Browns free-agent signing grades: What worked, what didn’t and what it means for 2023


This is Jacoby Brissett’s final week as the Browns’ starting quarterback. Next week, Deshaun Watson’s suspension ends and Watson will make his Browns debut on Dec. 4 in Houston against his former team.

Brissett wasn’t much in the mood to reflect Wednesday when he spoke with reporters, instead saying his full focus remains on trying to help the 3-7 Browns snap their two-game losing streak when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers visit Cleveland on Sunday. But Brissett has undoubtedly been better than most anyone outside the Browns’ facility believed he could or would be, and the impending quarterback switch brings more awkwardness to an already strange and disjointed Browns season.

Brissett is completing a career-high 64.4 percent of his passes and has 11 touchdown passes versus just five interceptions for a Browns offense that’s done its part in most of the team’s games this season. There was never any doubt that Watson would play as soon as he was eligible to do so, but with the change directly ahead, it’s a good time to reflect on Brissett’s performance. If the Browns had been even a little better on defense and won even a couple more games than they have to this point, Brissett’s performance would be receiving much more praise and attention than it has.

“(This) is what I signed up for,”  Brissett said. “I don’t think I should be commended on doing my job and doing what I am supposed to do and what I told myself and everybody else that I was going to do. I am doing my job, but just obviously wish we won more games. We have an opportunity to do that this week, and I am looking forward to that.”

How does Brissett think he’s played?

“That’s not for me to judge,” he said.

We can judge Brissett as a really good free agent signing considering his steady presence and his salary of $4.65 million, a bargain even by current backup quarterback standards. The Browns signed Brissett a day after completing the trade for Watson last March; next year, Brissett will almost certainly be on to his fourth team in four years and fifth since he entered the league as a third-round pick of the Patriots in 2016.

Is Brissett the Browns’ best free-agent signing in three offseasons under general manager Andrew Berry? Probably not, but he’s in the discussion as at least the best from a value standpoint. The Browns’ failures this season have brought angst on many facets of the operation, and the defensive struggles have exposed the Browns’ lack of overall defensive depth and their personnel shortcomings in the front seven.

With the Browns not having a first-round pick last year or in the next two drafts after the Watson trade, they’re going to have to be better than they’ve been in the middle rounds and in free agency to build a championship-contending roster. Even if Watson plays at an extremely high level this year and next, the Browns really only have defensive depth at cornerback, and on the offensive side they probably don’t have much depth anywhere except the offensive line and at running back. There’s not much to indicate that many current young players on the roster are ready to take leaps; the Browns have not drafted a Pro Bowler since 2018.

When you miss on third- and fourth-round picks, it hurts your roster in both the short term and the long term. It appears the Browns have missed badly in that range over their last several drafts, so the Browns are going to have to devote money and likely get creative in trying to fix and fortify the defense after this season.

In free agency, the Browns like one-year deals for defensive players, and they like former first-round picks. They also like to use voidable years on short-term contracts, a standard practice across the league that allows teams to spread out salary-cap hits for players signing one-year deals. The Browns haven’t been awful in free agency over the past few seasons; they just haven’t been great in an area that’s difficult for any team to truly be great. The best players rarely hit free agency; the ones who do often demand big contracts.

Let’s sift through some of the Browns’ past free-agent additions under Berry and see how they’ve helped — or hurt — the Browns’ chase to build a playoff-quality roster. Contract details are per Players who signed minimum deals and/or only ended up having short stints with the Browns may not be included. The focus is on players targeted as starters early in free agency. Obviously, Watson and Amari Cooper were the Browns’ biggest (and most expensive) offseason additions last March, but both were acquired via trade.

Berry has had some pretty big misses in the draft and in the overall building of the defense, but getting Cooper for the cost of a late-round pick swap ahead of the wide receiver market going crazy and getting two picks for Baker Mayfield three months after the Browns had moved on stand as pretty shrewd moves.

2022 class (Excluding Brissett)

• DT Taven Bryan: The first free agent of the 2022 class was given a starting role and fit the Browns’ prior prototype as a former first-round pick who might benefit from a new start. Bryan signed a one-year deal worth up to $5 million; the Browns have a historically bad run defense, and he ranks No. 108 by Pro Football Focus among NFL defensive tackles who have played at least 20 percent of their team’s snaps.

• WR/KR Jakeem Grant: The Browns gave the Pro Bowl return man a multi-year deal in hopes that he could revive their return game, but Grant suffered a torn Achilles tendon in early August. Grant turned 30 in October; he’s under contract with the Browns for two more seasons, though his salary-cap charge is minimal if he can’t make it back from the injury.

