Cleveland Browns stand pat in 2024 free agency

Can Jameis Winston's presence in Cleveland help Deshaun Watson? (0:46)

Pat McAfee reacts to the Cleveland Browns signing Jameis Winston to back up Deshaun Watson. (0:46)

BEREA, Ohio -- The debate that raged around the Cleveland Browns all last week said it all.

Why did the Browns snub fan favorite Joe Flacco -- who hopped off the couch mid-season to propel Cleveland all the way to the playoffs -- in favor of signing Jameis Winston?

While worthy of scrutiny, that the backup quarterback position was the main topic of dicussion during the opening week of free agency underscored what the Browns had done thus far -- mainly, opting to run back last year's team.

On the heels of the trading for Denver Broncos wide receiver Jerry Jeudy, the former first-round pick whom the Browns have coveted for more than year, Cleveland's most notable moves were re-signing its own free-agent veterans.

According to multiple sources, the Browns entered free agency with high hopes of netting a premier playmaking defensive tackle. But after top target Christian Wilkins signed with the Las Vegas Raiders on a four-year, $110 million deal -- and Kansas City's Chris Jones, Seattle's Leonard Williams and Baltimore's Justin Madubuike re-signed with their own teams -- Cleveland focused on Plan B: bringing back several key players from its No. 1 ranked defense.

The Browns re-signed defensive end Za'Darius Smith on a two-year, $23 million deal. They also brought back veteran defensive tackles Shelby Harris (two years, $9 million) and Maurice Hurst (one year, $3.2 million).

The Browns beefed up the depth chart along its defensive front further with other players. They added Quinton Jefferson (one year), who will round out the defensive tackle rotation behind starter Dalvin Tomlinson, Harris and Hurst. Jefferson, 30, started 14 games for the New York Jets last season and recorded six sacks. Cleveland also signed Ohio native Jordan Hicks, and 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers first-round pick Devin Bush, who replace captain Anthony Walker (who signed with the Miami Dolphins) and Sione Takitaki (who left for the New England Patriots) in Cleveland's inside linebacker rotation. Hicks, 31, who will take over as the starter, has five straight seasons of at least 100 tackles.

Elsewhere, the Browns re-signed prolific punter Corey Bojorquez (two years) and backup guard Michel Dunn (one year). They also added another quarterback besides Winston in former Baltimore backup Tyler Huntley, who joins second-year passer Dorian Thompson-Robinson in a suddenly crowded Browns quarterback room.

But with Cleveland likely done making big moves, and owning only five picks in the upcoming draft, including again no first rounders because of the Deshaun Watson trade, will having essentially the same team be enough to elevate the Browns into a true contender in the loaded AFC?

In the AFC North alone, Cleveland's biggest rivals seemingly improved.

The Ravens parted with several role players (including linebacker Patrick Queen, safety Geno Smith, offensive linemen John Simpson and Morgan Moses) but landed perennial All-Pro running back Derrick Henry. Alongside 2023 MVP QB Lamar Jackson, Baltimore could feature a ferocious running game, if Henry has any tread left on the tires.

Pittsburgh signed Queen to address its biggest hole defensively -- inside linebacker. The Steelers also revamped their quarterback room, jettisoning Kenny Pickett to Philadelphia, signing Russell Wilson and trading for Justin Fields.

The rest of the AFC didn't get any less daunting, either.

The Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs picked up a reliable downfield threat they lacked last year, signing speedy wideout Marquise "Hollywood" Brown.

The Houston Texans, who eliminated Cleveland in the playoffs with a 45-14 victory, signed arguably the top free agent pass rusher available in Minnesota's Danielle Hunter, who had 16.5 sacks last season.

And don't forget, the Cincinnati Bengals, who missed the playoffs last season, will get quarterback Joe Burrow back from his season-ending wrist injury suffered in November.

But even without any major additions, Cleveland's defense should remain formidable and keep the Browns' floor relatively high.

Last season's Defensive Player of the Year, Myles Garrett, and Pro Bowl cornerback Denzel Ward remain in their primes. Budding linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, cornerback Martin Emerson Jr. and safety Grant Delpit are about to enter theirs.

Bringing in former Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel, who will serve as a consultant should also help. He figures to be a trusted sounding board for defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who filled a similar role under Vrabel in Tennessee from 2021 to 2022.

Cleveland's ceiling, however, will hinge on Watson, and how he performs coming off a season-ending injury to his throwing shoulder suffered in mid-November. If Watson finally regains his form from 2020, when, as a Houston Texan, he led the NFL in passing, that will trump any move the Browns could've made in free agency, and quell the backup quarterback debate. And should that happen, running it back could prove more than enough for the Browns to return to the postseason -- and possibly beyond.