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Cleveland Browns: 2022 Preseason Predictions and Preview

Myles Garrett, Cleveland Browns

Myles Garrett and the Browns are eager to put last season's disappointing showing behind them.

Coming off a disappointing 8-9 season, the Browns entered the offseason looking to bolster their defensive line group and juice up their passing game. With Baker Mayfield under contract for 2022 thanks to the fully guaranteed fifth-year option the Browns picked up in May 2021, it appeared that things would start with a remake of the wide receiver group. Instead, the Browns made the most surprising and controversial move of the NFL offseason — and probably the biggest trade in franchise history — when they acquired quarterback Deshaun Watson from the Texans for a package that included three first-round picks. Watson did not play last season as he prepared to defend himself against 22 accusations of sexual assault and sexual misconduct.

When a grand jury declined to indict Watson in early March, the Texans began to accept trade offers and grant permission to teams to talk with Watson. The Browns, who had been researching Watson's situation since last November and positioned themselves to at least explore a trade, were the third of four teams to get a visit with Watson.

Watson initially informed the Browns that he wouldn't choose them, but a day later he changed his mind. The Browns giving Watson a five-year contract worth a fully guaranteed $230 million — the largest single-contract guarantee in NFL history — certainly played into his thinking. The Browns believe they now have the kind of franchise quarterback they've never had before. Watson still faces a potential suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy, and 22 civil suits against him remained active in the spring. But the Browns always believed Watson was their best option, and they believe he'll prove to be worth every asset they committed to get him.

Watson wasn't the only big-name move the Browns made in the offseason. But it's that addition (and the monstrous contract) that thrust the Browns into the spotlight, and it's a move that Browns general manager Andrew Berry wouldn't have made if he didn't expect the Browns to be real contenders in a loaded AFC.

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OFFENSE

Mayfield played most of last season with a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder, but in the final evaluation of Mayfield's first four seasons, the Browns determined he was holding them back. They started their offseason by trading for former Pro Bowl wide receiver Amari Cooper, and they believe that not only will Watson and Cooper click but that Watson will also unlock parts of the offense that Mayfield, who was later traded to Carolina, could not.

In head coach Kevin Stefanski's first two seasons, the Browns were a run-first offense in part because of their roster construction. Berry has invested heavily in the offensive line, and the Browns have two of the NFL's best and highest-paid guards in Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt have formed what's unquestionably the league's best running back duo over the past two seasons.

Now, the Browns think Watson's mobility and arm talent will make the play-action game even more dangerous than it was in the last two seasons and that Chubb can play the closer's role when the Browns need him to. Chubb averaged 4.25 yards after contact last season, and that was with the Browns often operating against defenses focused on limiting the run game. Watson, a Pro Bowler in each of the three full seasons he played in Houston, has never had an offensive line this talented or a running back group that was even close to the one he has now.

Winning now is the clear goal for the Browns. Cooper is 28, and the Browns are counting on at least one young wide receiver to emerge to complement him. Donovan Peoples-Jones and rookie David Bell are the best bets to do that, and though Stefanski plans to utilize fewer multiple tight end sets, expect the tight ends to also be involved in a more vertical passing attack. The Browns used the franchise tag on tight end David Njoku and believe Njoku can become a matchup issue for smaller safeties and slower linebackers in the middle of the field.

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DEFENSE

Though the Browns' defense was inconsistent in the early part of last season, it finished last season playing like a top-five unit. Myles Garrett set the franchise single-season sack mark last season, and it appears the Browns hit home runs in last year's draft with the additions of cornerback Greg Newsome II and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. Garrett has become one of the NFL's most dangerous pass rushers, and the Browns locked up another defensive cornerstone this spring when they signed cornerback Denzel Ward to a five-year extension that makes Ward the NFL's highest-paid cornerback ever, at least until the next cornerback mega-deal is done. Ward, who's still just 25, is coming off his best season.

Internally, the Browns have envisioned building an athletic defense full of versatile players with closing speed. Ward and Newsome form a top cornerback duo and headline a secondary that also features veteran safety John Johnson III. Veteran linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. is back in a leadership role; the Browns think Walker can help young linebackers such as Owusu-Koramoah and Jacob Phillips maximize their potential.

The Browns plan to continue to try to rebuild their pass-rush group with Garrett as the centerpiece, and adding cornerback Martin Emerson and edge rusher Alex Wright via the draft speaks to the importance of the positions those two play. The team also re-signed Jadeveon Clowney to a one-year deal to give him and Garrett another shot at terrorizing opposing quarterbacks.

Defensive coordinator Joe Woods is back for a third season and has returning players in almost every spot, so high expectations for this group seem warranted. If players like Newsome, Owusu-Koramoah and third-year safety Grant Delpit continue to progress, this could become one of the AFC's best defenses.

SPECIALISTS

The Browns' special teams units have been subpar over the last two seasons, so it's no surprise the Browns will have new players at kicker, punter and returner. Jakeem Grant Sr. will be a gadget player for the offense and could get some snaps as a slot receiver, but the Browns prioritized Grant in free agency because he's a proven return specialist who can put pressure on opposing punters and special teams coaches.

The Browns think they're good enough to be able to draft a kicker in the fourth round and push other priorities down the list. The thinking with that pick is that Cade York is going to solve what's been a revolving door of average kickers for almost a decade. York was 15-of-19 on field goal tries of 50-plus yards in his three-year college career, and the Browns needed an upgrade after Chase McLaughlin struggled late last season.

Corey Bojorquez is likely to be the Browns' new punter. He spent the first three seasons of his career with the Bills and punted last year for the Packers.

FINAL ANALYSIS

When the Browns' offense heated up in the back half of the 2020 season, it appeared the team might be a few defensive pieces away from being a real Super Bowl contender. Last year's team added some impressive defensive pieces, but the pass offense cratered. Injuries and poor special teams play didn't help. But despite a disappointing overall season, the Browns still were in playoff contention into late December.

The Watson move is about helping the Browns play into late January. There's some uncertainty and awkwardness there, but the clear message is that the guys in charge believe this roster is good enough to play for big prizes and that an upgrade at quarterback will open a true contention window. The Browns have built a core of gifted players who are in the prime of their respective careers, and this is an organization that clearly welcomes the spotlight and high expectations. With headliners like Watson, Chubb, Garrett and Ward, the Browns believe they're finally ready to fulfill their promise.

Prediction: 3rd in AFC North