Defensive Backs and You: How the Cleveland Browns Built a Defense in One Week

In the realm of NFL personnel departments, Cleveland Browns general manager Andrew Berry is quickly rising through the ranks as a wizard of the craft.

During the course of just one week, Berry has added to Cleveland’s lacking defensive unit, cementing the team’s status as a contender in the AFC. After a defensive performance on 3rd and 14 that likely cost them a trip to the AFC Championship this past season, Berry swiftly identified his team’s areas of weakness. When the new year opened up, he looked to strike. Let’s flash back to this point exactly one year ago, when last year’s free agency opened up.

Coming off a disappointing 6-10 season in 2019, the Browns blew up their head coaching and general manager duo once again. They hired the team of young coach Kevin Stefanski and even younger executive Andrew Berry, fully devoting themselves to a new-age, analytics-heavy strategy.

Berry immediately got to work, fixing what he believed was wrong with the team in 2019 and working to build Stefanski’s vision for Cleveland. The Browns struggled so mightily in 2019 because second-year quarterback Baker Mayfield was constantly under duress from opposing defensive lines.

One of Berry’s first moves was to bring in tight end Austin Hooper from Atlanta, allowing Stefanski to run the tight end-heavy offensive sets that made him famous in the Twin Cities. Following that, he brought in right tackle Jack Conklin to begin to bolster the offensive line for Mayfield. He would go on to draft left tackle Jedrick Wills with the No. 10 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Cleveland’s offense soared to heights beyond fans’ wildest dreams during the 2020 season, likely due to the moves Berry had made all those months ago when free agency started. But the Browns’ dreams of bringing a Lombardi Trophy to Cleveland were dashed when Chiefs backup quarterback Chad Henne found 13 yards of free real estate, allowing for Kansas City’s offense to stay on the field and finish the job against Cleveland.

It was then, I’d like to think, that Andrew Berry knew what he had to do.

Despite having superstar talents on defense in the forms of defensive end Myles Garrett and cornerback Denzel Ward, Cleveland’s defense was a disaster throughout 2020. Not only did it nearly cost them countless regular season games in the form of massive second-half comebacks, but it eventually cost them the season to Chad Henne and the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round the playoffs. So naturally, when free agency’s legal tampering period opened up on March 15, Berry cast another spell over the NFL to boost the Browns.

His first move was to poach from one of the league’s best defenses in 2020: the Los Angeles Rams. Under defensive coordinator Brandon Staley, the Rams allowed just 18.5 points per game, the best in the NFL in that area. The Rams also led the league in opponent passing yards per game, keeping opposing quarterbacks to 190.7 yards per game. Knowing his defensive secondary was sorely lacking, Berry ripped out one of the Rams’ defense’s vital organs: safety John Johnson III.

Johnson is known for his physical play, and according to most NFL insiders, is one of the league’s most underrated defensive players. The Browns were able to lock him up for three years and under twelve million dollars a year, keeping them still comfortably under the salary cap.

Berry then took a lottery ticket on former Falcons defensive end Takkarist McKinley. McKinley has yet to find his footing in the NFL, but playing across from Myles Garrett might help him find a more permanent spot in Cleveland’s defensive rotation. Garrett’s dominant play could give McKinley the spare half-second he needs to get to the quarterback more often. But Berry wasn’t done signing players to his defensive secondary, nor was he done stealing from the Los Angeles Rams.

On Thursday afternoon, Berry went hunting for Rams once again, signing Youngstown, Ohio native Troy Hill. Across from Denzel Ward, the 29-year-old Hill will likely have the job of the secondary outside cornerback, as Joe Woods could slide Greedy Williams into the slot corner position. Hill’s veteran presence on the outside also gives him a serious nose for the football. He led the league in defensive touchdowns last year with three, coming in the form of two interception returns and one fumble return.

The beauty of Berry’s work shows, of course, in that the Browns will be much improved in their defensive secondary in 2021. But beyond that, the picture for that secondary becomes clearer and clearer with each piece added. Each member not only has their strengths and positional versatility, but maybe more importantly, they cover each other’s weaknesses so well.

Denzel Ward has proven himself as an elite cornerback since being drafted No. 4 overall in 2018. His role of taking away half the field from a quarterback has long been cemented, and he is one of the Browns’ most important pieces. Across from him, he’ll likely see Troy Hill, a fantastic veteran presence to make his life just a bit easier. Cleveland’s third cornerback, Greedy Williams, can slide into the slot. But fortunately for him, he likely won’t see much action initially as he continues to recover from a nerve injury. Instead, Joe Woods will likely implement his three-safety defense.

Starting with John Johnson III, Cleveland’s safeties will be much improved in 2021. Johnson’s physical play makes him a deadly weapon over the middle and in the slot. Ronnie Harrison, one of the Browns’ defensive bright spots from 2020, will likely be coming back to play in the box as a tackling safety. And finally, a debuting Grant Delpit gives the Browns a natural, versatile playmaker that the Browns can use as a chess piece against various offensive looks.

Much like the offensive line became like five fingers on a hand once Berry finished building it, the defensive unit is looking more and more like a well-oiled machine. Seamless coverage in the defensive backfield also allows the pass rush to be better, giving Myles Garrett and Takk McKinley more time to get after opposing quarterbacks.

Berry hasn’t been perfect in his approach to the Browns, but any missteps he has had are few and far between. The Browns are finally in good hands with both their general manager and coach. And with so many players that they’ll need to keep coming up, like Baker Mayfield and Denzel Ward, it’s important to note that Berry never broke the bank with any of these deals.

So here’s to the young wizard of the executive realm, Andrew Berry. May his training in the arcane arts of football management continue to serve him well in the coming years.

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