BEREA, Ohio — The Cleveland Browns stumbled to a 6-10 finish last season, prompting ownership to overhaul the coaching staff and front office. But even as Cleveland extended the NFL’s longest playoff drought to 18 years, Browns fans still have reason to be optimistic that 2020 might be different under first-time general manager Andrew Berry and head coach Kevin Stefanski.
A young core featuring several former high draft picks remains. And although Cleveland will have to hold back money to extend its stars still on rookie deals in the coming years, the Browns will enter free agency with close to $70 million in cap space to work with.
The Browns have several holes, most notably along the offensive line and now at every level of their defense following a series of cuts. But with the No. 10 pick in the April 23-25 draft and money to spend, they also have a prime opportunity to rework the franchise into a legitimate playoff contender going into the 2020 season.
Here is what to watch for as the NFL’s offseason calendar cranks up:
Titans right tackle Jack Conklin has been on Cleveland’s radar and figures to be among the top free agents the Browns will court. Signing him would immediately solve Cleveland’s glaring issue at right tackle, allowing the franchise to zero in on finding its left tackle of the future with the 10th pick in the draft. That would immediately transform the line from a weakness into a potential strength, alongside guard Joel Bitonio and center JC Tretter.
Conklin, however, will be coveted elsewhere coming off a banner fourth season and could command upward of $18 million a year to become the league’s highest-paid offensive lineman. The Browns have the money for such a contract. But signing Conklin, who will be 26 by the start of the season, would also limit flexibility at a growing list of other positions that will need to be addressed.
The Browns have other options at tackle, especially if Conklin proves too expensive or simply signs elsewhere. A stopgap like Eagles left tackle Jason Peters could make sense. Peters just turned 38, but the nine-time Pro Bowler can still play when healthy. Coming from Philadelphia, Berry should have a good sense of what Peters still has left in the tank.
And signing a stopgap like Peters to a short-term deal would give the Browns the luxury of bringing along slowly whatever tackle they might select in the draft while better protecting quarterback Baker Mayfield’s blind side. Of course, if the Browns don’t land Conklin, they could always target cheaper options like another Philly tackle in Halapoulivaati Vaitai, whose value extends to his versatility.
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As for the draft, the Browns have a tremendous opportunity to finally find a long-term replacement for Joe Thomas at left tackle. Louisville’s Mekhi Becton, Georgia’s Andrew Thomas, Alabama’s Jedrick Wills and Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs all have the look of big-time prospects, and at least one, if not a couple, should be available to the Browns at 10. The 6-foot-7 Becton, who ran the 40-yard dash in 5.10 seconds at the combine, has major upside with his combination of size and athleticism.
Wirfs would make even more sense if the Browns whiffed on Conklin at right tackle, where he could step in immediately. Wills played right tackle in college, but he was protecting lefty Tua Tagovailoa’s blindside from there. Thomas has a ton of quality film from starting three years at Georgia and is, as Mel Kiper recently put it in his latest mock draft, a “pure left tackle with great feet.” The silver lining of going 6-10 last year is that the Browns have a chance to capitalize on what appears to be a stellar tackle draft.
As aggressive as they were in pursing Washington Redskins left tackle Trent Williams up until the trade deadline last year, the Browns’ new regime is showing patience this time around. The price for landing the 31-year-old Williams now appears to be in the neighborhood of a Day 2 draft pick, plus, more prohibitively in Cleveland’s case, a long-term extension touching the realm of $20 million a year.
A Williams trade could remain a decent recourse option for the Browns if they fail to sign any noteworthy veteran offensive tackles in free agency, and/or if there’s a run on them in the draft before the Browns’ pick at 10. Williams sat out last season. And he’s going to be expensive. But the seven-time Pro Bowler would still be a massive upgrade.
Left tackle isn’t Cleveland’s only need up front. And if the Browns lose out on Conklin, they could resort to targeting a higher-tiered guard, like the New England Patriots’ Joe Thuney. It also wouldn’t be surprising if the Browns expended a later pick on a guard even after drafting a tackle at 10. Cleveland’s most likely options at right guard going into free agency are Wyatt Teller, who started the back half of last season, 2019 sixth-rounder Drew Forbes and Chris Hubbard, who started at right tackle last year but seems better suited as a swing tackle/guard off the bench.
This has the makings of a fork-in-the-road season for Mayfield, and the Browns figure to be inclined to add a veteran leadership presence to the QB room alongside Mayfield and Garrett Gilbert, Mayfield’s longtime friend from high school who played well during training camp last year. Although reports have pointed to Chase Daniel as that possibility, Case Keenum is the one to watch. Keenum played under Stefanski in Minnesota, where they forged a strong bond. He played in a similar college offense at Houston, where Kliff Kingsbury was his position coach (Mayfield played for Kingsbury at Texas Tech before transferring to Oklahoma, which, under Lincoln Riley, also ran a variance of the Mike Leach Air Raid).
Keenum would thread the needle of providing the Browns with a veteran who would push Mayfield to be better — without upsetting the balance of gunning for his job. And with 27 career wins, Keenum would give Cleveland a backup who’s proved he can win games. There doesn’t appear to be a starting option for Keenum anywhere in the league at the moment, which is why this situation makes sense for him, for Mayfield and for the Browns.
The needs along the offensive line overshadow all that the front office will have to get done on the defensive side in the wake of recent cuts. Ideally, the to-do list includes adding two starting-caliber safeties, possibly a nickel corner, a veteran linebacker, if not two, and a rotation defensive tackle. If the Browns move on from defensive end Olivier Vernon, who is the highest-paid player on the team at more than $15 million despite registering only 3.5 sacks during an injury-plagued 2019 season, they’ll need to add another pass-rusher opposite Myles Garrett.
The breadth of the retooling (rebuilding?) of a defense that ranked 23rd in efficiency last year is why the Browns might be out of the running for any big-ticket signings like Minnesota Vikings safety Anthony Harris (despite his connection to Stefanski). Also, look for Cleveland to potentially target someone out of the second tier of free-agent safeties, then potentially draft one with one of its three picks on Day 2.
Fullback and tight end are other positions to watch, as Cleveland transitions to a play-action-based attack that Stefanski called in Minnesota last season. The Browns didn’t have a fullback on the 53-man roster last year, and they’ve already cut tight end Demetrius Harris. It’s worth watching to see what happens with C.J. Ham, Stefanski’s fullback in Minnesota last year, who is a restricted free agent.