The Cleveland Browns finished what was a successful season that highlighted the issues they still must address this offseason, particularly in the upcoming NFL Draft. And since the Browns finished so much later than usual, the underclassman deadline has already come and gone, so save for seniors who might opt to play another year of college football as a result of the pandemic, the 2021 NFL Draft class is set.
The biggest issues that stand out as needs for the Browns are corner, defensive end and a wide receiver that can provide a meaningful vertical threat. With corner, the Browns need a starter on the boundary as well in the slot, especially as the Browns appear poised to lean into the notion of playing with more defensive backs on the field, reducing their reliance on the linebacker position.
This draft class will be tricky from a media perspective because information is going to be more difficult to come by as it relates to athletic testing. There also won’t be a baseline comparison in the form of the NFL scouting combine, which provided an apples to apples comparison.
Nevertheless, there are plenty of players that appear to fit the qualities the Browns sought last year based on their film, production and age.
Round 1: Asante Samuel Jr., CB Florida State
Listed Measurables: 5’10” 184lbs
Production: 23 solo tackles (7.2 percent), 6 pass deflections (30 percent) in 8 games in 2020. He opted out out at that point.
Samuel’s official measurement and timed speed will likely determine whether teams view him as a pure slot corner or a legitimate boundary option in the vein of Jason Verrett.
Perhaps the Browns just take him with the idea of making him their full time slot, believing he won’t be just pretty good, but great at it.
Part of Samuel’s value as a prospect is his physicality and ability to tackle. He’s fearless and strong while displaying excellent technique, which allows him to be an impact tackler while also protecting himself in the process. That is part of the reason he’s never missed a game throughout his college career.
For the scheme the defensive coordinator Joe Woods has at least hinted he wants to run, Samuel’s toughness inside would be extremely valuable. With the Browns wanting to avoid being reliant on the linebacker position, having someone as physical as Samuel on the inside is an advantage as they transition to a smaller, faster defense.
The goal isn’t to have Samuel consistently making tackles on running backs, but being effective at covering slot receivers while also able to punish receivers going over the middle of the field or quarterbacks trying to run would be beneficial. Samuel has the speed and quickness to track down quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson and Joe Burrow, who the Browns will be facing twice per season.
Kevin Johnson was a pretty good coverage option for the Browns in 2019 but he’s never been a good or reliable tackler. Samuel would be a massive upgrade in that regard while he should be an excellent coverage option. Smaller and faster while arguably getting meaner with a player like Samuel could be a great way to make a scheme with fewer linebackers not only viable but dangerous.
Round 2: Greg Newsome II, CB Northwestern
Listed Measurables: 6’1″ 190lbs
Production: 28 solo tackles (8.2 percent), 11 pass deflections (39.2 percent) in 9 games in 2019.
Newsome is an aggressive cover corner that takes full advantage of his length and consistently makes plays on the ball. The Wildcats run a number of different coverages, so Newsome has experience playing tight man, off man and zone coverages.
Newsome does an nice job tracking the ball and being able to make plays whether he’s facing the quarterback or in a trail position. Aggressive and physical, Newsome will end up with his share of penalties as he adjusts to the NFL but he will also frustrate receivers by taking away what appear to be receptions.
As a tackler, Newsome’s technique needs work. He’s physical with a strong build, but he too often just relies on sheer strength or throwing his body at the opponent rather than good habits. Newsome will get the ball carrier on the ground, but he could do so more efficiently and better protect himself in the process.
Newsome is built to play on the boundary and would give the Browns plenty of options in how they want to call their coverages. He might be his most comfortable in tight man, but he is pretty good at off coverages, which is what the Browns have run.
In a division with players like Tee Higgins of the Cincinnati Bengals and Chase Claypool on the Pittsburgh Steelers, a player like Newsome would give the Browns the ability to matchup their corners specifically rather than largely playing sides of the field. Denzel Ward could be put in more favorable matchups, taking away purer speed threats.
