Baker Mayfield and the Browns hope another coaching change can help end their length playoff drought
The 2020 Browns have a new front office regime and a new coaching staff. If that sounds familiar, it should. The only head coach to make it more than two seasons under the ownership of the Haslam family has been Hue Jackson, and he didn’t finish a third. John Dorsey was in charge of the roster for two years and three weeks, and the Browns added a bunch of talent during that time. But Dorsey was fired last December, in part because his coaching hire, Freddie Kitchens, flopped. The Browns had lots of hype entering last season but lost their final three games to finish 6-10.
Nick Chubb led the NFL in rushing until the season’s final week. Chubb has a chance to be even better with new coach Kevin Stefanski’s emphasis on a power run game. The Browns have added tight end Austin Hooper, fullback Andy Janovich and two new starting tackles, Jack Conklin and rookie Jedrick Wills Jr. On the other side of the ball, Myles Garrett has been fully reinstated, signed a record-setting contract extension, and could chase the league’s sack title. The Browns are remaking their linebacking corps and safety group, and they’ll be counting on Garrett and Sheldon Richardson to help a talented defensive line make game-changing plays.
Mayfield was not his usual accurate and confident self for much of 2019, and his 21 interceptions were the second most in the league. Outside of Chubb, the offense as a whole was disjointed, disorganized and disappointing.
The offseason addition of Hooper might have surprised some, but the Browns moved quickly to secure his services with $23 million guaranteed. Adding two new tackles was always going to be in the plans, and the Browns gave Conklin $30 million guaranteed on the same day they signed Hooper. They used the No. 10 pick in the draft on Wills, who will play left tackle after playing exclusively on the right in both high school and college. A veteran line and new line coach Bill Callahan will play key roles in Wills’ transition.
Though the Browns are buttoning things up with their base offense, they still have explosive playmakers at wide receiver in Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. Both surpassed 1,000 receiving yards last season, but both expect more from themselves. Beckham had offseason surgery to repair a core muscle issue that limited him for much of last season. Landry had offseason hip surgery but is expecting full clearance. Landry is a crafty, physical receiver who knows how to get open and occasionally gets vertical. He hates being labeled as just a slot receiver and relishes his chances to make big plays.
Hooper, 25, caught 146 passes over the past two seasons for the pass-happy Falcons. The Browns will move him around the formation and hope he’ll take advantage of mismatches. The amount of proven production across this offense is ridiculous; in addition to adding Hooper, the Browns plan to have Kareem Hunt for the whole season to complement Chubb and to occasionally play in the same backfield alongside him. When a former NFL rushing champion is your backup running back, you’re sitting on some pretty good options. It’s a big year for Mayfield, and he has plenty of guys to make plays if he can deliver them the ball accurately.
David Njoku had a lost season in 2019 and was replaced in the listed starting lineup by Hooper. But the Browns still believe Njoku can become a more consistent player, and Stefanski’s commitment to using the tight end should give both Njoku and fourth-round rookie Harrison Bryant chances to make plays.
The Browns’ commitment to a straight-ahead offense included a March trade for Janovich. The Browns are incorporating a fullback while the Broncos are moving away from using one, so Janovich was available for just a 2021 seventh-round pick despite signing a three-year extension with the Broncos last October.
Garrett has been fully reinstated after the NFL suspended him indefinitely for swinging a helmet at Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph. The Browns expect a refreshed and re-focused Garrett in his fourth year, and he should break the franchise single-season record of 14.0 sacks. Cleveland showed its commitment to Garrett by signing him to a five-year contract extension that's worth a reported $125 million with the most guaranteed money ($100 million) ever for a defensive player.
Last year’s pass rush struggled without Garrett, and a defense that was susceptible to the big play all season got gashed by those plays last December. New coordinator Joe Woods has Richardson, Olivier Vernon, Adrian Clayborn and Karl Joseph to provide leadership and tutoring as the Browns work to get comfortable in their new scheme, and one of the best ways to help Garrett will be to stop the run and force opponents into must-pass situations.
The linebacker position is probably the biggest question mark, not just on the defense but across the whole roster. Christian Kirksey was released after dealing with injuries for most of the last two seasons, and the Browns chose to let Joe Schobert leave for the Jaguars in free agency. Schobert played every snap in 15 of the 16 games last season and called the defensive signals for the last three years. The Browns signed B.J. Goodson to provide short-term stability and drafted Jacob Phillips in the third round. But the man in the spotlight is second-year player Mack Wilson, an athletic player who was pressed into full-time duty last September after Kirksey’s injury.
Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams return as the starting cornerbacks. Both are gifted young players who battled injury at various times last season, but the team believes both will continue to improve and become more consistent players. Veteran Kevin Johnson was added in free agency; Johnson played as a slot cornerback last season for the Bills and should play a similar role for this year’s Browns.
The Browns are completely remaking the safety position. Veterans Joseph and Andrew Sendejo signed one-year contracts in March, and the Browns selected LSU’s Grant Delpit in the second round. Delpit won the Jim Thorpe Award last season as the nation’s top defensive back and figures to immediately take over the deep safety spot for the Browns. Joseph is a former first-round pick whose final season with the Raiders was cut short by injury. He will look to play his way into the team’s long-term plans.
Better depth and the presence of former Pro Bowlers Garrett and Ward give this defense a chance to make significant progress from last season, providing the Browns clean up their tackling and if young players like Wilson and Delpit can be playmakers.
Kicker Austin Seibert has a powerful leg but wasn’t consistent, though it appears he’ll be back for a second season. The Browns dumped veteran punter Britton Colquitt in summer 2019 in favor of undrafted rookie Jamie Gillan, who’s still new to the game but has exceptional leg strength (46.2 avg.). The new regime kept veteran special teams coach Mike Priefer on the new staff, something that should bode well for the Browns’ young specialists as they continue to progress. Under Priefer, the 2019 Browns made significant strides in most phases of special teams from recent years. The Browns signed JoJo Natson to a one-year deal in March in hopes of giving the return game a spark. Natson is a small but slippery return man who had some success with the Rams and will be given a chance to win both the kickoff and punt return jobs with the Browns. Sixth-round rookie Donovan Peoples-Jones will also be given a look as the punt returner.
There’s enough talent on hand that if the Browns clean up their discipline issues and stay healthy, they could end their 17-year playoff drought. In a year that’s all about Mayfield proving he can be a franchise quarterback, he needs to be efficient, and the Browns need to support him with a strong run game and improved tackling. On paper, the offense looks loaded. If the new staff can get the players to buy in and catch on to the new schemes quickly, the Browns should be in the playoff mix.