Now that the Cleveland Browns’ run to the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs has finished, attention will inevitably turn to the 2021 NFL draft and what should general manager Andrew Berry should do with the team’s top picks.
Free agency kicks off prior to the draft, which will actually be hosted in Cleveland this year, but it’s not too early to run through mock scenarios, speculate who the Browns may target based on team needs and identify who best fits the identity of this new-look team that just made the postseason for the first time since 2002.
This outlook and forecast for prospective Browns draft picks will be updated as the April 29 date gets closer, so check back in to see our latest projections as Cleveland tries to take the next step toward Super Bowl contention in 2021.
Cleveland Browns draft picks: Top selections for 2021 NFL Draft
Thanks to their breakthrough, 48-37 playoff victory over the AFC North rival Pittsburgh Steelers on Super Wild Card Weekend, the Browns are actually picking far later in the draft order than they’re accustomed to.
A draft day trade with the New Orleans Saints gave Cleveland an extra third-round pick in 2021 to go with its other assets, and a deal with Philadelphia for Genard Avery netted the Browns a second pick near the top of Round 4 due to the Eagles’ lackluster 2020 campaign.
But let’s just focus on the first two days of the 2021 NFL draft and which picks the Browns have therein (h/t Tankathon), because those are where they can most realistically expect to have immediate contributors to next season’s team:
Cleveland Browns draft picks: Rounds 1-3
- Round 1: No. 26 overall
- Round 2: No. 59 overall
- Round 3: Nos. 89 & 91 overall
That additional Philadelphia pick gives Cleveland five selections in the top 101 of the draft order. Although we aren’t going to focus on Day 3 of the draft, it’s notable to feature that other fourth-rounder, because it could be used as part of a trade package of Berry wants to move up and draft a player he really likes earlier.
Berry wasn’t afraid to move around the draft in 2020. In addition to trading down twice and netting picks for this year, the young Browns GM dropped a few spots and still got LSU safety Grant Delpit in the second round, along with potential center of the future Nick Harris on Day 3 with the extra pick in that trade from Indianapolis.
Given that Cleveland is largely ahead of schedule in its rebuild, having just posted an 11-5 record and won a playoff game, look for Berry to be aggressive in addressing needs, potentially trading up to do so in order to land superior talent.
Cleveland Browns draft picks: Best prospects to target in 3-round mock
Round 1, Pick 26: Zaven Collins, LB, Tulsa; Gregory Rousseau, EDGE, Miami (Florida); Eric Stokes, CB, Georgia; Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB, Notre Dame
This is where Berry could use some ammunition and draft capital to move up. Considering the Browns offense was clicking without Odell Beckham Jr., it could even be that Cleveland moves off OBJ as part of a potential trade package.
But even beyond that hypothetical scenario, all four of these prospects have a puncher’s chance of still being on the board when Cleveland goes on the clock at 26.
Collins is the most appealing of the targets here, ranking as Pro Football Focus’ best linebacker in the country for 2020. Berry did well to get veterans like B.J. Goodson and Malcolm Smith on stopgap, one-year deals, yet the linebacker position is a glaring weakness on the Browns’ front seven.
Listed at 6-foot-4, 260 pounds, Collins moves extraordinarily well and fluidly through space for a man his size. He had four interceptions in 2020, including two pick-sixes, and racked up 7.5 tackles for loss and four sacks in eight games.
Given that Olivier Vernon tore his Achilles in Week 17 and is a free agency anyway, the Browns must be aggressive in upgrading the defensive end position. However, if the Browns don’t take Rousseau (19.5 tackles for loss, 15.5 sacks in 2019 despite being relatively new to the position), Collins can be deployed as a delayed blitzer or situational pass-rusher off the edge to knock off multiple needs with one direct-hit pick.
Rousseau is tantalizing, though, because he can rush from the inside or off the edge, has freakish length and is only beginning to realize his ceiling as a one-year wonder. He’s the type of blue-chip talent Berry might consider trading up for if enough teams pass up on the former Miami star.
