CLEVELAND (AP) — Weakened by injuries and lacking experienced depth, the Browns' secondary was a major problem throughout last season.
John Johnson III should help fix it.
A dependable playmaker for the Los Angeles Rams, Johnson agreed Monday to sign a three-year, $33.75 million free agent contract with Cleveland, a person familiar with the negotiations told The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because teams are not permitted to disclose agreements until the league calendar year begins Wednesday.
Johnson's deal includes $24 million guaranteed.
After ending their playoff drought in 2020, the Browns want to get their defense up to speed with their offense and see Johnson as an upgrade. He had been a starter with the Rams since his rookie season and was a co-captain and signal caller for the NFL’s No. 1 defense last season.
Johnson's interception in overtime against New Orleans during the 2018-19 NFC championship game sent the Rams to the Super Bowl. In 2019, he sealed a win over Cleveland by picking off Baker Mayfield in the end zone with less than a minute left.
The Browns entered free agency $25 million under the salary cap. They want to revamp their defense from front to back after spending extensively last year at fixing their offense.
The team likely will add another pass rusher to pair with All-Pro Myles Garrett, but what started out as a deep market for quality edge rushers is drying up with several top-tier ones, including Shaquill Barrett (Buccaneers), Bud Dupree (Titans), Carl Lawson (Jets), Romeo Okwara (Lions) and Yannick Ngakoue (Raiders), agreeing to deals in the early hours of the NFL negotiating period.
Olivier Vernon played opposite Garrett last season and performed well. However, the 30-year-old tore his Achilles tendon in the regular-season finale and the Browns don't intend to re-sign him. The team also recently released end Adrian Clayborn to open cap space.
The 25-year-old Johnson likely will move into the starting strong safety spot for Cleveland’s secondary, which was decimated by injuries in 2020.
Rookie Grant Delpit, who was expected to start, ruptured an Achilles tendon in training camp and missed the entire season. Cornerback Greedy Williams, another likely starter, also sat out the year after he damaged a nerve in his shoulder.
Delpit is expected back this season and the Browns also have safety Ronnie Harrison, who made plays when he wasn't injured. Defensive coordinator Joe Woods frequently uses packages in which he has three safeties on the field.
Johnson, who played at Boston College, was selected by the Rams in the third round in 2017. He had four interceptions in 2018 and has eight over a career spanning 48 starts.
After agreeing with the Browns, Johnson thanked Rams fans on his Instagram account. Johnson wrote: “This isn't goodbye. It's see you later.”
Shortly after the league's “legal tampering” period began, Cleveland tendered one of its many free agent, using a "right of first refusal” tender on wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge.
The 26-year-old Hodge, who also excels on special teams, is eligible to negotiate with other teams but the Browns can match any offer.
In his second season with the team, Hodge emerged as a key contributor in 2020. He caught 11 passes for 180 yards in nine games, but was one of the team's best blocking wide receivers.
He missed time with a hamstring injury and also was placed on the COVID-19 reserve list.
A year ago, the Browns opened free agency with an offensive splash, signing right tackle Jack Conklin and tight end Austin Hooper on the first day.
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