CLEVELAND — Earlier this week, the Cleveland Browns hired Jim Schwartz as their new defensive coordinator.
With that in mind, let's take a look at five potential defensive free agents the Browns could target in the offseason ahead following the hiring of their new defensive coordinator.
Javon Hargrave, defensive tackle, Philadelphia Eagles
Take one look at the current state of Cleveland's defense and the defensive tackle position stands out as a clear need. The Browns' highest-graded defensive tackle (Taven Bryan) ranked 65th in the NFL last season, according to Pro Football Focus, and it wasn't a coincidence that Cleveland's rushing defense was one of the worst in the league.
Considering Schwartz's extensive track record with top-level defensive tackles -- he's coached Albert Haynesworth, Ndamukong Suh and Fletcher Cox, among others -- it seems likely the Browns will prioritize the position in the offseason ahead. While likely won't come cheap -- Spotrac projects a four-year, $80 million deal -- Javon Hargrave possesses the kind of pass-rush prowess that would make him an ideal fit for Schwartz's scheme.
Daron Payne, defensive tackle, Washington Commanders
Having just completed the final season of his rookie contract, Daron Payne is schedule to become a free agent this offseason. And while it's possible -- perhaps likely -- Washington will place the franchise tag on him, he remains a name worth monitoring nonetheless.
Should Payne become available, via trade or free agency, it's tough to imagine Cleveland wouldn't be interested as the 2022 Pro Bowl selection is one of the best pass-rushing defensive tackles in the NFL. Like Hargrave, acquiring the 25-year-old would be costly, with Spotrac projecting a four-year, $81 million deal for the Alabama product.
Fletcher Cox, defensive tackle, Philadelphia Eagles
At 32 years old, Fletcher Cox is older than the free agents the Browns' front office has typically targeted. But the six-time All-Pro remains a productive pass-rusher and excelled in his five seasons playing under Schwartz, who served as Philadelphia's defensive coordinator from 2016-2020.
Considering Cleveland's vast need at the position, Cox could be a name to monitor regardless of whether the Browns sign a top-tier defensive tackle free agent such as Hargrave or Payne. And considering his age, the 2018 All-Pro could prove to be a more affordable alternative.
Jessie Bates III, safety, Cincinnati Bengals
While much of the focus regarding the Browns' defense has been -- justifiably -- placed up front, changes are also likely coming to Cleveland's secondary. WIth John Johnson III being a potential salary cap casualty and Schwartz often utilizing a single-high safety, it seems likely that the Browns will be in the market for a new safety to pair with Grant Delpit.
And if Cleveland is willing to spend big, it may not have to look outside of Ohio, with Bengals free safety Jessie Bates III scheduled to hit the open market. While Spotrac projects a five-year, $67 million contract for the 2020 second-team All-Pro selection, that would prove to be money well spent if the 25-year-old could help shore up a Browns secondary that's been prone to giving up big plays.
Brandon Graham, defensive end, Philadelphia Eagles
While he'll be 35 years old when the 2023 season starts, Brandon Graham is coming off a season in which he totaled a career-high 11 sacks. And with Cleveland needing a new running mate for Myles Garrett following Jadeveon Clowney's messy departure, the Browns could do worse than a still-productive veteran who's previously excelled under Schwartz.