As for Stokes, he’s a fringe first-round prospect from an excellent defensive coach in Kirby Smart who’d be a great fit to start right away on the outside. At the very least, there needs to be some competition for Greedy Williams to start opposite Denzel Ward.
It’s probable Owusu-Koramoah will be off the board at No. 26, but if he’s there and Collins is gone, Cleveland will be all over him, as caliber of player and positional need will once again align in a big way.
Round 2, Pick 59: Tyler Shelvin, DT, LSU; Carlos Basham, EDGE, Wake Forest; Patrick Jones, EDGE, Pittsburgh; Greg Newsome II, CB, Northwestern
Run defense has been a glaring weakness of the Browns for years, so their improvement there in 202 was encouraging. However, they don’t really have a big space eater inside who commands double teams. As perpetually mediocre Larry Ogunjobi hits free agency and Sheldon Richardson enters a contract year, it’s time for Cleveland to upgrade the trenches.
Again, we have Basham and Jones here as highly productive college players who should be around here at No. 59, but both could also be off the board by now. If that’s the case, Shelvin must be considered. During LSU’s 2019 national championship run, he managed to get in on 39 total tackles despite being 6-foot-3 and 346 pounds.
To be around the ball that much at his size is a testament to Shelvin’s understanding of the game and ability to diagnose plays. Massive, space-eating tackles like him don’t often hit the box score that often.
It’d probably make more sense for the Browns to target an established player at cornerback in free agency, but in the modern NFL, it’s never a bad thing to have depth at the position — a lesson Cleveland learned the hard way by losing Delpit and Williams for the whole 2020 season due to injuries. Newsome is much more physical and excels in zone coverage, which really fits well in coordinator Joe Woods’ preferred base Cover 3 alignment.
Don’t sleep on a potential trade up here as well, though. If Berry and Co. really like Basham or Jones — who are strong versus the run in addition to boasting strong sack totals — we could see a leap up the order to grab one of them, sacrificing either a third- or fourth-round pick to do so.
Round 3 Picks 89 & 91: Ronnie Perkins, EDGE, Oklahoma; Talanoa Hufanga, S, USC; Levi Onwuzurike, DT, Washington; Dyami Brown, WR, North Carolina
It’s anyone’s guess who will be available in the last round of Day 2, given that the stock of certain players fluctuates often leading up to the draft, and the COVID-19 pandemic makes the evaluation process even more complicated. However, this seems to be at least a somewhat realistic crop of prospects to choose from.
Again, defense is the primary focus here, although let’s go ahead and start with the only offensive player on this list in Brown. The Tar Heels product averaged over 1,000 yards, 20 yards per reception and 10 touchdown grabs over the past two seasons. That’s some pretty incredible production, and a testament to how explosive Brown is.
If Beckham and his large cap figure are indeed out of the equation and Rashard Higgins isn’t considered a long-term, viable No. 2 option, the Browns could roll with Higgins, Jarvis Landry and Donovan Peoples-Jones for next season, but bring Brown aboard as competition for the eventual No. 2 job. Quarterback Baker Mayfield is at his best when he doesn’t have to force the ball to Beckham, and Brown is an under-the-radar weapon Cleveland could covet.
Back to the D: Perkins could go as early as Round 2, so let’s not get hopes up there. He was a big reason Oklahoma boasted a much-improved defense, despite losing first-round pick Kenneth Murray to last year’s draft. Perkins was PFF’s No. 2-graded edge defender in 2020.
Hufanga is a versatile chess piece Woods would love to play with on defense. Safety is an underrated area of need for Cleveland, but the value isn’t there until this juncture of the draft. If Delpit comes back healthy and the Browns can nab a strong free agent to start with him, Hufanga is a nice developmental prospect who could play as a rookie if pressed into duty — and eventually evolve into a long-term starter.
In the event the Browns can’t get Shelvin or don’t want to in Round 2, preferring instead a trimmer interior d-lineman who can still play the run very well, Onwuzurike is a great prospect to aim for. His athleticism along with rising second-year tackle Jordan Elliott would give Cleveland an exciting 1-2 punch at the position to take over for when Richardson likely leaves following the 2021 campaign.