• C Ethan Pocic: Pocic was a nice find in the second wave of free agency and had played well as the Browns’ center before he suffered a knee injury last week. He’s a free agent after the season, and it’s currently unknown if he’ll be able to return by the end of the year.

• P Corey Bojorquez: He’s been just OK. The Browns’ special teams units as a whole have been bad. The Browns signing Bojorquez in April was pretty much a sign they’d be drafting a kicker and not a punter. We’ll see what happens in the coming offseason.

• DE Stephen Weatherly: The veteran edge rusher was signed to a one-year deal worth $1.2 million ahead of the start of the offseason program — and when Jadeveon Clowney was still a free agent. Weatherly was placed on injured reserve in training camp due to a knee injury.

• QB Joshua Dobbs: He hasn’t played in any games, but the Browns are glad they signed Dobbs amid their offseason quarterback uncertainty. He could be back next year, too, though he’s on a one-year deal

• DE Isaac Rochell: He made the team out of camp and played in the pass-rush rotation, but was cut earlier this month and signed back to the practice squad.

Summary: Outside the lingering quarterback question, wide receiver was atop the list of the Browns’ offseason needs and the first move of the offseason was the trade for Cooper. Grant was signed during the first week of free agency; he wouldn’t have been a full-time wide receiver, but he likely would have had a role as a gadget player and part-time slot receiver. It’s clear now that the Browns didn’t devote enough resources to defensive tackle or linebacker, where their only notable offseason move was bringing back Anthony Walker Jr.

2021 class

• S John Johnson III: The first signee of the Browns’ offseason got a three-year deal with $24 million in guarantees because the Browns needed playmaking, range and leadership in the back of their defense. Johnson had three interceptions in 15 starts last season, but he has no interceptions this year and grades by Pro Football Focus as the NFL’s No. 71 safety to this point of the 2022 season. Almost $13 million of his $13.5 million 2023 salary cap number is guaranteed.

• DE Jadeveon Clowney: Clowney didn’t sign until late April, but a year after telling the Browns he wasn’t interested in joining them, he signed a one-year deal worth about $11 million, some of which the Browns pushed forward with voidable years. After missing just one game due to injury and posting a solid overall season that included nine sacks, Clowney did another one-year deal to return to the Browns for about $11 million. Clowney has been slowed this season by an ankle injury, and like most of the rest of the defense, he’s having a disappointing season.

Jadeveon Clowney had 9.0 sacks in 14 games last season but has been slowed by an ankle injury in 2022. (Frank Jansky / Getty Images)

• LB Anthony Walker Jr.: Walker immediately became a full-time player for the Browns, starting in the middle of the base defense and helping the overall growth of the unit with his smarts and leadership. He signed another one-year deal ahead of last season, and was playing better this season than he did in 2021 before suffering a season-ending quad injury in Week 3.

• CB Troy Hill: The second ex-Rams defensive back to sign a multi-year deal with the Browns early in free agency became the team’s primary slot cornerback last season. Hill played in 12 games for the Browns, making four starts, and was traded back to the Rams during last year’s draft. Hill counts around $2.6 million on this year’s Browns salary cap.

• DE Takk McKinley: He had a clear role as the Browns’ third-down rush specialist, and despite missing most of training camp for personal reasons, McKinley made an impact for the Browns last season before suffering a torn Achilles tendon in late November. McKinley had 2.5 sacks for the Browns in 11 games last season; he’s bounced around the league this season and was most recently on the Cowboys’ practice squad.

• DT Malik Jackson: Jackson signed a one-year deal for $3.75 million and started 16 games during his age-31 season. Jackson was one of the league’s best interior pass-rushers during the prime of his career, but he had 0.5 sacks in his time with the Browns. He’s not playing this season.

• DT Malik McDowell: The Browns signed McDowell after the 2021 draft in hopes that McDowell could revive his career. McDowell was a second-round pick for Seattle in the 2017 draft, but he’d been injured and spent three months in jail and never played in a game until he debuted for the Browns last season. McDowell earned a starting job with the Browns based on his mass and brute strength, and for much of last season, he played well. But McDowell was arrested last January and charged with aggravated battery of an officer, obstruction of justice with violence and exposing himself in public.

Summary: Safety and pass rush were the pressing needs coming off of a playoff season. The offseason goal was fixing the defense, and the Browns thought they had done that via free agency and the draft. This was overall a solid free agent class, though not finding any longer-term help at defensive tackle obviously stands out now as a big miss. What might be most frustrating is that last year’s defense finished the season playing well, though it has not carried over.

