The Browns made a significant addition to their secondary when they signed safety John Johnson as a free agent in 2021. His time in Cleveland is coming to an end, however. Mike Garafolo of NFL Network reports that Cleveland will release him at the onset of free agency in March unless a trade partner can be found before then (Twitter link).
Johnson, 27, inked a three-year, $33.75MM contract in 2021 after a productive start to his career with the Rams. He was arguably the top safety on the market that offseason, but reportedly took less money to come to Cleveland. That reflected the optimism surrounding the team at that time, but still led to high expectations given the Browns’ investment in Johnson to solidify their backend.
Johnson had a strong 2021 campaign, recording three interceptions and five pass deflections. He also posted career-best numbers in terms of coverage statistics, allowing an opposing passer rating of 70.1. Things went differently this past season, one in which the former third-rounder moved closer to the line of scrimmage while remaining a full-time starter. He eclipsed the 100-tackle mark for the third time in his career, but totaled just one interception.
Johnson is due to carry a cap hit of $13.5MM this season, making him a logical candidate for a cost-cutting trade or release. The only way the Browns would see any savings by moving on from him, though, is they designated him a post-June 1 release. Assuming that takes place, Cleveland will save $9.75MM while incurring a dead cap charge of $3.75MM. Those savings could help them re-stock with a notable name.
Mary Kay Cabot of cleveland.com reports that the Browns “are expected to pursue” Bengals safety Jessie Bates in free agency. The 26-year-old has been with Cincinnati for all five years of his career, but the contentious negotiations which took place between he and the Bengals last offseason resulted in the franchise tag being used. That move, along with the team’s decision to draft Daxton Hill in the first round, point to Bates heading elsewhere this year. He will no doubt command a lucrative deal, but freeing up funds from Johnson’s deal will allow the Browns to at least be a contender to add more playmaking on defense.
Given his age and production, Johnson will himself likely have suitors on the open market, albeit at a reduced rate compared to his Browns deal. Cleveland, meanwhile, will be a team to watch if they become serious in their pursuit of Bates, one of the top defenders set to hit free agency.