Then defensive end Myles Garrett swung a helmet. And without its best player, plus a shortage of depth across the board, Cleveland's defense soon cratered down the stretch, which included surrendering 30-plus points in three consecutive losses to end the year.
Having since been reinstated from the season-ending suspension, Garrett is back to spearhead the Browns' pass rush. But almost as important, reinforcements are on the way to replenish the depth Cleveland so glaringly lacked during a dismal 2019 season.
The Browns used all three of their Day 2 draft picks on rebuilding depth at every level of their defense, selecting LSU safety Grant Delpit, Missouri defensive tackle Jordan Elliott and LSU linebacker Jacob Phillips. All three figure to be in the rotation at their respective positions this season, with Delpit holding a legitimate shot at winning a starting job.
"Grant is a very talented player," said new Browns defensive coordinator Joe Woods. "When you look at his tape, he has the ability to play down in the box, and he has the ability to play in the post. We can play him in the dime. He can match up in the slot and man coverage. He is the ideal type of athlete that I look forward to getting in the secondary. The size [6-foot-2, 213 pounds] and the speed, to me, he possesses it all."
The draft, however, was only part of Cleveland's plan to improve a defense that finished last season with a disappointing No. 22 ranking in efficiency.
In free agency, the Browns added veterans at every position defensively, giving them a proven two-deep. That's something they didn't have entering last season -- especially up front.
In addition to drafting Elliott, Cleveland landed defensive end Adrian Clayborn from the Falcons and athletic defensive tackle Andrew Billings from the Bengals. While Billings should help ease the load on Sheldon Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi inside, Clayborn figures to give the Browns a credible pass-rushing boost off the bench that wasn't there last season.
In fact, of 11 players with at least 500 pass-rush snaps over the past two seasons, Clayborn ranked second in the league with a quarterback pressure rate of 13.8%, according to Next Gen Stats. The only player ahead of him was Garrett. Though Clayborn last season posted the NFL's fourth-best pass-rush win rate from right end, just behind Garrett, the Browns plan to use him in a variety of ways alongside Garrett, Olivier Vernon and Chad Thomas.
"He's a veteran player that has played multiple position so I think he has a lot of value because I feel like we can play him all three downs," Woods said of Clayborn, who will turn 32 this summer. "I feel like we can play him outside and we can play him inside. He wants to be that type of player. I think he will be able to do multiple things for us."
Linebacker remains the biggest question mark for the Browns after they lost longtime starters Christian Kirksey and Joe Schobert. Still, Cleveland boasts a trio of promising young linebackers in Phillips, Sione Takitaki and Mack Wilson, who started 14 games as a rookie last year after Kirksey suffered a season-ending pectoral injury. The Browns also signed veteran B.J. Goodson to a one-year deal to serve as a bridge as his younger teammates develop.
"As long as I've been playing, that leadership role is something that you just inherit," said Goodson, who has 29 starts over the past three years, including last season with the Green Bay Packers. "It's something that I am definitely looking forward to, being an addition there for those guys."
To have a chance of contending for a playoff spot, Cleveland will need healthier seasons from cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams, who both had hamstring injuries last year. But the Browns also need more stability and consistency at safety, a position that plagued them for much of last season.
In pairing Joseph and Sendejo with Delpit and second-year player Sheldrick Redwine, the Browns believe that will produce an upgrade over what they featured last year. That, and the free-agent addition of nickel corner Kevin Johnson, should also give Woods the flexibility to frequently play nickel and dime packages.
"I have been on some good defensive staffs the last couple years, going back to my time in Minnesota, my time in Denver, with [former NFL defensive coordinator] Wade Phillips and then last year in San Francisco," Woods said. "What I am really putting together is a combination of what I feel like have been the top defenses of the last basically 10 years.
"I feel like it's going to be a really good defensive package that is simple. Where the guys can play fast, and cause some problems for the offenses."