unit, allowing the Browns to keep up pressure throughout the game. Nevertheless, they must find the right option across from Garrett.
At linebacker, the Browns may have the pieces necessary to operate already. Rookie Jacob Phillips flashed ability when he was healthy while Sione Takitaki has firmly established himself as an excellent run defender.
They should continue to sign cheap free agents and use day three picks to try to find better options as well as the right mix of players, both as starters and special teams. It frees them up to invest both money and premium draft picks on the defensive positions that provide a much greater impact such as corner and defensive end.
The Browns don't want to have to put more than two on the field at once and that's with a heavy run focus. They want to operate with one and if they can get the right mix of defensive backs, even those would come off the field in favor of speed and coverage ability in long passing downs.
The position was consistently a major frustration for onlookers because the group was not good for most of the season. It's a position for role players in this defense, allowing them to find specific players that can perform a given task.
Overall, just by getting healthy and past COVID-19, the Browns may not need as many players on defense as some might expect, especially given the struggles they faced in 2020. The players they need, however, are specific and not necessarily easy to acquire. Getting a good starting defensive end as well as two starting corners is no small task.
Improving their depth across the secondary as well as continuing to upgrade the competition at linebacker shouldn't be all that difficult or costly. Defensive tackle and safety could be wildcards, depending on how the Browns and players approach the situation.
The Browns should benefit from an offseason where they are less focused on teaching the scheme and now aiming to enhance it. They should be able to play more coverages, utilize disguises and play more matchup style football. All of these should help the Browns improve on defense.
As much as Joe Woods was largely met with understanding over defensive struggles in 2020, he will now face pressure to deliver with more talent and bring far better results in year two. The Browns offense should continue to grow and evolve, but that side of the ball is largely proven. The defense is where most of the questions will be and Woods will have to provide good answers in 2021.