Lacking Resources, the Browns Have Actually Put Together a Solid Offseason
This offseason, the Cleveland Browns have spent their resources as well as anyone. That spending continued Friday when the Browns acquired three-time Pro Bowl edge rusher Za’Darius Smith from the Vikings. The Browns got Smith, a 2025 sixth-round pick, and a 2025 seventh-round pick, and the Vikings got two fifth-round picks, one in 2024 and one in 2025.
Za’Darius Smith had 10 sacks in his only season in Minnesota and has 54.5 sacks throughout his career. But he is playing for one more big payday in Cleveland this season. So, there will be plenty of motivation for Smith to make the Browns’ low-cost addition pay off.
But that was just the latest effort to improve on defense for the Browns.
Cleveland also signed defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson from the Vikings and edge rusher Ogbonnia Okoronkwo from the Texans. In total, they’ve added seven starters or rotational players on the defensive side of the ball this offseason.
And that doesn’t count additions in the NFL Draft, where the Browns took Baylor defensive tackle Siaki Ika in the third round. They also selected Missouri defensive end Isaiah McGuire in the fourth round and Northwestern cornerback Cameron Mitchell in the fifth.
Of the four defensive players that the Browns lost (or moved on from in free agency), only defensive lineman Taven Bryan played more than 20 percent of Cleveland’s snaps in 2022. So, these are all upgrades rather than replacements.
As it was, Cleveland was pretty good in most facets of the defensive side of the ball by some metrics. ESPN has the Browns at No. 13 in pass rush win rate (43 percent) and No. 11 in run stop win rate (31 percent). The Browns ranked 4th in opponent completion percentage (60.7 percent), 5th in opposing passing yards allowed, and 12th in opposing passing yards per attempt.
Where Cleveland struggled was against the run. The Browns ranked 25th in rushing yards against, allowing 2,295 yards on the ground to opponents. That’s good for 135 yards per contest allowed on the ground.
The Browns fired defensive coordinator Joe Woods following the 2022 season. Cleveland replaced Woods with Jim Schwartz. For the past two seasons, Schwartz has served as the Senior Defensive Assistant with the Tennessee Titans. His hire in Cleveland will mark the fourth time he has served as a defensive coordinator in the NFL. The 56-year-old previously served as the defensive coordinator for the Eagles (2016-20), Bills (2014), and Titans (2001-08). Schwartz was the head coach of the Detroit Lions from 2009 to 2013, posting a 29-51 record with the Lions.
Stellar defensive line play is a consistent trait of Jim Schwartz’s defenses. With Za’Darius Smith in the fold, the Browns hope to let Smith, Okoronkwo, and Myles Garrett lose against opposing quarterbacks. Dalvin Tomlinson will plug the middle against the run. The idea behind the Smith trade is that if the Browns can keep Myles Garrett fresh more often, he’ll have more success this season.
That’s a scary idea, considering Garrett has logged 16 sacks in each of the past two seasons for the Browns.
With Deshaun Watson’s suspension behind him, the Browns want to play faster on offense, so a dependable rotation on defensive will be essential for keeping the formidable group fresh with what Cleveland hopes is more time on the field in 2023.
A fourth-place finish in the AFC North in 2022 has head coach Kevin Stefanski and GM Andrew Berry feeling the heat under their seat. However, their frugal and tactical approach to addressing their two most significant needs this offseason (the defensive line and wide receiver) has been executed impressively.
Like the Smith trade, the Browns created a favorable trade for wide receiver Elijah Moore in March. Cleveland sent the No. 42 pick to New York for Moore and the No. 74 pick in last month’s NFL Draft.
Moore asked for a trade during the season after not seeing eye-to-eye with former offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur. Moore stuck around, however, and trailed only rookie Garrett Wilson in offensive snaps among Jets wide receivers. Still, Moore caught just 37 passes for 446 yards and a touchdown in 2022. Now the former second-round pick of the Jets (2021) gets a fresh start in Cleveland.
Cleveland then turned that pick from the Jets into wide receiver Cedric Tillman out of Tennessee. Tillman played five seasons at Tennessee and has a career-best season in 2021 when he caught 64 passes for 1,081 yards and 12 touchdowns. Tillman played in six games last season and caught 37 passes for 417 yards and three touchdowns. He missed six games last season due to tightrope ankle surgery.
Tillman and Moore join Amari Cooper, Donovan Peoples-Jones, and 2022 third-round pick David Bell in the Browns’ receivers room. Not too shabby.
Hats off to Berry and Stefanski. For now, anyway.