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Around the AFC North: Recapping Foes' Free Agency Moves

Free Agent S John Johnson

Cleveland Browns: Signing John Johnson Part of Defensive Makeover in Cleveland

The Browns made the postseason in 2020 for the first time since 2002, but their defense allowed more points (419) than any playoff team except the Tennessee Titans (439).

In their quest to win the AFC North and to advance further in the playoffs in 2021, the Browns focused on defense in free agency. Their five most expensive free agent signings were all on defense – safety John Johnson, cornerback Troy Hill, defensive end Takkarist McKinley, defensive tackle Malik Jackson, and inside linebacker Anthony Walker Jr.

Cleveland's decision to sign Johnson, who reportedly inked a three-year, $33.75 million deal, was rated the best overall free-agent move by ESPN’s Mike Clay. Clay also believes the Browns are the team that improved most during free agency. Johnson is only 26 years old, and he was a key piece of a Los Angeles Rams defense that gave up the fewest points in the NFL last season.

The Browns believe adding Johnson and Hill to their secondary will reduce the number of big plays they surrender through the air.

Notable losses for the Browns in free agency included right tackle Kendall Lamb (Titans), cornerback Terrance Mitchell (Houston Texans) and defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi (Cincinnati Bengals). But the Browns still have an abundance of playmakers on offense, and they enter the draft holding nine picks, including six picks in the first four rounds.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Free Agent Departures Will Give Defense New Look

The Steelers entered free agency knowing they would lose some key players. While they were able to re-sign quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and defensive tackle Tyson Alualu, the defense lost outside linebacker Bud Dupree (Titans), cornerbacks Steven Nelson (free agent) and Mike Hilton (Bengals), inside linebacker Vince Williams (free agent) and safety Sean Davis (Indianapolis Colts).

Dupree had 19.5 sacks over the last two years, and losing him is going to impact Pittsburgh's pass rush. He signed a five-year, $82.5 million deal, but ESPN's Jeremy Fowler expects Dupree to be one of the league’s dominant pass rushers in Tennessee.

Nelson started 30 games at cornerback over the past two years, but the Steelers needed cap room to re-sign Smith-Schuster.

Pittsburgh's most notable defensive free agent addition was safety Miles Killebrew, who is expected to settle into a backup role. The Steelers still have some star players on defense, including outside linebacker T.J. Watt, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and defensive tackle Cam Heyward, but there's no doubt the Steelers will have some different defensive players filling prominent roles next season.

Cincinnati Bengals: Defensive End Trey Hendrickson Will Have Something to Prove

The Bengals signed Hilton to help their secondary, and adding veteran left tackle Riley Reiff should improve the pass protection for quarterback Joe Burrow.

However, their most expensive free agent acquisition was defensive end Trey Hendrickson, who reportedly signed a four-year, $60 million deal. Hendrickson made the most of his contract year with the New Orleans Saints in 2020, in which he finished with a career-high 13.5 sacks after producing just 6.5 sacks over his first three seasons.

Some pundits believe the Bengals overpaid for Hendrickson, considering his track record.

However, the Bengals only had 17.5 sacks as a team in 2020, just four more than Hendrickson had by himself. Hendrickson will be counted on heavily to improve Cincinnati's pass rush, and if he produces double-digit sacks with the Bengals, it will add a different dimension to their defense.

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