The Browns hope to have Greedy Williams back and Newsome can compete with him for the boundary spot opposite Ward, giving them a young group and plenty of options.
Round 3: Elijah Moore, WR Ole Miss
Listed Measurables: 5’9″ 185 lbs
Age: 20 (Born April 27th, 2000)
Production: 86 receptions for 1,193 yards (41.3 percent), 8 touchdowns in 8 games.
Short, not small, Moore is a strong, fearless receiver with good speed and excellent body control that can win at all levels of the field. Ole Miss largely utilized him in the slot, but that was more a function of their offense rather than the extent of his abilities.
They lined him up everywhere at points in the season, including out wide and in the backfield to create methods to get him the ball. There are plenty of manufactured touches which bolster his production, but it also wasn’t a secret what player opponents needed to stop and plenty of teams weren’t able.
Moore is a developing route runner that has shown the ability to sell routes and set up opponents to create separation. He should only get cleaner in the NFL. Moore has good hands and will make difficult catches going across the middle of the field. Likewise, he’s able to take the top off of a defense and run by the opponents.
Lane Kiffin’s offense makes it easy to visualize ways to utilize Moore’s talent on offense, because he did a little bit of everything from quick passes and jet sweeps to using motion to either shake man coverage or find favorable matchups against zone.
With the Browns offense utilizing multiple tight ends, the Browns should have no problem lining up Moore out wide while having the ability to motion him, either for his benefit or as window dressing.
Of all the talent Moore displays, his body control might be the most impressive. It allows him to make would be tacklers miss, shake coverage and make a smooth transition from pass catcher to run after the catch. If not for Florida’s Kadarius Toney, Moore might have been the most electric playmaker in the SEC conference this past season.
Round 3 (Via NO): Payton Turner, DE Houston
Listed Measurables: 6’6″ 270 lbs
Production: 17 solo tackles (8.1 percent), 10.5 tackles for loss (25 percent), 5 sacks (27.7 percent) in 5 games in 2020.
Turner is likely to be a prospect that comes up more as the draft process moves along. He had a productive junior season, but really played great in 2020 before an injury forced him to miss two games, followed by opting out of their bowl game. His production in five games was enough to lead the team both in sacks and tackles for loss.
Turner possesses broad shoulder and a big frame that looks the part of a stud defensive end. He’s got a quick first step, uses his hands pretty well, working inside or out on his way to the quarterback or ball carrier.
It’s off putting that despite his tremendous size, the Cougars used him as a standup end. Presumably, he will shrink some when he’s officially measured. He runs well even if his top end speed isn’t great, but it contributes to what can be an underwhelming amount of power in his game.
Turner wants to win with speed and when he fires off the ball, he’s already high, which forces him to go back down to get behind his pads. It’s simply easier to continue to try to win with speed and swat the blocker’s hands out of the way than it is to lower his pads and try to drive the opponent out of the way.
Presumably, the team that gets Turner in the NFL will put him in a 3-point stance, which will force him to play with more leverage, unlocking more power in his game. Turner’s speed is fine, but he’s quicker than he is fast, which can deceive opponents and if he can shorten the distance between himself and the quarterback, he can be dangerous.
Turner fits the mold the Browns appear to prefer, both in terms of length and size. The Browns want to play smaller and faster behind the defensive line, so they have brought in edge players that are difficult to get around and can reestablish the line of scrimmage into the backfield. Turner has that capacity. He’s a good college player, but might be even better in the NFL.
Round 4 (Via PHI): Thomas Graham Jr., CB Oregon
Listed Measurables: 5’11” 197 lbs
Production: 47 solo tackles (8.2 percent), 10 pass deflections (17.8 percent) in 2019. Graham opted out of the 2020 season.
With so many players opting out for the 2020 season who will be in the 2021 NFL Draft, it’s difficult to place them. Thomas Graham isn’t even the most highly regarded defensive back that opted out just from Oregon this season. That honor goes to Jevon Holland. They both have a teammate in Deommodore Lenoir at corner, who played this season who will also be in the draft this year.
