After two decades of struggling to win much of anything, the Browns are back from the dead. With one of the league’s most talented rosters, they might be legitimate Super Bowl contenders. Really.
The 2020 Browns rode a red-hot offense to 11 regular-season wins and a trip to the divisional round of the playoffs, and they prepped for 2021 by completely remaking their defense. It appears that there will be nine new defensive starters; only Pro Bowlers Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward will return to their usual spots.
Last year, no lead was safe. This year, the Browns think their defense will hold up its end of things and the offense can be even better. With Nick Chubb running behind one of the league’s best offensive lines and quarterback Baker Mayfield having delivered some of the best play of his career last November and December, points should not be hard to come by.
For his work in last year’s resurrection, Kevin Stefanski was named AP NFL Coach of the Year. Stefanski trusted Mayfield more and more as the season went on, and Mayfield was both efficient and aggressive.
The Browns are still one of the league’s best rushing teams, and they’ll still use the Chubb-Kareem Hunt combo to close games. But expectations are higher for the quarterback, the defense and the franchise as a whole.
Everybody’s back. That’s all 11 starters, the league’s best running back duo, a bruising offensive line and an intriguing receiver group headlined by Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr., who spent the offseason working his way back from a torn ACL.
This is Beckham’s last chance with the Browns; his contract carries no dead money for 2022 and beyond. Beckham has produced a handful of big moments, but he has not met his own lofty standards. Mayfield and the passing game didn’t get rolling until Beckham was sidelined by his October knee injury, but the hope of all involved is that Beckham can provide a vertical presence and help this offense reach its own lofty goals this year.
Though Hunt is an explosive runner in his own right and a weapon out of the backfield for the pass game, it was clear during Chubb’s four-game injury absence last season that the offense was much better with him handling a lot of the driving. That's one of the reasons why the team signed Chubb to a three-year, $36.6 million contract extension ($20 million guaranteed) at the start of training camp. Chubb has a rare combination of size and breakaway speed, and Stefanski’s offense is designed to attack at multiple levels when the run game is used to set up the play-action pass game. Landry is the Browns’ most reliable target, although Rashard Higgins also delivered in big spots.
The slow start for the passing game was understandable given the loss of the offseason program and the coaching change, but once Mayfield settled in, his throws gave the Browns a new dimension. Over the last nine games, he threw only one interception.
The personnel is back and so, too, is the physical mindset. The emergence of right guard Wyatt Teller and the smart but expensive signing of Jack Conklin to play right tackle helped the Browns build a rugged offensive line. Reliable veteran guard Joel Bitonio and center J.C. Tretter are among the league’s best at what they do, and left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. was solid in his rookie season at a new position.
A sixth-round pick in 2020, receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones wasn’t even active for the first three games last season. But he twice delivered big plays in emergency duty, and after Beckham’s injury, he became almost a full-time player. Peoples-Jones is the Browns’ tallest receiver at 6'2" and is probably their fastest when Beckham isn’t in the lineup.
Austin Hooper is the No. 1 tight end, and his blocking is a big part of the Browns’ offensive success. Hooper might not get to post the receiving numbers he wants, but Mayfield trusts Hooper to catch the ball. David Njoku enters the final year of his rookie contract trying to prove that he’s worth continued development. He has enough speed to make big plays but he has to compete with Hooper and second-year man Harrison Bryant for snaps.
The top offseason priority was overhauling a defense that too often struggled to get off the field (25th in third-down defense) and to protect big leads. The Browns were good at creating turnovers (fourth in takeaways), but their overall defensive numbers were poor — 20th in yards per play, 21st in scoring defense. Garrett was dominant early in the season before being slowed by a late-season bout with COVID-19; nine of his 12 sacks came before the end of October. Ward was good again, too, but through various injury and COVID issues, the Browns had to play six different players in prominent roles at cornerback.
Most of those players are gone. The Browns drafted Greg Newsome II in the first round, signed veteran Troy Hill in free agency and believe they’ll get Greedy Williams back after a nerve issue in his shoulder forced him to miss all of last season. The big-ticket free agent is safety John Johnson III, another move made to solidify the secondary and help the Browns clean up their struggles with their third- and fourth-down defense.
Last year, linebacker was the most glaring area of concern on the defensive side. This year, it’s defensive tackle after Larry Ogunjobi left in free agency and the team’s top defensive tackle, Sheldon Richardson, was cut for financial reasons. That leaves Andrew Billings as a starter after Billings chose to opt out last season. Jordan Elliott, a 2020 third-round pick, also figures to play a prominent role after a quiet rookie season.
The Browns still believe they upgraded the defensive line by signing edge players Jadeveon Clowney and Takkarist McKinley to one-year deals. Clowney joins Garrett in forming a duo of former No. 1 overall picks. The idea is for Clowney to start opposite Garrett and occasionally play inside. McKinley is another former first-round pick who’s battled injuries the last two seasons but should take on a passing-down role in Cleveland. There’s better athleticism in the linebacker position, too, as second-year man Jacob Phillips looks like a keeper and second-round rookie Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah adds range to the group.
Johnson will be the free safety but can play in several different spots. Hill was one of the league’s best slot cornerbacks last season but can also play outside. Williams and safety Grant Delpit are working their way back from injuries, and safety Ronnie Harrison played well last season when he was healthy.
The Browns were planning on sticking with Cody Parkey at kicker, signing him to a new contract at the start of free agency in March. But he suffered a quad injury in training camp that resulted in him being released with an injury settlement. The job will belong to Chase McLaughlin, who has kicked for five different teams over the past two seasons.
Punter Jamie Gillan has a strong leg and is still learning the position, but the Browns expect better — and will need better all-around special teams play if they hope to win the division and play deep into January. The top candidates in the return game will be JoJo Natson, Peoples-Jones and rookie Demetric Felton. Natson held both the punt return and kick return jobs before suffering a torn ACL last season.
All the pieces are in place. The Browns have made smart, shrewd moves in building an all-weather offense, and the defensive makeover should yield better results. The Browns have to tackle better, they have to stay healthy and they again need to stay on the right side of the turnover battle. But they have the ingredients, and with talents like Chubb and Garrett in closers’ roles, they’ll have a chance to win their first division title since 1989. The hype is real, and this fall we’ll see if the Browns are ready for the big stage.