Cleveland Browns 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

A year after narrowly winning a week 16 game over the Chargers to finish 1-15, the Browns finished the 2nd 0-16 regular season in NFL history in 2017. Despite that, they actually finished 27th in first down rate differential at -3.45%. That’s obviously not good, but that’s not as bad as their record would suggest. The one area they really struggled was turnover margin, as they finished dead last with a -28 turnover margin. Not only was that the worst in the NFL last season, but it’s also the worst in the NFL since the Chargers posted the same mark in a 1-15 season in 2000. On average, the Browns lost the turnover margin by close to -2 per game. Teams that lose the turnover margin by 2 only win the game about 18.1% of the time, so the Browns’ turnover margin effectively made it impossible for this team to consistently win games.

The good news is that turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis. Since 2007, 17 teams have finished with turnover margins of -15 or worse. The following year, they, on average, have a turnover margin of +4.8 and win an average of 3.5 more games. Likewise, teams that finish with a turnover margin of +15 or better, on average, follow that up with a turnover margin of +4.3 and win an average of 2.6 fewer games. That holds up week-to-week as well. Teams that have a turnover margin of +3 in a game, on average, have a turnover margin of +0.0 the following week, while teams that have a turnover margin of -3, on average, follow that up with a turnover margin of -0.1 the following week.

It’s not hard to see how the Browns could be significantly better turnover wise in 2018. 28 of their 41 giveaways last season were quarterback Deshone Kizer’s and he’s no longer with the team. In fact, quarterbacks Kizer, Kevin Hogan, and Cody Kessler combined for 34 giveaways last season and all 3 of them are no longer with the team. New starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor has just 20 giveaways total over the past 3 seasons as the starter in Buffalo (43 starts). His interception rate is just 1.29% in those 3 seasons, only behind Tom Brady over that time period.

Part of that is as a result of playing on a run heavy team. He did average the fewest attempts per game of any starter in the league over the past 3 seasons, with just 28.2 (451 attempts over a 16 game season), but he also provides value on the ground as a runner, rushing for 1,575 yards on 283 carries (5.57 YPC) in those 3 seasons combined. He’s finished 12th, 14th, and 11th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in the past 3 seasons respectively. As long as the Browns don’t try to run a traditional pass heavy offense, Taylor should be a huge upgrade for a team that had easily the worst quarterback play in the NFL last season and that has started 28 different quarterbacks since returning in 1999 (none of whom won a playoff game). Acquiring him for the 65th pick in the 2018 NFL Draft was a smart move by the Browns.

The Browns also used the 1st overall pick on a quarterback, taking Baker Mayfield over early favorite Sam Darnold and running back Saquon Barkley. Taylor only has 1 year left on his contract at a 16 million dollar salary and will likely be one and done as the Browns’ starter. Mayfield gives them a potential franchise quarterback of the future at a cost controlled salary. His rookie deal is projected to be worth just 32.5 million over 4 years, an absolute bargain, given that 20 quarterbacks in NFL make more than 18 million annually. That will allow the Browns to spend more to build around the quarterback than most teams in the league. Mayfield was easily the most accurate passer in the draft, but drew mixed reviews because of his lack of height and off-the-field issues. He should be their starter in 2019 and possibly long beyond if he proves to be the Browns’ long awaited franchise quarterback. For now, Taylor is the starter unless he uncharacteristically struggles.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

Taylor was not the Browns’ only big off-season addition. At the start of the off-season, the Browns had the most cap space in the NFL, as a result of deliberate attempts in recent years to cut salary, roll cap space forward, and accumulate multiple high draft picks, while letting young players play. The Browns still have 70.9 million in cap space as of this writing and 36.1 million in 2019, but they were aggressive in their attempts to improve this roster this off-season. Aside from Taylor, their biggest move was the addition of Jarvis Landry from the Dolphins. Landry was franchise tagged and the cap strapped Dolphins could not afford him, so they traded him to the Browns for a 4th and a 7th round pick and the Browns made him the 5th highest paid wide receiver in the NFL in average annual salary with a 5-year, 75.5 million dollar deal.

A 2nd round pick in 2014, Landry has 400 catches in 4 seasons in the league, only behind Antonio Brown and Julio Jones over that time period. He’s averaged just 10.0 yards per catch over that time period though, with more than half of that yardage coming after the catch (5.34 yards per catch after the catch). His average depth of target in 4 seasons in the league is just 4.79 yards from scrimmage. The 5-11 202 pounder ran a 4.77 40 at the combine, which is why he slipped in the draft, but he has reliable hands (just 21 career drops) and is tough to bring down in the open field (76 broken tackles, 2nd among wide receivers in the past 4 seasons). He’s quicker than fast and he’s built more like a running back than a receiver.

His reputation is as a slot receiver and he’s run 70.76% of his career routes from the slot, but he’s also averaged 1.88 yards per route run on the outside (as opposed to 1.94 on the slot), so he’s versatile enough to line up anywhere and play every down. He’s played 82.1% of snaps in 4 seasons in the league. He might not post as big of numbers with the Browns as he did with the Dolphins because they figure to be more run heavy with Taylor under center, but he should still have a solid statistical season. Like Taylor, he has to be used properly, but he’s a big addition to an offense that was devoid of playmakers in 2018.