None of that changes the fact that Graham is a relentless, aggressive, physical corner with good size and physical traits for the NFL with skills that could be effective on the boundary or in the slot.
Graham is fearless, not afraid to play forward, go for the ball or make tackles. His style of play can be intimidating to receivers, because he doesn’t let up. He plays fast, comes downhill to make tackles and is looking to make an impact whenever possible. In his junior season, he was second on the team in tackles.
Extremely brash, he plays with an attitude and is more than happy to let opponents know exactly how well he’s playing, explaining it to them in intricate detail over the course of the game.
Graham would offer the Browns talent, depth and competition in addition to some elements that will endear him to fans of his team and make opponents absolutely despise him.
Round 4: Jermar Jefferson, RB Oregon State
Listed Measurables: 5’10” 217 lbs
Age: 20 (Born April 15th, 2000)
Production: 925 total yards (32.3 percent) 2020. 858 yards on 133 carries at 6.45 yards per carry, 9 receptions for 67 yards, 7 total touchdowns.
Jefferson is a talented back with strength, speed and vision. Oregon State only played seven games this season and Jefferson played in six, but he averaged 154 total yards per game while producing a game breaking run seemingly in every contest.
Jefferson’s 226 yards were critical in helping the Beavers beat the heavily favored Oregon Ducks in their rivalry game that needs a new name.
Jefferson shows great vision and patience before he accelerates and opponents have trouble corralling him. So much of stopping Jefferson has been getting to him early. He’s most vulnerable getting tackled from the side in part because he runs so upright.
Jefferson is strong but doesn’t do a great job of getting behind his pads to maximize runs through contact. He does his best work with his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage but given time on runs with his shoulders aimed at the sideline, he can make cuts and find the right running lane.
In addition to his vision and speed, Jefferson has impressive lateral agility. Whether it’s just shifting or full on jump cuts, he can pretty easily move an entire gap in a step to avoid a tackler or find a running lane.
Jefferson has the ability to contribute as a receiver but he’s incredibly raw. He’s fantastic with the ball in space and has been able to get open, but from route running to getting more comfortable with his hands, he has a lot to improve. He hasn’t really blocked much to this point either.
Jefferson is just a really talented runner that could be groomed to potentially replace one of Nick Chubb or Kareem Hunt without forcing them to go hunting for one when it becomes a problem, allowing them to keep a minimal investment in the position overall.
Round 5: Olakunle Fatukasi, LB Rutgers
Listed Measurables: 6’1″ 234 lbs
Production: 43 solo tackles (12.3 percent) in 2020.
The younger brother of the immensely talented New York Jets nose tackle Foley Fatukasi, Olakunle is an active linebacker that will take on blocks and shows ability to contribute in coverage. He led the team in both tackles and tackles for loss this season.
Fatukasi diagnoses pretty quickly, gets downhill and will find his way to the football. At times, he can beat opponents to the spot and make impact tackles behind the line of scrimmage, but he doesn’t approach blocks like he’s defeated. Rather, he works to fight off contact and free himself to pursue the play. He will also do his best to hold his ground to allow teammates to make plays.
Fatukasi possesses good range for the position. His speed doesn’t pop, likely to be pretty average when timed, but he’s fast enough, plays quickly and doesn’t suffer from much wasted motion.
He does a pretty good job as a tackler, wraps up and puts opponents on the ground. Rutgers utilized him on a number of different blitzes and he was effective in that capacity as well.
Fatukasi can operate in zone, but he looks far more comfortable in man coverage. He jams opponents to slow them down and then is able to run with them.
Overall, Fatukasi is just a really solid linebacker that does a great deal correctly, enabling him to impact virtually every element of the game.
Round 6: Isaiah McKoy, WR Kent State
Listed Measurables: 6’3″ 200 lbs
Production: 25 receptions, 455 yards (35.1 percent), 5 touchdowns in 2020.
