Top Off-Season Priorities for the NFL's most disappointing teams in 2021; Part 1: Cleveland Browns

2021 Record: 8-9

Projected 2022 Cap Space: $25,572,149

Key Unrestricted Free Agents: DE Jadeveon Clowney, DE Takkarist McKinley, DT Malik Jackson, ILB Anthony Walker, TE David Njoku, S Ronnie Harrison, DT Malik McDowell, RB, D'Ernest Johnson, CB M.J. Stewart

Image via Getty Images

Priority #1: The Quarterback Position

Baker Mayfield is a hot-topic conversation right now throughout the NFL and Browns Twitter. There are two-sides of the fence in terms of how the fans feel: Baker was hurt or Baker stinks. The fact of the matter is Mayfield will have an $18,858,000 base salary/cap hit in 2022. That is a lot of money tied up in a quarterback who really struggled this past season. He will be an unrestricted free agent in 2023, provided a long-term agreement is not reached, which at this point feels highly unlikely. The Browns management has come out publicly in support of their quarterback, but what else are they supposed to say? Baker Mayfield's return in 2022 feels anything but a guarantee. It does appear more likely that he is with the Browns, but in the NFL anything can change, just ask Jared Goff. With better quarterback play in 2021, the Browns would be a playoff team. Baker's injury and injuries to those around him (Jack Conklin, Chris Hubbard, Jarvis Landry, J.C. Tretter, Jedrick Wills, etc.) have to play a factor in the Browns decision on Mayfield. He gutted it out this season and was clearly not healthy after Week 3. Did all of these circumstances affect his ability to read coverage, make pre-snap and post-snap adjustments, and make his teammates better? Those are all questions the Browns front office will need to answer. The 2022 draft class at quarterback is not going to help Cleveland win right now and they need to without a doubt. If Jimmy Garoppolo, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan, or Derek Carr become available, do the Browns make a move? So many questions surrounding this position, which is why I have it as priority number one. If the Browns get better quarterback play out of Mayfield or another player, they will find themselves back in the playoffs in 2022.

Priority #2: Extend Denzel Ward

The only criticism surrounding Denzel Ward's tenure as a pro has been his ability to stay on the field. He's missed a total of 13 games in his 4 year career due to several injuries, including a spot on the COVID-19 list in the regular season finale against the Bengals. However, when he's been on the field, he is dynamite. He helped limit Ja'Marr Chase to just 6 catches for 49 yards on 13 targets in a Week 9 victory over the AFC North Champion Cincinnati Bengals. He is asked to consistently guard the opposing teams' best receiver week-in and week-out. Ward is a cornerstone player at his position (pun intended) and should be extended. Mayfield's regression, albeit disappointing, opens up the Browns wallet to be able to resign Ward at his preferred price tag. Heading into his age 25 season, he should be extended because franchise cornerbacks do not grow on trees. Extending Denzel Ward and making him a Cleveland Brown for the next 3-5 seasons is priority #2 for Andrew Berry and company.

Getty Images/David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire

Priority #3: Figure out the Receiver Position

We all know the Odell Beckham Jr. experiment did not work out, especially under Kevin Stefanski. For whatever reason you want to point to, it was ugly plain and simple. The Browns leading receiver in 2021 was Donovan Peoples-Jones, a 6th round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Peoples-Jones led the Browns with 597 yards on just 34 catches. Jarvis Landry regressed with just 52 catches and 570 yards. The Quarterback play from Mayfield/Keenum/Mullens definitely played a factor in this, but the lack of separation from the receiving core did as well. Altogether, the Browns did not even reach 2,000 yards from their receivers in 2021, which is just an absolutely atrocious statistic. Where does Cleveland go from here? Jarvis Landry is a team leader, but can they afford to keep him in 2022 on his $16,553,125 cap hit (UFA in 2023)? I don't see him returning on that deal. If he is traded or released by June 1, the Browns can save up to $15 million dollars in cap space ($1,500,000 in dead cap). I definitely see that as an option for Andrew Berry, with a release more likely. Drafting a receiver in the 1st round seems more important than ever. Cleveland should not leave round1 without one of Garret Wilson, Jameson Williams, or Treylon Burks in my opinion. Looking to free agency, Allen Robinson, Chris Godwin, Davante Adams, Juju Smith-Schuster, and Mike Williams are the big names that could potentially be available. It's going to be next to impossible to convince a top receiver to come to Cleveland after the Odell saga. The best chance Cleveland has at improving this position is through a trade, draft, or signing multiple lower level guys.

