The Browns bottomed out last season, going 1-15 and again failing to answer their lingering quarterback question. But the case could be made that the team’s 2016 teardown was a necessary step. Also, it’s difficult to be much worse in any area than the Browns were last season, so they head to 2017 with at least some optimism and a roster that has a chance to be much improved.
How many games this year’s edition can actually win is probably dependent on the quarterback situation, and having six different players take snaps last season certainly didn’t help matters. The Browns hired Hue Jackson as head coach in 2016 hoping he would help select and develop a quarterback, and the Browns drafted DeShone Kizer in the second round to become their newest project. Robert Griffin III was released after getting hurt and never inspiring much confidence last season, leaving 2016 third-round pick Cody Kessler atop the depth chart headed into a training camp quarterback competition.
The Browns invested heavily in their offensive line, signing Kevin Zeitler and JC Tretter in free agency and giving Joel Bitonio a long-term extension. Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas remains the anchor, and only the right tackle spot remains unsettled. The Browns went through last season without ever developing a real area of strength, and the investment in the offensive line is designed to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
A stronger offensive line and commitment to the run game should help the quarterback play, too. The spring pecking order was Kessler, Brock Osweiler and then Kizer, but that could change if Kessler falters or Kizer progresses quickly. Osweiler also could end up being the starter; a year after the Texans outbid the Broncos to get him, they gave up a second-round pick to the Browns to take him and the remaining $16 million in guaranteed money on his contract off their hands. Osweiler is just 26 and has made 21 career starts, so he shouldn’t be totally dismissed.
Isaiah Crowell is the lead running back, and he’ll have a chance to build on an impressive 2016. Crowell is a powerful runner who showed improved speed and vision last season, and in doing so he separated himself from Duke Johnson, who was probably the favorite to become the starting running back last summer. Johnson remains a valuable third-down back and can contribute for a Browns team that needs playmakers.
That need makes it puzzling that the Browns let Terrelle Pryor walk in free agency last March. Pryor went over 1,000 yards receiving last season in his first full season as a wide receiver, and his size/speed combo made him a difficult matchup for many cornerbacks. The Browns signed veteran Kenny Britt to fill Pryor’s spot in the depth chart. More than anything, though, the receivers and the offense as a whole need 2016 first-round pick Corey Coleman to take a significant leap. Coleman had one big game as a rookie and showed he could become a deep threat, but missing time both in training camp and during the season slowed his overall development. The Browns hope this season that he can be a downfield threat and that Britt can help move the chains while both Coleman and first-round tight end David Njoku continue to progress and eventually become top passing-game options. As for who will be throwing the passes come November and December, stay tuned.
The Browns fired defensive coordinator Ray Horton and some of his assistants, bringing in veteran Gregg Williams to take control. With a coordinator change comes a scheme change, but the Browns needed the switch and were going to add a bunch of new players to the defense even before the coaching change.
The first two draft picks were used on defense. Myles Garrett has some of the same gifts the NFL’s elite pass rushers have, and he is just 21. Jabrill Peppers will be listed as a strong safety; he played linebacker in his final college season and can also play nickel cornerback. Both Garrett and Peppers will have to deal with a learning curve, but both bring much-needed athleticism to the defense.
Keeping linebacker Jamie Collins was another offseason priority. The Browns hope a new contract for linebacker Christian Kirskey is next, and they envision Collins and Kirskey combining with Garrett, third-year man Danny Shelton and second-year pro Emmanuel Ogbah to improve the run defense. It remains to be seen if a forward-thinking front office keeps a veteran like defensive end Desmond Bryant on the roster past training camp.
The secondary needs cornerback Joe Haden to play at a high level, and Haden has made his annual offseason vow that he’s healthy and ready for a rebound. Jamar Taylor revived his career last season, got a new contract and should start opposite Haden, while Peppers and second-year man Derrick Kindred are the likely starters at safety, although 2014 first-round pick Calvin Pryor was added to the mix when he was acquired from the Jets in June for linebacker DeMario Davis. The Browns’ secondary remains a question mark, and this group would benefit most if the team could improve its run defense.
The defensive line will probably be most affected by the scheme change and the draft picks. Ideally, Garrett and Ogbah will be the starters at defensive end with Shelton and third-round rookie Larry Ogunjobi heading up the rotation of inside players. Williams hasn’t committed to a single scheme despite being a 4-3 base defensive coach for most of his career. The Browns will play a lot of nickel defense and hope versatile players such as Peppers, Ogbah and Collins can move around and keep offenses guessing.
The Browns spent in the offseason to keep punter Britton Colquitt and to lock up Charley Hughlett with an extension that makes him the league’s highest-paid long snapper. Colquitt was brought on last summer after the Browns traded veteran Andy Lee to Carolina for a fourth-round pick.
There will be a training camp kicking competition after the Browns drafted Zane Gonzalez in the seventh round. Cody Parkey finished strong last season after a nightmarish start that included two misses on what could have been game-winning field goals in an early season game at Miami. Parkey had been an emergency replacement for Patrick Murray after Murray suffered a major knee injury during a walkthrough.
Peppers will get a shot to be the punt returner, even if he ends up sharing the job. The Browns added Gonzalez because of his talent and penchant for kicking touchbacks as a college player, but also as insurance after what happened last season. The Browns ended up going with a punter, kicker and return men last season who weren’t atop the depth chart — or even on it — heading into training camp last summer.
The roster is improved. Whether that can translate into enough wins to climb out of the AFC North basement remains unknown — and unlikely. The Browns still figure to struggle to score enough points and get enough stops to keep up with the league’s better teams.
Internal expectations seem realistic, and the Browns will again be judging the progress of their rookies and hoping they come out of the 2017 with more building-block players than they’ve had in several seasons. By spending big on the offensive line in free agency and then focusing on defense early in the draft, the Browns hope to keep their quarterbacks healthy and let those young defensive players grow into prominent roles.
Yes, the Browns are playing for the future. They seem to be pretty well positioned for the future, too. But 2017 remains crucial for several reasons, most notably because no head coach has made it to a third season under owner Jimmy Haslam and because the Browns won’t climb out of the division basement until they get much-improved play at quarterback.