The Browns found success in drafting Donovan Peoples-Jones in the sixth round of the 2019 NFL Draft. A credit to Jones, the wide receiver room around him and Chad O’Shea, the wide receivers coach, Jones recorded 16 receptions this season including the playoffs and looks like a promising player heading looking for an increased role next season.
McKoy is a player who has declared for the NFL Draft after two good seasons with the Golden Flashes. He’s, big, strong and he’s fast. McKoy was utilized going over the middle, but more than anything, he was a consistent deep threat. He would simply run by defenders, catching passes and going for touchdowns without being touched. At times, he looked like a man against boys with diminutive corners looking on helplessly as McKoy celebrated in the end zone.
McKoy fits exactly the type of weapon the Browns need. It wouldn’t be a surprise if his physical talent and production sees him drafted earlier, but the investment here is small enough where if he can’t make the team, he might find his way to the practice squad.
Still, it’s easy to see where a player like McKoy can fit on a roster and contribute in a similar manner as Jones did this year, offering Baker Mayfield another badly needed deep threat with upside.
Round 7: Tariq Thompson, S San Diego State
Age: 21 (Born August 9th, 1999)
Listed Measurables: 6′ 210 lbs
Production: 44 solo tackles (10.1 percent), 8 pass break ups (13.1 percent), 4 interceptions (22.2 percent) in 2019.
If the Browns are able to retain Karl Joseph to play rover, their safety position might not be a huge concern. More depth would be helpful given the issues the Browns faced last season as well as just giving them more utility players.
Thompson did a little bit of everything for the Aztecs. A free safety by trade, he’s played in the slot, in the box and just about everywhere in between. He’s made plays on the ball undercutting plays as well as playing a true deep safety over the top.
Thompson has experience playing both man and zone coverages. He’s been a free safety but has the size to potentially play near the line of scrimmage.
Thompson will come up and tackle, but he’s got to improve his technique and utilize his legs more to generate power. He will also just throw his body at ball carriers as opposed to wrapping up at times. For as big as he’s listed, he doesn’t consistently play to his size. If he can improve upon that, getting more comfortable operating in space, he could be a pleasant surprise in the NFL.
Thompson has played four years, started 47 games and there’s a little bit of a feeling he’s still a moldable piece of clay. Even with as much as he’s played, he’s still just 21 years old which could make him an attractive option in its own right.
The 2021 NFL Draft for the Cleveland Browns is likely to be heavily shaped not only by their own experience through two games of the playoffs, but the dynamic that played out particularly on the AFC side of the bracket.
The Browns struggled to cover opposing receivers in both games of the postseason as well as putting pressure on the opposing quarterback. As a result, the Browns completely revamp their secondary, adding three corners and another safety for depth and add more defensive line help.
The Browns still have Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams is a bit of a mystery, but the Browns cannot have too many corners. They need two starters and just a better group overall, so they add a bunch of talented options, keeping their costs down while significant improving their speed and physicality in the secondary.
It should free up defensive coordinator Joe Woods to play man and zone coverages, changing up their looks and presenting a bigger challenge to opponents.
Payton Turner is a talented defensive end, but the expectation is the Browns will also sign or trade for another veteran. It seems unlikely they will rely entirely on the draft, though it’s certainly possible.
The Browns would like to avoid a significant drop-off from the end opposite Myles Garrett. Adrian Clayborn is great as a depth rusher, but the Browns want to keep him fresher for the postseason. In order to do that, they can’t have him play a ton of snaps throughout the regular season, so they need someone who can come in and give them quality snaps. Turner is then free to contribute and develop at the pace the Browns set for him.
The biggest struggle with this year’s draft class continues to be defensive tackle. It’s not just a lack of talent, but it also suffers from issues with how quickly they can contribute, which makes it a difficult position to select for the Browns.
Offensively, the Browns did not go down field much and were unable to create quick scoring opportunities. The team knows they need to get more speed and explosive ability, so it’s going to be a focus. Here, they get a pair of receivers who can do it in different ways.