Andrew Berry’S Job As Browns Gm Has Never Been Tougher

Now that he has his franchise quarterback, the job has gotten tougher, not easier, for GM Andrew Berry. (Cleveland Browns)

Now that he has his franchise quarterback, the job has gotten tougher, not easier, for GM Andrew Berry. (Cleveland Browns)

Andrew Berry’s job as Browns GM has never been tougher

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Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for and 850 ESPN Cleveland. He has covered the Browns since 1984.

Now that the Browns have their “franchise” quarterback in Deshaun Watson, everything else should fall into place, right? The wins, the division titles, the championship game appearances. The parade route.

That may have been the expectation during the franchise’s inexorable search for a top-flight quarterback. But it’s not reality.

GM Andrew Berry’s job got exponentially harder the moment the Browns traded six draft choices, including three No. 1s, to the Houston Texans, and then signed Watson to a fully-guaranteed contract for $230 million over five years.

In his first transaction season after that unprecedented mega-deal, Berry has less salary cap space to surround Watson with quality veteran players and fewer high draft choices to fill resultant roster holes.

Of the four semifinalists in this season’s Super Bowl tournament, three of the teams were led by quarterbacks outperforming their cheap, rookie contracts. That allows their GMs to spread more resources to other areas of the roster.

The exception is the Kansas City Chiefs and quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who is in the second year of a 10-year, $450 million contract. One key factor for the Chiefs, however, is that they didn’t mortgage the future for Mahomes. 
Essentially, he cost them a third-round pick in 2017 and first-round pick in 2018.

The Chiefs will have to continue to make allowances for Mahomes’ skyrocketing salary cap figure over the length of his contract. But at least they own their No. 1 draft picks. Berry is without one until 2025.

Additionally, Berry, for the first time in his four years, enters a transaction season with the team in a negative-cap situation. The Browns are $14.6 million OVER the 2023 salary cap, which means Berry has to restructure contracts to create room to spend on new players in free agency.

Berry must comply with the salary cap by March 15. After that, he must deal with the following issues.

How to keep the offensive line fortified.

Three relatively key components have expiring contracts. Center Ethan Pocic and versatile interior swingman Hjalte Froholdt are unrestricted free agents, and Michael Dunn, another versatile backup, is a restricted free agent. I’m figuring two must be re-signed.

Pocic is the center of this issue. He was outstanding playing in place of JC Tretter heir-apparent Nick Harris, who suffered a season-ending knee injury on the second play of the first preseason game. Pocic was a bargain, one-year, prove-it signing last year. He’ll command offers from other teams in free agency now.

If Berry lets Pocic leave, he might count on Harris, a fifth-round pick in 2020, staying healthy, which he hasn’t done in three seasons. A combination of Froholdt and Dunn might then be re-signed as interior swingmen, each capable of filling in at center, in a pinch.

Where to allocate the biggest free agent deals on the defensive line. 

With Jim Schwartz taking over for Joe Woods as defensive coordinator, upgrading the defensive line is a foregone conclusion. The question is what should be the financial priority – tackle or end?

Schwartz always has employed elite tackles at the center of his front four. There is none currently on the Browns’ roster. You can argue Berry needs to sign two veteran tackles – one a blue-chipper at a high price and another possibly to a one-year, prove-it deal, but good enough to start.

Then there’s the gaping hole created at left end by the none-too-soon exit of disgruntled moneygrubber Jadeveon Clowney. Neither Anthony Wright nor Isaiah Thomas, Berry’s stabs in the 2022 draft, appear ready to produce 10 sacks as a starter. 

Berry has consistently gone the one-year, prove-it route at left end. He signed Clowney twice, along with Takk McKinley, and then traded for Chase Winovich, whose contract is up.

It’s doubtful that Berry can make splash, multi-year signings at both tackle and end. But it’s most likely that the biggest new contract Berry doles out will go to a veteran defensive lineman.

Figure out the right configuration at linebacker. 

Did Berry & the analytics department err in making the linebacking corps too light for the sake of speed over stoutness? The evidence says, “You betcha.”

Woods’ defense was consistently gashed on the ground when the season turned south. Further, the position was decimated by one injury after another to undersized linebackers. Bad luck? Perhaps. Other teams following the same philosophy did not have similar injury problems.

It sure looks like the Browns need to beef up the center of their defense with heavier and surer tacklers. The best all-around linebackers, ones that combine size and speed, are taken early in the draft. Berry doesn’t have a high pick to use on that type of player, and his analytics department wouldn’t sign off on it, anyways.

So how does he improve the position group?

Re-signing free agent Sione Takitaki is a start. After that, Berry has to look to free agency to add another veteran linebacker with both size and speed. Berry’s record in the draft at this position (Jacob Phillips, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Tony Fields) is spotty, at best.

Acquire a speedy receiver (who can catch the football).

As coach Kevin Stefanski gravitates to a three-receiver base offense to accommodate Watson, the ideal alignment would put Amari Cooper inside as the dependable slot receiver, Donovan Peoples-Jones outside as the No. 2 50-50 man, and a newcomer in the primary role of X receiver. Such a receiver doesn’t appear available in free agency this year and would come at too-great a price in trade.

The speed factor, however, must be addressed. While there are a few interesting speed receivers eligible for free agency, such as Detroit’s D.J. Chark, Kansas City’s Mecole Hardman, and Seattle’s Marquis Goodwin, Berry might be better served by concentrating early in the draft to fill this vital need.

Berry's draft track record at receiver might be worse than at linebacker (David Bell, Michael Woods, Anthony Schwartz, and the improving Peoples-Jones).

A trade is an option, of course. DeAndre Hopkins, Watson’s former No. 1 with Houston, reportedly is on the trading block with the Arizona Cardinals. But at age 31 and with more than $34 million left on his contract, Hopkins isn’t the answer. The Browns need a younger, faster, cheaper receiver from the draft.

Find me my (backup) quarterback.

Consider this scenario: Watson recaptures his former game and plays like an elite quarterback in leading the Browns to an 8-4 record. And then he suffers an injury with the Browns in the thick of the AFC North playoff chase. Who takes over?

Right now it would be, gulp, Kellen Mond, who’s under contract through 2024 and has thrown three passes, completing two, since the Vikings drafted him in the third round in 2021.

Watson’s huge contract going forward eliminates the luxury of retaining a $6 million veteran backup like Jacoby Brissett. Yes, a minimum-salary QB like Joshua Dobbs might work, and he’s available after finishing the 2022 season with the Tennessee Titans.

Otherwise, Berry might be inclined to troll the latter rounds of the draft to find the next Brock Purdy.