Brownies & Frownies: Andrew Berry Edition
How did the new GM perform in his first year on the job?
By Barry Shuck https://www.dawgsbynature.com/2021/2/28/22303368/brownies-frownies-andrew-berry-edition
At the end of January of last year, Andrew Berry was announced as the new GM. A new nameplate was ordered for the office door, slid out of its slot which read “John Dorsey” on the exterior, and when flipped over it said “Sashi Brown” in engraved letters. Is the reason for the slide type nameplate - they are hired, just not for very long.
In fact, Berry may have located his old nameplate when he was the vice president of player personnel for the Browns back in 2016-2018 before becoming the vice president of football operations with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2019.
Perhaps Berry’s old parking spot was still available. Regardless, when hired back with Cleveland he became the youngest GM at age 32 in the NFL’s history.
Headlines were rampant such as “Cleveland Browns make a bold, risky move with Andrew Berry.” Browns Wire ran a poll the following day asking readers if they thought the hire was prudent to which only 26% said yes. But Berry is an analytics guy. And the Browns were going the analytics route going forward so the hire made sense. 14 days earlier, Kevin Stefanski was employed as the head coach.
Stefanski’s job is to coach players. Berry’s job is to get Stefanski the right kind of players.
Berry then basically cleaned house beginning with director of scouting Steve Malin, Assistant GM Eliot Wolf, plus Alonzo Highsmith, the VP of player personnel.
To show those 74% pollsters just how wrong they were, Berry’s first coaching hire was Bill Callahan to come in and work the newly-inspired offensive line. At season’s end, Berry should have gotten a raise just for this one decision alone.
Stefanski did his job. The Browns netted their first winning season in forever and not only went to the playoffs, but defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in a playoff game. At season’s end, Stefanski was named NFL Coach-of-the-Year. Not bad for a rookie head coach.
So how did Berry do as the GM for his first year? Here at DBN, we have only one barometer of everything in life from chicken sandwiches to dating practices to Daylight Savings Time to anything Cleveland Browns – Brownies & Frownies. Therefore, we gauge Berry’s first year with his own edition.
Offensive line – When Berry took on former head coach Freddie Kitchens’ offensive, the most glaring need was both the offensive tackle positions plus right guard. He first waived OG Eric Kush who started 2019 as the starting right guard before Wyatt Teller took over at mid-season. One of the first free agents he inked was the Number 1 free agent offensive lineman in RT Jack Conklin from the Tennessee Titans. Next, C Evan Brown was added as depth. Then Berry used the Browns’ first-round pick in the NFL draft at the Number 10 spot to take the big Alabama tackle Jedrick Wills, plus selected C/G Nick Harris in the fifth-round.
Two of the biggest team news items came from this unit. Firstly, OT Chris Hubbard, who was still on a huge $37 million contract and everyone assumed would be released, agreed to restructure his contract in March on a two-year deal. The move later became genius as Hubbard was used at several positions to fill in for injured players and was already an experienced guy. The other news was when OG Drew Forbes opted out; who at the time was considered to be the front-runner to win the right guard position. The loss of Forbes meant that the job was now Teller’s, and he went on to display that he is one of the NFL’s best offensive linemen. While the move gave Teller the opportunity to shine, numerous injuries at both guard spots during the year could have used the services of Forbes. LG Joel Bitonio was named to his first Pro Bowl.
In fact, this offensive line unit was so good that Football Outsiders ran a poll of its subscriber base to which they voted Teller, Bitonio and Conklin in the Top-8 of all the offensive linemen in the league.
Running backs - The very first player Berry signed as the new GM was FB Johnny Stanton to a reserve/futures contract. Next, he traded with the Denver Broncos for FB Andy Janovich. Yes, the Browns were going to run the ball and one of these two guys would help provide the holes. Having Nick Chubb already under contract was a good thing, but keeping Kareem Hunt was pure forward-thinking. Berry could just as easily traded the former NFL rushing leader instead, but held steadfast and in fact signed him to a two -year extension.
