CLEVELAND, Ohio — Browns general manager Andrew Berry was thrilled to be able to land a quality starter in free agency in safety John Johnson III.
The Browns’ top target, Berry described Johnson in a release provided by the team as a player who “doesn’t usually make it to the free-agent market.”
Signed to a three-year deal worth $33.75 million, Johnson will start at safety opposite 2020 second-round pick Grant Delpit if the latter is 100% healthy, with Ronnie Harrison joining in three-safety packages.
If the Rams hadn’t ended up with $22.2 million in dead cap space after the Jared Goff-for-Matt Stafford trade, they probably would’ve re-signed Johnson, a third-round pick in 2017 out of Boston College. Instead, they re-signed edge-rusher Leonard Floyd to a four-year deal worth $64 million and let both Johnson and cornerback Troy Hill sign with the Browns.
“We thought [Johnson] was one of the more versatile safeties in the NFL,” Berry said. “He can play free safety, strong safety and he can play in the box in the nickel or dime. His breadth of skills that he brings to the table, that he can play man coverage, he can play center field, he can support the run and really do everything at a pretty high level. It’s perfect for what we want to be as a defense.
“On top of that, you have his intelligence and his natural leadership. That’s something we’ll always look to add to the mix, and we feel like we’re fortunate that he was available.”
Johnson was this year’s version of right tackle Jack Conklin — their No. 1 free agent target who will be counted on to transform his side of the ball.
“The general mindset entering free agency any year is to try to be opportunistic and address improving all areas of the roster,” Berry said. “I think we were in a position where we had enough flexibility from a cap perspective where if we felt there was a player who aligned with our needs, if their skillset matched what we want to do within our scheme and they fit the profile of smart, tough, accountable, young, durable, then we can go aggressively and attack that player.
“After that, I think … how we navigate the free agent market is to try to be opportunistic buyers. I think that’s something we were really able to accomplish with the guys we added.”
Here’s what Berry had to say about the other free agents the Browns signed.
Former Raiders DE Takkarist McKinley
1 year, $4.25 million, $1 million signing bonus, $3.5 million guaranteed
The Browns tried to acquire McKinley four times last season, once via a trade with the Falcons and three times via the waiver wire. As McKinley said during his press conference, the fifth time was the charm. McKinley, 25, is determined to get his career back on track after falling out of favor with the Falcons and not getting re-signed by the Raiders.
If he ends up succeeding opposite Myles Garrett, he’ll be a tremendous bargain. If he’s part of the rotation, he’ll be worth the money. The Browns also brought in 2014 No. 1 pick Jadeveon Clowney for a visit on Wednesday, and will consider signing him if he’s recovered from surgery to repair a torn meniscus.
“We view Takk as a young edge player with a very high motor,’’ Berry said. “He’s got speed, he has power and he has quickness. He really plays with his hair on fire. He had a really strong start to his career, and I know the past couple years he’s dealt with a few injuries, but we think his playing style and skillset marries really nicely with what we look for out of our defensive ends in this system, and he’s a guy we think really has a ton of upside and fits nicely with what we want to do on the defensive line.”
Former Rams nickel corner Troy Hill
2 years, $9 million, $3.5 million signing bonus, $4.5 million average and guaranteed
Hill, who will turn 30 in August, replaces Kevin Johnson and should upgrade the position. As a full-time starter for the first time in 2020 for the NFL’s No. 1 defense, Hill led the league with three defensive touchdowns, two on interception returns and one a fumble return. Playing primarily in the slot, he made a career-high 77 tackles and intercepted three passes.
A native of Youngstown, Ohio, Hill can also start on the outside in place of Greedy Williams or Denzel Ward if necessary.
“Troy is a versatile corner that has played inside and outside,’’ Berry said. “He’s a smart football player who can play man coverage, zone coverage, turn the ball over and is a sound tackler. We all viewed him as a really big part of the defensive success in Los Angeles this past year, and for us, the ability to have a corner that can play at a high level on both the outside and inside gives us a lot of flexibility with who we currently have on the roster and who we may add moving forward.”
Former Colts LB Anthony Walker
1 year, $3.5 million
Walker, 25, was signed to replace middle linebacker B.J. Goodson while upgrading speed at the position. Almost like a coach on the field, Walker studied film tirelessly and distributed notes to his teammates. The ‘green dot’ signal-caller, he was such a leader that teammates such as All-Pro Darius Leonard lamented his departure. Walker will likely start in the base defense and be on the field in the nickel with Jacob Phillips. He can cover backs coming out of the backfield and play weak-side as well as the middle.
“The name of Anthony’s game is really speed and instincts,” Berry said. “He is one of the fastest linebackers in the league. He’s a very quick processor and is very smart. We think he’s a guy whose range and tenacity fits really well with how we view the modern day linebacker. We also think that he’s a good cover guy, specifically with his ability to match running backs out of the backfield.
“Much like John Johnson, on top of that, he has a level of veteran experience. He called the defense in Indianapolis and he’s played Mike and Will. He’s an exceptional human being both on and off the field and will have a really strong presence in our locker room.”
Former Eagles DT Malik Jackson
1 year, ($4.5 million, per Josina Anderson)
Jackson, 31, was signed for depth and to bring some heat up the middle. Jackson has produced six double-digit QB-hit seasons in his nine-year career, including 13 last season with the the Eagles. Originally a 2012 fifth-round pick of the Broncos out of USC, Jackson spent the 2019 season in Philly while Andrew Berry was there, and a season in Denver with Joe Woods.
Jackson and McKinley both play with high motors and should be able to help rattle the QB.
“What we like most about Malik is his ability to impact the quarterback as an interior rusher,” said Berry. “He played three-technique and has played what we call ‘the Big End.’ But what we love about him is his length, quickness and tenacity as an interior rusher to give us more of a presence in passing situations over guards and centers.”
Former Cowboys OT Greg Senat
1 year, undisclosed
Senat began the 2020 season on the Browns’ practice squad, but was signed by the Cowboys to their active roster and played in 10 games, mostly on special teams. A sixth-round pick of the Ravens in 2018, he spent most of his first two seasons on IR with the Ravens and Chiefs. Senat will provide depth in place of Kendall Lamm, who signed with the Titans.
“He’s a very physically gifted tackle who is still new to the sport,’’ Berry said. “We thought he made a lot of progress on our practice squad last year and we tried our best to retain him when Dallas signed him to their active roster. We feel fortunate that we’re able to get him back with Bill Callahan and Scott Peters and add him to the mix to compete for our fourth tackle job. We think he’s a very physically gifted guy. He’s very studious and is a hard worker, and he fits the profile for guys that usually do well for us.”
Their own free agents including WR Rashard Higgins, LB Malcolm Smith and K Cody Parkey.
“We’re all very thrilled to get guys like Rashard, Malcolm, JoJo (Natson) and Cody and guys like that back because it doesn’t always work out that way,” Berry said. “Those guys played a major role for us last year, and we look forward to the role they’ll play for us in 2021.”
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