After a year where the Cleveland Browns defense was held together by Myles Garrett, Denzel Ward and a ton of duct tape, the front office spent a significant amount of resources on the defense to provide defensive coordinator Joe Woods the players necessary to realize his vision and the Kansas City Chiefs provide the first major test right out of the gate.
Woods worked under Wade Phillips with the Denver Broncos and Phillips understood where the league was headed on offense and built a phenomenal defense to counter it. Excellent, athletic pass rushers, a trio of terrific corners along with safeties that could cover. Their defensive tackles were largely extremely specific in their roles while the linebackers were cheap, but fit the scheme beautifully. That defense carried the Broncos to a Super Bowl.
Now, Woods was presented his own opportunity to see where the NFL is headed and build a defense to counter it. As much as it was about the NFL, it was really about the AFC Conference, which features an endless supply of quarterbacks that could make plays with their arms and either create or extend plays with their legs.
The Browns got to see the Chiefs in the Divisional Round of the playoffs and while they overperformed, holding the Chiefs to 22 points, it was clear just how outmanned they were in the game in terms of talent and particularly speed.
This past offseason, general manager Andrew Berry brought in half a dozen players that completely changed the dynamic for how they could defend the Chiefs as well as teams like the Buffalo Bills, Baltimore Ravens, Los Angeles Chargers, Indianapolis Colts and even the Cincinnati Bengals.
The biggest signing of the offseason was John Johnson III to play free safety. Arguably the most impactful free agent signing in two decades, Johnson becomes the best player in their secondary, giving them a multifaceted safety that excels in both man and zone coverage. From tight ends to playing half the field, he's done it all at a high level.
Along with Ronnie Harrison, who was a major acquisition the year before to play strong safety, the Browns now boast an extremely talented pair of safeties, while also making it so Grant Delpit, the team's second round pick last year, into a third safety and the team's dime back.
Delpit, in large part due to his recovery from a ruptured Achilles' and the inability to practice has rendered him almost a forgotten man in this defense. That isn't necessarily a bad thing. He can potentially become a really pleasant spice added to the Browns defensive mix that can give them a little more size while not losing range.
At corner, the Browns drafted Greg Newsome to effectively replace Terrance Mitchell. Greedy Williams is the third boundary corner, which is an upgrade in itself, but because he was out all of last year, it's going from Mitchell, who played his heart out, but was remarkably slow, to now having a tall, sleek, speedy corner in Newsome. Even if he has typical rookie struggles, just his length and speed are going to be helpful against teams with excellent speed at receiver.
And oh by the way, the Browns also added Troy Hill to be their slot corner, which was a big signing in itself, but gets buried by some of these other acquisitions.
On paper, the Browns are unrecognizable in terms of how much better they should be in their ability to cover opposing receivers. The Browns were forced to trot out Andrew Sendejo, Robert Jackson and Tavierre Thomas at points last year to critical positions in the secondary.
The transformation of the front seven is just as important. Jadeveon Clowney replaces Olivier Vernon, who suffered an Achilles' injury in week 17. Vernon was a far more technically sound player, but Clowney offers more length and power with versatility to play up and down the line, which seems to be the preference for Woods.
Takkarist McKinley was signed to give the Browns a significant upgrade in their speed off the edge. Last year, Adrian Clayborn was good at defeating blocks, but at times was too slow to track down some of the more athletic quarterbacks. McKinley doesn't have that problem and while he has more to prove, that ability to chase is critical to what the Browns want to accomplish.
Between Myles Garrett and McKinley, the Browns can show elite speed off the edge. They weren't done, then adding Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in the second round of the NFL Draft. He now offers another elite speed threat that can attack the quarterback as a blitzer, sampling what the Tampa Bay Buccaneeers often did with Devin White.
Whether it's Mahomes or Josh Allen or Lamar Jackson, the Browns can theoretically have an elite speed threat coming from both edges as well as somewhere in the middle. They can mix and match it to create added stress for the opponent.
The most recent revelation has been Malik McDowell, which may tie the defensive room together, giving the Browns a nose that can provide solid run defense while athletic enough to pressure the quarterback. He's the perfect compliment to Andrew Billings, who is there entirely to clog the run.
On paper, the Browns defense is extremely well designed for what the AFC Conference has to offer, both now and in the postseason, including the Chiefs. The biggest question facing this group is how quickly they can acclimate. Newsome and JOK are both actual rookies, while McDowell is a quasi-rookie. He may have been drafted in 2017 but he wasn't able to do anything for the Seahawks as he had the ATV accident before training camp.
Meanwhile, McKinley was away from the team for almost a month for personal reasons. That's not to suggest he can't come in and play well, but he wasn't able to work with the team for that time. His career is not exactly proven to this point either, so it's a question mark.
The rest of the defense may still be trying to fit together in this game when it comes to elements like communication and understanding some nuances of what their teammates can do. It's a huge test for a defense that was built with the postseason in mind. It could take a week, a month or most of the year to get where it needs to be to win consistently in the postseason. The pieces may be in place, but between the coaching staff and the players themselves, that will be the focus for this season.
The Browns have built Woods vision for this defense. He knows how much pressure is on him and he welcomes it. Now it's on this team to make it happen and the Chiefs are the first major test.