That one-two punch was tough for defenses to digest because the two are completely different runners. Berry also kept D’Ernest Johnson who proved to be not only a valuable backup, but stepped in at kick returner when JoJo Natson went down early in the season. Chubb topped off the year with his second straight Pro Bowl.
Quarterbacks – The undisputed quarterback was always Baker Mayfield, but Berry’s huge signing was his backup Casey Keenum. Stefanski’s offense had already been run by Keenum when the pair were with the Minnesota Vikings. So in a pandemic year, to have someone already familiar with the jargon and schemes was priceless in an effort to help Mayfield grasp the new offense. Plus, Keenum had 62 NFL starts in his eight-year career which gave Stefanski peace-of-mind all season long. Mayfield ultimately flourished in Stefanski’s offense and will only get better.
Wide receivers – What GM could go wrong with two Pro Bowlers on the roster already? Here was Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham, Jr. Berry then inked Rashard Higgins to a one-year deal who proved his worth when OBJ went down in Week 7. Donovan Peoples-Jones was drafted in the sixth-round and proved his worthiness as the season unfolded. KhaDarel Hodge could not stay healthy, but Berry did sign speedy Marvin Hall later in the season.
Safeties – One has to think this is a position that may never be solved. Berry whiffed on 10-year veteran Andrew Sendejo who missed a ton of tackles and allowed a plethora of touchdown passes. He also kept Sheldrick Redwine who is a poor tackler but has coverage skills and is young. Then, Berry inked former first-rounder Karl Joseph as the other starting safety who does not have the reach to cover taller tight ends but will lay the wood on them once they catch the ball.
Grant Delpit was supposed to help fix this group as he was drafted in the second-round and then signed Elijah Benton and Jovante Moffatt as undrafted free agents for depth. Berry did trade for Ronnie Harrison, which in itself deserves a big ole chewy, fudgey Brownie with walnuts. However, this unit overall needs to be overhauled – again.
Linebackers – The defense of Joe Woods does not require that the franchise spend big money for linebackers, so Berry didn’t. Right off, Berry cut Adarius Taylor and Christian Kirksey and made no effort to sign Joe Schobert to his second contract. Instead, he signed low-dough players with experience such as B.J. Goodson who was a fourth-round pick, then shipped off to Green Bay who let him go after only one season. Malcolm Smith was signed in late August and was the best on them all. Tae Davis, Sione Takitaki, Elijah Lee and Mack Wilson proved invaluable on punt and kickoff coverage, but none appear to be an NFL starting linebackers. Berry selected Jacob Phillips in the third-round of the draft and has good size to take over sooner than later.
Tight ends – Going into the 2020 season, this unit was viewed as one of the deepest and most talented. On the surface, it appeared a can’t miss group. Stefanski’s offense was supposedly built around two and three tight end sets and relied heavily on these guys being on the field for most of the game. Berry ditched Demetrius Harris and tendered Pharaoh Brown, the club’s best blocking TE. The Number 1 tight end free agent prospect was Austin Hooper who had just come off his second straight Pro Bowl season. Berry signed him to a huge $44 million contract for four-years. Harrison Bryant, college football’s Mackey Award winner, was sitting there in Round 4, so Berry drafted him. Nate Wiefing was signed as an undrafted free agent. Lots of big bodies with huge talent including veterans already under contract with Stephen Carlson and David Njoku.
The four who made the roster, Njoku, Hooper, Carlson and Harrison, were seen as the catalyst for this talented offense.
Alternatively, Hooper had 435 yards receiving, his lowest total since his rookie year. Instead of 75 and 71 receptions for those two Pro Bowl seasons, he netted just 49. Receiving yards per target was just 6.2, the bottom end of his five-year career. Njoku had 19 receptions for a paltry 213 yards. Bryant wasn’t much better with 238 yards on 24 catches. Carlson at least had an excuse that he wasn’t playing with his one catch for 11 yards. To make things worse, only 11 touchdowns for this group – combined.
