The 2021 Cleveland Browns finished their campaign short of expectations. However, there are many positive take-aways from the season. We saw the 2021 offseason defensive investment begin to pay off. Down the final stretch of the season this defense was humming and we saw a glimpse of the potential for the 2022 season. We saw the points allowed per game drop from 26.2 in 2020 to 21.8 in 2021. A very noticeable improvement. Given another offseason to work with this squad, the hope is Joe Woods can further improve.
Now a key in this improvement will be keeping the core of this roster intact. The Cleveland Browns enter the 2022 offseason with about $28 million in cap room. As we see in every offseason, this number is able to change on a moment’s notice. Through restructuring we can see Andrew Berry add up to ~$70 million to this number. If cap space were added, where should it be spent? Signing some big name free agents? Working on the Denzel Ward extension? One area of concern is retaining talent on the current roster. Read on to find out which three players the 2022 Cleveland Browns should make a priority to re-sign.
Big thanks to the folks over at Spotrac.com for providing the financial information used throughout this article. Also be sure to check out Pro Football Reference for all of the statistical information. Finally, credit for the restructurable cap amounts goes to Arjun Menon at PFF. He has a great article outlining the assets every team has to deploy in this 2022 offseason.
David Njoku, 25, Tight End
Andrew Berry has been a godsend for the Cleveland Browns since joining in the 2020 offseason. However, there is one contract that he probably wishes he could have a mulligan on. That would be the large deal for then free agent Austin Hooper. Hooper carries a cap hit of $13.25 million both this year and next with no clear way out of his contract this offseason. All of this for a tight end who many can argue might be the third best on the team.
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Despite leading the tight end room in both offensive snaps and targets, Hooper is not even the leading producer. He was outproduced and many can say outplayed by both David Njoku and Harrison Bryant. Bryant is entering the third year of his rookie contract, but Njoku is set to hit free agency this offseason.
It is a shame that such big money is devoted to Hooper because that money could easily take care of a Njoku resigning. Njoku is a homegrown talent and to many a fan favorite. Andrew Berry is a smart man and I have every confidence he will find a way to keep Njoku around. According to Spotrac, Njoku’s market value should be roughly $7 million in average annual salary. This easily falls within the cap number we have, however with a pending Ward extension and some other priority free agents, this number will get tight quickly.
Jadeveon Clowney, 29, Edge
Starting a defensive line with two number one overall picks as bookends is something most franchises can only dream about. The 2021 Cleveland Browns got to live this fantasy. Jadaveon Clowney was the Golden Goose for this Cleveland front office, with rumors of his signing extending over at least two offseasons.
Having Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney on the field at the same time was a huge help to this defensive front. Clowney may not be the stat leader on the team, but his presence increases the ability of those around him. Look at it this way, if you have to double team both Garrett and Clowney that only leaves one offensive lineman to cover everything else. In 2021 we saw increases in team sacks, pressures, and knockdowns. Now one might say that there were too many defensive additions to attribute this solely to Clowney. Which does make sense. However, many of those other defensive additions are under contract for 2022.
Out of all the potential returning free agents, Clowney might be the toughest to resign. A similar contract we can compare to this may be the one JJ Watt signed last offseason with the Arizona Cardinals. He signed a 2 year $28 million contract at the age of 31. Considering Clowney is two years younger, we can treat this as the floor of any deal with the Cleveland Browns. The signing of Clowney will definitely come with the restructuring of other players and possibly the cutting of others. All a balancing act we will watch play out the next couple of months.
Anthony Walker, 26, Linebacker
Walker was brought in last offseason during Andrew Berry’s great defensive overhaul. The linebacker was selected in the fifth round by the Indianapolis Colts in 2017. He was an immediate starter for Joe Woods and led all linebackers in snaps during the 2021 season. He led the team in tackles, both solo and assisted. As a matter of fact, Walker and JOK were one of only three pairs of linebackers to both fall within PFF’s top 20 at the position. The other duos were Kansas City’s Nick Bolton and Willie Gay Jr. and New England’s Ja’Whaun Bentley and Kyle Van Noy.
Despite entering his third contract, Walker is only 26 years old this offseason. If a long term deal can be agreed upon, he could be a Cleveland Brown for a long time. His deal last offseason was for one year and three million dollars. Hopefully Berry can offer something in the 3 year and $12 million range and lock up Walker for the next few seasons. Having two young linebackers as the foundation of a defense for many years to come would be huge for the franchise.