Who would have thought that the Cleveland Browns would be one touchdown away from knocking out the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Divisional Round? It's safe to say that these are not the same Browns to which we've all grown accustomed.
For NFL front office executives, there really is no offseason. Cleveland general manager Andrew Berry and company will be working around the clock to have an even deeper playoff run that hopefully ends with them lifting the Vince Lombardi trophy for the very first time.
Cleveland has a young, promising quarterback in Baker Mayfield, who managed to overcome his sophomore slump. He is complemented by one of the best offensive lines in football, despite the departure of one of the best left tackles of all time and veteran stalwart Joe Thomas. Add in a strong, two-headed rushing attack with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt and a solid receiver core with big names in Odell Beckham, Jr. and Jarvis Landry. Most of Berry's work will be on the defensive side.
It's a good thing the Browns are in one of the better salary cap situations in the league, one of the benefits of hitting your draft picks. They have around $24 million in cap space.
Here are three targets for the Dawg Pound's free agency class.
1. LB Shaquil Barrett
With veteran pass-rusher Olivier Vernon sustaining an Achilles injury and his contract ending, Cleveland will look to find a replacement to pair with Myles Garrett forming a dynamic pass-rushing duo for years to come. Contract-wise this is where the Browns will most likely make a big splash. Also, pass rusher is a premium position and naturally costs more.
28-year-old Tampa Bay Buccaneer Barrett is an underrated pass rusher, who is also strong against the run. He had a ridiculous 19.5 sacks in 2019, which led the league. There were times he was even able to drop back in coverage. 2019 marked his first trip to the Pro Bowl.
This season, however, he has seen his numbers regress, as he did not even reach half of his sack totals. Despite this down year, he will still be in high demand in the free agent market for his potential to be a menace in the passing game and regain some of his 2019 form. The Bucs used their one-year franchise tag on Shaquil. As they are maximizing their Super Bowl window with Tom Brady, they may not be able to sign Barrett to a long-year deal, which in turn opens a window for teams like the Browns.
Barrett could be signed for a multi-year contract with a ballpark figure of $16 million per year.
2. LB K.J. Wright
Arguably, the position group most in need of the Browns defense is the linebacker corps. Ideally, they go after Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David. He'll provide veteran leadership and an all-around skill set. With the Bucs, finally Super Bowl contenders and the fact that David spent his whole career in Tampa Bay, he may decide to re-sign with the only NFL team for which he has ever played.
Enter K.J. Wright. At age 31, he is nearing the end of a fruitful career with the Seattle Seahawks that peaked with a Super Bowl trophy. He is a well-rounded player, although his pass coverage skills are not what they used to be. Nonetheless, he can contribute to stopping the run and setting the edge for their deadly pass rushers. As he seems to be on the way out in Seattle, he may want to take one more stop with a contender before riding off to the sunset.
The Browns can acquire the veteran linebacker's services for a two-year contract that pays him a total of $10 million.
3. CB Mike Hilton
Cleveland's playoff opponents had quite the collection of receivers. Moving forward, it is imperative to have a secondary that can match those receivers. Most of the available free-agent cornerbacks play the slot. One of these is Pittsburgh Steeler Hilton, who can do many things the defense asks of him. He was adept at playing both man and zone coverage schemes. Surprisingly, he racked up three sacks in the season, showing he can also be used in blitz packages. At 5-foot-9, 184 pounds, he is not suited to play on the outside, especially against the more physical receivers in the league. Signing Hilton also takes away a defender from their division rivals.
Hilton could say goodbye to Pittsburgh and hello to Cleveland with a multi-year contract offer of $3 million a year.