2020 class

• OT Jack Conklin: The Browns went to 2020 needing two offensive tackles and got Conklin on the first day of free agency with $30 million guaranteed on a three-year deal. Conklin was excellent his first season with the Browns, and after he tore his patellar tendon last season the Browns re-worked the final year of his deal to fully guarantee his base salary of $8 million. Conklin missed this season’s first two games while rehabbing but has started every game since. With 2021 draft pick James Hudson waiting and the Browns having so many defensive needs, Conklin might be playing elsewhere next year.

• TE Austin Hooper: The Browns needed a tight end for Kevin Stefanski’s offense, so they overpaid Hooper on the first day of free agency. Hooper was a good blocker for the Browns, but he wasn’t consistent as a pass-catcher and rarely made plays down the field. The Browns cut Hooper last March using the post-June 1 designation, which spread what was left of his $23 million in guarantees over multiple seasons. The Browns are swallowing about $3.75 million on their salary cap this year and next year for Hooper, who’s starting this season for the Tennessee Titans.

• QB Case Keenum: Stefanski had worked with Keenum in Minnesota, and the Browns saw Keenum as a reliable insurance option and the right player to help Baker Mayfield learn another new offense. The good news for next year is that the Browns are pretty good at identifying backup quarterbacks in free agency! Keenum was traded to the Bills last March on the same day the Browns signed Brissett.

• DE Adrian Clayborn: Clayborn signed a two-year deal, but ended up recording 3.5 sacks in what became the final year of a productive NFL career. He played in 15 games, mostly in the role he was signed for as the Browns’ third defensive end.

• CB Kevin Johnson: Johnson played as the primary slot cornerback and was pressed into duty outside at times due to injury. Johnson was a good signing and his versatility helped the Browns. He signed with Tennesee ahead of the 2021 season but then decided to retire.

• S Karl Joseph and S Andrew Sendejo: The Browns needed experience at safety. They got experience but not much playmaking, though Joseph recovered a fumble for a touchdown in the Browns’ playoff win in Pittsburgh and had an interception the following week in Kansas City. Like Johnson, Joseph was a former first-round pick on whom the Browns decided to take a relatively low-cost flier. Both Joseph and Sendejo played more snaps than originally intended because then-rookie Grant Delpit missed the season. The Browns traded to acquire Ronnie Harrison, and he started for much of 2020 but has been a part-time player since.

• LB B.J. Goodson: Goodson started at middle linebacker for the Browns and picked off two passes. He wasn’t re-signed after the season and played in one game last season for the Giants.

• DT Andrew Billings: Billings chose to opt out of the 2020 season after signing a one-year deal. His contract carried over to last season when he played some as a rotational defensive tackle but was cut in November.

• LB Malcolm Smith: A training camp addition, the former Super Bowl MVP ended up playing for the Browns in both 2020 and 2021 when injuries hit the linebacker position. Smith considered retirement ahead of last season but recorded two interceptions in 15 games; he isn’t playing this year.

• WR/KR JoJo Natson: The Browns used Natson as their primary return man and occasionally on offense, but he suffered a season-ending injury early in the 2020 season and spent some time last year on the practice squad.

• C Evan Brown: Brown signed a low-cost deal and made the team before getting cut at midseason. He now starts for the Lions, but the Browns still found their developmental offensive lineman when they signed Michael Dunn during training camp. Dunn started the playoff win over the Steelers and has played this season as an extra tackle/tight end.

Summary: Hooper was a swing-and-miss, but the 2020 Browns making the playoffs says this class was a success. It’s also a reminder that free agency is expensive and not exactly the best way to build a long-term roster, but Conklin has been a key piece of a good offensive line and Keenum helped the Browns in multiple ways.

What’s next?

Current players set to be eligible for unrestricted free agency next March: Clowney, Conklin, Kareem Hunt, Brissett, Walker, Bryan, Deion Jones, Dobbs, Pocic, Greedy Williams, Harrison, D’Ernest Johnson, Pharaoh Brown, Chris Hubbard, Weatherly and Chase Winovich. Dunn is eligible for restricted free agency.

The 2023 salary cap is expected to jump significantly — perhaps as much as $20 million from this year’s cap of $208 million — with the league’s new media rights deals set to kick in. As it stands, the Browns have about $30 million from this year’s cap that they can roll over to next year. But with a bunch of this year’s starters set to hit free agency and the defense in shaky condition, they’ll need all available resources.

(Top photo of John Johnson III: Nick Cammett /Getty Images)


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