Image via John Kuntz/

Priority #4: Re-signing Jadeveon Clowney/Adding Secondary Pass Rusher

Myles Garrett has made it known several times: he wants Clowney back in Cleveland in 2022. Jadeveon Clowney has made it known that money will decide where he plays in 2022, even though he has enjoyed his time with the Browns. This information should tell you that Clowney is more likely to leave than to return in 2022 if he gets the market he believes he will get. As a team in 2021, Cleveland totaled 43 sacks, which was good for 9th in the NFL. 58% of those sacks came from either Garrett (16) or Clowney (9). A further look into QB Pressures has the Browns at 19th overall (155), with more than half of those pressures coming from Clowney or Garrett. Garrett is going to get his, but it was clear the Browns are top heavy in terms of their pass rush. Takk McKinley became Cleveland's third best option until his season ended with an injury. With McKinley, Clowney, and Malik McDowell set to become UFA's, where do the Browns turn? Going back to priority #3, releasing Landry could free up some money to re-sign Clowney. Finding a 3rd pass rusher in the draft or free agency is vital for the Browns. If not Clowney, then perhaps another veteran to pair up with Garrett and a draft pick such as Jason Pierre-Paul, Von Miller, Chandler Jones, or Haason Reddick. With the Browns secondary in top shape, bringing back Clowney or someone close to his level is essential in 2022.

Image via John Kuntz/

Priority #5: Special Teams Overhaul

The Browns special teams unit all-around has been pretty abysmal to watch. In 2021, Cleveland was 32nd in Field Goal Percentage (72.7%) 27th in Touchbacks, 25th in Return Average Against, 21st in Average Return Yardage, 30th in Net Average Punting and 29th in Average Yards Punting. When you have a kicker who can't kick it to the endzone or make a kick over 50 yards, winning games can get even harder. Punting and flipping the field are what the best teams do and the Browns were one of the worst teams at that. It may seem like such a minor detail, but ask the best head coaches and see what their response would be. A new punter and kicker should be on Browns fans wish list in 2022. Finding a weapon in the return game has been an absolute failure since Josh Cribbs. Cleveland has not had a kickoff returned for a touchdown since 2009, when Cribbs had 3 of them. Kickoff returns are down all across the league, but to not have 1 in 13 years tells you how bad the unit has been. The Browns have not had a punt returned for a touchdown since 2015. The signing of Jojo Natson has not worked out at all. Demetric Felton and Donovan Peoples-Jones were simply not effective in 2021. Adding a special teams weapon in 2022 is essential for the special teams unit.

Image via Sports Illustrated

Priority #6: Re-Sign David Njoku/Austin Hooper Contract

Despite some friction between Njoku and Cleveland, he seems to have found a home here. After an improved 2021 season, Njoku hits unrestricted free agency in 2022. We are going to find out a lot about what other NFL teams feel about him as a player. I suspect the market to be better than expected on the 25 year old tight end, who has shown his ability to stretch the field and win red-zone targets. I do not believe we have seen Njoku reach his true potential in Cleveland, but we have seen glimpses of it. This brings me to my second point of this priority: Austin Hooper. The 5th year tight end had his worst season as a pro since his rookie year. In the last few games of the season, he looked lost out there on the field. If they decide to bring back Njoku and allow Harrison Bryant to climb up the depth chart, Andrew Berry needs to find a way out of this contract. The question as of how they move on from him and when is going to be answered by someone much smarter than I. If Hooper is released or traded pre-June 1, there will be $11,250,000 against the dead cap in 2022 and just $2,000,000 in cap savings. A post-June 1 release or trade gives the Browns $9,500,000 in 2022 cap savings, and the dead cap is spread out through 2022 & 2023 ($3,750,000 in 2022, $7,500,000 in 2023). That is a tricky situation to maneuver for Berry, but I'm glad he is the one to sort it out.

Follow Brandon Sweet on Twitter @AllEliteSweet

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