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Examining the Cleveland Browns' 2021 free agents

The Cleveland Browns enter the 2021 offseason needing to make several decisions on players set to hit free agency.

CLEVELAND — Following their season-ending loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC divisional round on Sunday, the Cleveland Browns' attention now shifts toward the upcoming offseason.

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And like every team, the Browns find themselves with several players set to hit free agency, leaving their futures with the franchise in question.

From key contributors to players who merely helped round out the roster, general manager Andrew Berry and the Cleveland front office will have no shortage of key decisions to make. With that in mind, let's take a look at the Browns' upcoming free agents in 2021.

List of players provided by OverTheCap.com

Key contributors

  • Olivier Vernon
  • Rashard Higgins
  • Larry Ogunjobi
  • Terrance Mitchell
  • B.J. Goodson

Of the players on this list, Olivier Vernon had the largest impact on the Browns' 2020 season, but is perhaps also the least likely to re-sign. After tallying nine sacks in his second season with Cleveland, the veteran pass-rusher saw his 2020 campaign come to an end when he suffered a torn Achilles' in the Browns' playoff-clinching regular-season finale vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers. Between his age (30) and the severity of his injury, it seems likely Cleveland will look elsewhere to find a new pass-rusher to pair with Myles Garrett.

After spending the bulk of the 2019 season on the sidelines, Rashard Higgins re-emerged in 2020 as one of Baker Mayfield's most reliable pass-catchers. In 13 regular-season games, the fifth-year receiver totaled 39 passes for 599 yards and four touchdowns, as well as five receptions for 88 yards in Sunday's loss for the Chiefs.

Considering his chemistry with Mayfield, Higgins might be the Browns player most likely to be re-signed this offseason. It's worth wondering, however, how much Cleveland would be willing to offer him with Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry each making more than $15 million per year.

Since being drafted by the Browns in the third round of the 2017 draft, Larry Ogunjobi has been a mainstay of Cleveland's defensive line. But after posting a solid, but unspectacular 2020 campaign, an extension seems to be unlikely, especially with Sheldon Richardson, Andrew Billings and Jordan Elliott set to return at defensive tackle.

After Greedy Williams missed the entire season with a shoulder injury, Terrance Mitchell started all 18 of Cleveland's games this season. The 28-year-old played well enough (13 pass defenses, 67.4 Pro Football Focus grade) that the Browns could bring him back if the money is right, but with Denzel Ward due for an extension, it seems unlikely that Cleveland will be willing to spend any significant money on a corner who's best suited to provide depth.

Linebacker B.J. Goodson was signed as a one-year rental last offseason and wound being the Browns' most consistent linebacker in 2020. Given his familiarity with Cleveland's scheme, it wouldn't be surprising to see him return in 2021, although it's unlikely the Browns' analytically-driven front office will spend significant resources on the linebacker position.

Credit: AP
Cleveland Browns' Rashard Higgins (82) during the second half of an NFL football game against the New York Giants Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

One-year veterans

  • Kevin Johnson
  • Karl Joseph
  • Andrew Sendejo
  • JoJo Natson

In his first offseason as the Browns' general manager, Berry made a habit of signing veteran free agents to one-year contracts. In addition to Goodson, Cleveland signed cornerback Kevin Johnson, safety Karl Joseph, safety Andrew Sendejo and kick returner JoJo Natson to one-year deals.

Aside from Goodson, Joseph played the best of the bunch, appearing in 14 games and starting eight. It seems unlikely, however, that he'll return to the Browns for a second season as Ronnie Harrison Jr. appears to be the team's starting strong safety moving forward.

Johnson, meanwhile, filled a role at nickel and could be brought back on a similar short-term contract if Cleveland can't upgrade elsewhere. It's hard to imagine the 33-year-old Sendejo being re-signed after a largely underwhelming 2020 campaign.

Of this group, perhaps the player most likely to re-sign is Natson, who played in just three games before suffering a season-ending torn ACL. Whether Cleveland attempts to re-sign the Akron product will likely be dependant on Natson's recovery and the Browns' other kick return options.

Credit: AP
Cleveland Browns strong safety Karl Joseph (42) celebrates after recovering a fumbled in the end zone for a touchdown during the first half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021.(AP Photo/Don Wright)

Intriguing upside

  • KhaDarel Hodge (RFA)
  • Michael Dunn (ERFA)
  • Stephen Carlson (ERFA)
  • Porter Gustin (ERFA)

While injuries limited him to just nine games, KhaDarel Hodge displayed some chemistry with Mayfield, turning 16 targets into 11 receptions for 180 yards. As a restricted free agent, the Browns will have the ability to tender Hodge an offer and match any other contract offer he receives.

With Joel Bitonio on the COVID-19 list, Michael Dunn started at left guard in the Browns' wild card round victory vs. the Steelers and played well until leaving the game with a calf injury. As an early rights free agent, it's almost a lock Dunn will be brought back to provide depth on Cleveland's offensive line in 2021.

Thanks to head coach Kevin Stefanski's affinity for tight ends, Stephen Carlson was active for all 16 of the Browns' regular-season games, despite being fourth on the tight end depth chart behind Austin Hooper, Harrison Bryant and David Njoku. While Carlson only caught one pass for 11 yards this season, the early rights free agent remains an affordable player at a position Cleveland values -- especially considering Njoku's uncertain future with the franchise.

A former 5-star prospect, Porter Gustin saw the most significant playing time of his NFL career in 2020, appearing in 14 games as a regular in Cleveland's defensive line rotation. While his production wasn't anything noteworthy, his status as an early rights free agent will likely lead to the USC product playing a third season with the Browns, where he'll once again be counted on to provide defensive line depth.

Rounding out the roster

  • Taywan Taylor
  • Marvin Hall
  • Colby Gossett (ERFA)
  • Tae Davis
  • Tavierre Thomas (RFA)
  • Elijah Lee
  • Vincent Taylor
  • George Obinna (ERFA)
  • Brian Allen (ERFA)
  • Anthony Fabiano (RFA)
  • Malcolm Smith
  • Tedric Thompson (SFA)
  • Kendall Lamm
  • Jordan Franks (SFA)
  • Cody Parkey

This list is largely comprised of low-cost players whose departure or re-signing in Cleveland isn't likely to move the needle either way.

Perhaps the most notable player on it is Cody Parkey, who served as the Browns' starting kicker after they cut Austin Seibert following Week 1. Converting 19 of his 22 field goal attempts and 43 of 47 extra points, Parkey made a solid enough case for being brought back in 2021. But it would also be tough to argue against the Browns upgrading at kicker should a more viable alternative present itself in the offseason.

   

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