Nowhere to go but up for Browns
The Browns bottomed out last season, following up a 1-15 season by going winless. They kept Hue Jackson as head coach but put John Dorsey in charge of personnel last December, and there will be greater than 50 percent roster turnover by the time the season begins.
Whether the Browns can actually turn things around remains to be seen. They have a new quarterback for the moment in Tyrod Taylor and drafted Baker Mayfield No. 1 overall. Denzel Ward was selected three picks later in hopes that he would become a lockdown cornerback, and 2017 No. 1 pick Myles Garrett is hoping to stay healthy and post double-digit sacks after an injury-riddled rookie season. The Browns will be more experienced across the board and better at key positions. To escape the AFC North basement, they’ll have to cut down on turnovers, find a way to consistently score touchdowns and play much better pass defense than they did last season.
The Browns entered and exited last season without a quarterback on the roster who had won an NFL start. Rookie DeShone Kizer was given no chance to succeed, and he was a turnover machine. He was traded in March on the same day the Browns acquired Taylor and wide receiver Jarvis Landry, who’s caught more passes over his first four seasons than any player in NFL history. For much of last season the Browns had a CFL-quality receiving corps; this season, they’re hoping Landry and Josh Gordon can return to their prior Pro Bowl form.
Gordon played last December for the first time in three years. He’s on his last strike with the NFL but has done everything required to return to the game. The Browns added two wide receivers on the final day of the draft and are expecting marked improvement from tight end David Njoku in his second season. So, the supporting cast has been upgraded for Taylor, but how long can he keep the job from Mayfield? If the Browns don’t win early, Mayfield’s presence will loom larger.
Future Hall of Famer Joe Thomas retired, leaving a vacancy at left tackle on what’s otherwise an experienced and highly paid offensive line. Chris Hubbard comes from the Steelers and will be the right tackle. For now, Kevin Zeitler and Joel Bitonio are back at guard and JC Tretter returns at center. Shon Coleman, last year’s right tackle, will battle second-round rookie Austin Corbett for the left tackle spot. Both Jackson and new offensive coordinator Todd Haley have promised that the Browns will run the ball, and second-round pick Nick Chubb could become the starting running back. Carlos Hyde signed in March and will be in the mix, and Duke Johnson is also in the plans. Johnson is coming off a breakout season and was signed to a three-year contract extension in June. He’s crafty in space and catches the ball well out of the backfield.
It’s easy to envision the likes of Landry, Johnson, Gordon and Chubb making the Browns an explosive offense. Taylor was added because he’s taken care of the ball and can extend plays with his feet. He’s never been a great vertical passer, but the Browns believe he’ll provide much-needed leadership and efficiency, even if he’s not long for the job. The Bills were willing to deal Taylor because they wanted a more traditional pocket passer and because 2018 is the final year of his current contract.
The Browns picked Mayfield because of his accuracy and leadership. He’ll have to adapt to the NFL game and Haley’s playbook, but Dorsey believes Mayfield will eventually raise the level of the entire organization the way he did at Oklahoma in his Heisman Trophy campaign last season. Dorsey cleaned out the entire 2017 QB room and also added veteran Drew Stanton, who will serve as a tutor to Mayfield while Taylor spends the summer adjusting to his new teammates and system. It’s a situation that could work, but it’s one that could come with volatility.
The offensive talent level has been upgraded significantly, but the Browns will have to jell and have a long way to go to move past the offensive struggles of the past several seasons. They’ll have to average a full touchdown more per game this season than they did in 2017 even to land in the middle of the league pack.
Last year’s defense sold out to stop the run and got gashed weekly in the passing game. Garrett had flashes of brilliance but dealt with a concussion and a high ankle sprain. The Browns believe that with Garrett, Emmanuel Ogbah and Larry Ogunjobi, they have the makings of a potentially dominant defensive line.
But they drafted Ward because Dorsey and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams believed the team’s biggest weakness was in the secondary. The cornerback position has been almost entirely remade. Damarious Randall, acquired in a trade, played cornerback in Green Bay but will move to free safety, his college position, with the Browns. That should free Jabrill Peppers to move to a more natural position closer to the line of scrimmage. Williams generally deployed Peppers 20 or more yards off the line of scrimmage last season, and Peppers clearly wasn’t comfortable.
The Browns signed three veteran cornerbacks in March and used the No. 4 pick in the draft on Ward. T.J. Carrie figures to be the team’s slot cornerback, while E.J. Gaines will compete for a starting job. Terrance Mitchell was also added, and Jamar Taylor might be moved before the season. Briean Boddy-Calhoun saw action at both safety and cornerback last season. If healthy, he should make the team again and will have a chance to earn snaps. Given the additions at cornerback, he’ll probably open training camp as a safety.
All three starters at linebacker return. Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey played every defensive snap last season, and both need to be better against the pass. Jamie Collins is the Browns’ most gifted linebacker; he missed half of last season after suffering a knee injury while making a diving interception. Schobert went to the Pro Bowl as an alternate in his first year as a starter. He’s an ascending player, but the Browns have to upgrade their overall defensive talent so he’s not playing every snap. Mychal Kendricks was signed in June after being released by Philadelphia. If the offense can be good enough to keep the defense fresh and in more pass-rush situations, the Browns believe they have enough athletes to give opposing quarterbacks headaches.
Kicker Zane Gonzalez struggled early in his rookie season but finished strong. The Browns didn’t prioritize adding competition for him this offseason and believe he’ll be more consistent in his second season. Veteran Britton Colquitt is used to punting in the elements and also figures to be back. The team’s goal is not to keep Colquitt so busy. New special teams coach Amos Jones will look to get more from Peppers in the return game after he came close to breaking a few as a rookie. The thought is that upgrading the roster across the board will help the special teams units considering the number of young and overmatched players pressed into duty over the last several seasons.
The roster is better, even without Thomas. Dorsey needed to add experience, even if he didn’t add a bunch of blue-chip players. This will still be one of the league’s youngest teams, but it has improved at quarterback, wide receiver and in the secondary -- all critical areas in a passing league. The Browns believe they have more offensive playmakers than they’ve had in years and will be able to run the ball once the new linemen and Chubb develop some chemistry. The quarterback question still lingers -- and likely will continue to with Mayfield looming as the eventual starter.
The Browns probably aren’t a playoff team, and they might not even escape the AFC North basement. But they’ll win some games and hope to position themselves as a playoff team for 2019. Whether or not Jackson is still around then remains to be seen.