Yes, yes, yes you need good tight ends who can block in a running offense. But this room was paid $7.615 million for a mere 93 receptions. That’s $81,882 per catch or $692,273 for each touchdown scored. And all of these guys will get a raise going forward.
For 2021, something has to change with the tight ends. Like, more production?
Milk Bones – taste like mango until the Habanero kicks in
Special Teams – Right into the season, Berry had to make a tough decision and waive K Austin Seibert who the Browns had used a fifth-round pick on in 2019. Luckily, Berry had stashed veteran Cody Parkey on the practice squad who came through at times and had issues at other times. P Jamie Gillan is a gem and LS Charley Hughlett is one of the league’s best. KR JoJo Natson was supposed to come in and be this burner for the kicking return game, but only returned three punts for an 8.3 average and one kickoff for 31 yards before he tore his ACL in Week 3.
Donovan Peoples-Jones took over punt return responsibilities and averaged 21.1 yards per kickoff without any touchdowns. D’Ernest Johnson took over the kickoff responsibilities. The kickoff recover team was excellent all season with hitters such as Elijah Lee, Stephen Carlson, Tavierre Thomas and Tae Davis.
Cornerbacks – As a former cornerback, this should be Berry’s focus area for the most success. However, injuries and sloppy play made this unit anything but consistent. Denzel Ward is still playing at a Pro Bowl caliber as opposing quarterbacks rarely pick on him. But he suffered a slight groin injury in mid-September which he aggravated a week later. Then he was out for four games with a calf strain. Second-rounder Greedy Williams was supposed to play opposite Ward, but sat out the entire 2020 season with a nerve injury in his shoulder.
Now, injured players are not Berry’s fault; but the depth behind the proposed starters are his responsibility. Terrance Mitchell was a capable veteran presence and had some success. He graded out at 66.7 on Pro Football Focus which is middle-of-the-pack numbers. Kevin Johnson, himself a former first-round draft pick, was signed on a one-year prove it deal, played 13 games for the Browns with six starts and allowed only a single touchdown pass from his opponents. But opposing quarterbacks used and abused him with his spotty coverage. His PFF grade was even worse at 51.4.
Robert Jackson was graded at 48.2 and was picked on every game because the completion percentage throwing his way became very high. He played in 10 games yet had just six tackles, zero interceptions and one pass defense. Ouch. A.J. Green went from waivers to the active roster to practice squad continually all season and eventually on IR. Brian Allen has jumped around the league and was signed as a healthy body late in the year. Both Ward and Johnson ended up on the COVID list at some point which did not help matters.
Defensive line – Berry traded up to get DT Jordan Elliott in the third-round of the draft, so don’t think that this guy is not in the defensive workings. He had added another big DT in free agency with Andrew Billings and then came to terms with DE Adrian Clayborn who proved invaluable down the stretch. Billings is starting material but was an opt-out.
Berry let Olivier Vernon and Larry Ogunjobi play out their final year and probably will not re-sign either with both Clayborn and Billings already waiting to step in and start with young depth. DE Porter Gustin was a big disappointment as he appeared the plum coming out of training camp. Berry was the one who finally cut Chad Thomas but replaced him with Vincent Taylor who played only 206 snaps all year with just 12 tackles. Ogunjobi had his worst season to date while Vernon is viewed as injury-prone.
Myles Garrett made the Pro Bowl again, but every offense figured out quickly that the Browns pass rush was predicated on Garrett getting to the quarterback. This alone proved problematic late in the season. Plus, Garrett just never seemed right after landing on the COVID list and had some issues with stamina which affected his defensive snaps. Clayborn and Gustin just did not provide the push into the backfield because basically, there wasn’t anyone else left to insert. The pass rush should become Berry’s Number 1 focus this off-season.