Safety John Johnson is the first salary casualty of the Browns' 2023 season.
Andrew Berry dishes on releasing John Johnson, the team’s new coordinators, and much more
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Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for TheLandOnDemand.com and 850 ESPN Cleveland. He has covered the Browns since 1984.
Safety John Johnson is out.
Linebackers Anthony Walker and Sione Takitaki could be back.
Kicker Cade York can expect another stress-free training camp with no competition.
The search is on for a backup quarterback to Deshaun Watson who can win a game or two, if needed.
And on the subject of finding a worthy wide receiver in the 2023 draft, Andrew Berry practically invoked his Fifth Amendment rights.
These were among the newsy tidbits from two interview sessions with the Browns’ GM Tuesday at the NFL Combine – one in front of national reporters and the more revealing one with Northeast Ohio media.
Berry confirmed that Johnson, his premier free-agent acquisition in 2021, will be released prior to the start of the NFL business season on March 15. A source said the Browns will designate Johnson a post-June 1 release for salary cap purposes. That means Johnson’s scheduled cap number of $13.5 million WILL count on the Browns’ salary cap until June 1. After that, Johnson’s release would save the team $9.75 million in cap room.
But Johnson’s release doesn’t help Berry create cap room for free agent spending in March. A huge chunk of that will come when Watson’s contract is restructured.
Berry wouldn’t commit to that, but it’s unlikely the Browns will head into free agency with Watson’s 2023 cap number at the present figure of $54.99 million. Converting that salary to a signing bonus and minimum NFL salary would save more than $35 million on this season’s cap.
So Berry’s fourth season on the job surely will involve manipulations like that. The Browns currently are about $13.5 million OVER the salary cap. They must be under by March 15.
Johnson essentially cost the Browns $24 million over two seasons, which didn’t exactly match his production. Johnson was a stand-up guy in the locker room.
His outspokenness included his famous tweet from home during the Baker Mayfield interception-fest in Green Bay on Christmas Day in 2021 (RUN THE DAMN BALL!) and his opinion after this season that the entire Browns organization needed “urgency.”
“The first thought [about Johnson] probably is just gratitude in terms of what he has done the past two years on the field and in the locker room for us,” Berry said. “We -- after just looking at the roster and thinking about where we want to be in 2023 -- thought it would be the best move for the organization to really part ways. That certainly doesn’t minimize what John was able to do while he was with our team.”
How do the Browns fill the hole of starting free safety – through free agency or with a younger, less expensive player?
“All of that really is to be determined,” Berry said. “It is a long offseason that really doesn’t formally begin until the middle of March. As we always do, we will stay flexible, we will stay adaptable and try and map our resources to opportunities.”
On other matters, Berry:
* Expressed a desire to re-sign linebackers Anthony Walker and Sione Takitaki.
Both are unsigned, but their marketability in free agency was hurt because of major injuries that required surgeries.
“That is a possibility,” Berry said of bringing both back. “Again, we will meet with all of our guys. Both of those two guys played good football for us and they were really good in the locker room. But again, it is just largely going to depend on how the whole offseason process [goes].”
* Flatly stated the team has no intention of bringing in a kicker to compete with York in training camp.
“No, we are happy with Cade,” Berry said. “We feel good about his partnership with (assistant head coach/special teams coordinator) Bubba and what we are going with him.”
* Indicated the Browns are more likely to acquire a backup quarterback with some experience rather than entrust the role of No. 2 behind Watson to the raw Kellen Mond or a rookie QB from the draft. Mond appeared in one game for Minnesota in 2021.
“For us, we look at it as someone who can certainly function in a multi-game stretch if our starter is down and can really give us a chance to win the game,” he said. “Obviously, there has to be some blend within the room from a personality standpoint and makeup standpoint that the No. 2 quarterback understands [his] role on our team.”
* Gave another vote of confidence to left tackle Jedrick Wills.
Berry wouldn’t say if the Browns will pick up his fifth-year option prior to the May 1 deadline, but it sounded like they will. If so, it would automatically guarantee Wills a salary in 2024 of $14.175 million. A second contract, however, is far from a done deed.
“I am pleased with the progress he has made over the past year,” Berry said. “Certainly, envision him being here and being the starting left tackle for us next year.”
* Would not commit to Nick Harris as the starting center in 2023.
Harris was given the job in 2022, but a knee injury on the second play of the first preseason game ended his season. Harris, though, is the only center under contract. Ethan Pocic, who impressed everyone in place of Harris, is unsigned. So are emergency candidates Michael Dunn and Hjalte Froholdt.
“[The No. 1 center] is to be determined, quite honestly,” Berry said. “I think there is a lot of work to do on the roster. We are sitting here the last day of February, and there is a lot that needs to be done until we get to August and we are competing for roster spots.”
* Absolutely refused to give a broad evaluation of the 2023 wide receiver draft class, furthering the suspicion that he will prioritize the position with the Browns’ first draft pick, No. 43 overall in the second round.
“I could, but I honestly am probably not going to,” Berry said with a laugh. “It is good.”
* Hedged somewhat when I asked if the change in defensive and special teams coordinators was an organizational decision or a coaching decision.
“First and foremost, Kevin is the driver of the coaching staff, but that is not to suggest that we do not have discussions or there is not some level of counsel, no different than how we think about roster decisions or player decisions,” Berry said. “At the end of the day, Kevin, his goal and his mission is to make the decisions that he thinks are best for the team, and he has always done that and he will continue to do so.”