Wide receiver was a major position of weakness last season. Rashard Higgins and Ricardo Louis led Browns wide receivers with 663 and 573 snaps respectively and they finished as Pro Football Focus’ 106th and 114th ranked wide receivers respectively out of 118 eligible. The only Cleveland wide receiver to earn a positive grade from PFF in 2017 was Josh Gordon, who returned from suspension with 5 games left in the season and showed pretty well on 257 snaps. He caught just 41.9% of his passes, but averaged 18.6 yards per catch and 2.01 yards per route run, despite terrible quarterback play. He was clearly their most talented receiver and finished 2nd on the team in receiving yards by a wide receiver, despite playing less than a third of the season.

Gordon is hardly the most reliable player, getting suspended several times and missing all of 2015 and 2016 with suspension, but he’s still only going into his age 27 season and still has obvious talent. A 2nd round pick by the Browns in the 2012 supplemental draft, Gordon has earned a positive grade from PFF in all 4 seasons in which he’s actually played and finished 15th among wide receivers in overall grade in his last full season in 2013, when he posted a 87/1646/9 slash line and led the NFL in receiving in 14 games. Between disciplinary problems in college and in the NFL, Gordon has only played in 62 total games since 2010 and he is far from a guarantee to ever return to his 2013 form, but he should give the Browns more in 2018 than he did 2017, at the very least, which will be a boost to this offense.

The Browns also should get more out of Corey Coleman, who missed 7 games with a broken hand last season. The 15th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Coleman also missed 6 games with a broken hand as a rookie and has been a bust on the field as well. He’s caught just 43.1% of the targets thrown to him and has averaged just 1.10 yards per route run on 653 routes. Quarterback play is part of the problem, but he’s also earned poor grades from PFF in both seasons. Only going into his age 24 season, Coleman still has upside, but he’s entering a make or break 3rd season in the league.

With Landry and Gordon ahead of him on the depth chart, Coleman will have to earn a role in 3-wide receiver sets, with his primary competition being 4th round rookie Antonio Callaway. Despite not being a high pick, Callaway has first round talent and only fell because of off-the-field issues. If he can stay out of trouble, he has a chance to be an immediate contributor. Rashard Higgins and Ricardo Louis, who led the Browns in wide receiver snaps in 2017, are now competing for a spot at the bottom of the roster in a completely revamped wide receiver group that should be much improved.

Tight end has a chance to be better as well, although that’s mostly reliant on the development of 2017 1st round pick David Njoku. Njoku has a high ceiling, but did not even turn 21 until 2 months after the draft and was widely considered a major project. Despite a lack of playmakers on this offense, Njoku played just 500 snaps as a rookie and was pretty underwhelming both as a receiver and a blocker. He split time with 2016 4th round pick Seth DeValve, a converted wide receiver who predictably struggled as a blocker and didn’t fare all that well as a pass catcher either.

Njoku and DeValve actually finished 2nd and 3rd on the team in receiving yards in 2017, but that says more bad about the rest of the Browns’ receivers than anything good about Njoku and DeValve, as they had slash lines of just 32/386/4 and 33/395/1 respectively. Despite both Njoku and DeValve being plus athletes, the Browns regularly lined them up as inline tight ends. The average tight end lined up on the slot on 38.3% of his routes in 2018, but DeValve played on the slot on just 33.0% of his routes and Njoku did so on just 22.5% of routes. Perhaps they’ll be more inventive with them in 2018, though I would expect Njoku play more snaps at DeValve’s expense regardless. Njoku could still be pretty raw, but he could also be significantly improved in his 2nd season in the league.

The Browns also brought in Darren Fells as a free agent from the Lions. He’s primarily a blocking tight end, but signed a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal, which suggests he’ll have a significant role. Randall Telfer was their blocking specialist last season and led the Browns’ tight ends with 161 run blocking snaps, but he only played 300 total snaps on the season and caught just 3 passes. Fells has never topped 21 catches in a season, but is a little bit more of a pass catcher than Telfer was. He should take over as the #2 tight end, leaving DeValve as a situational player in a much deeper receiving corps.

Grade: B

Running Backs

Running back Duke Johnson actually led this team in receiving in 2017 and by a considerable amount. His 71 catches were more than double anyone else on the team (2nd most was 33) and his 693 yards were almost 300 more than the next closest Cleveland receiver (395). That’s even more impressive when you consider he played just 53.0% of the team’s snaps. He averaged 2.08 yards per route run on 333 routes, 7th among running backs.

A 3rd round pick in 2015, Johnson has 188 catches in 3 seasons in the league and has also averaged 4.19 yards per carry on 259 carries. He’s earned positive grades from Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons, with his highest graded season coming in 2017, when he finished 5th among running backs in overall grade and 3rd in pass catching grade. He finished the season 8th among running backs in elusive rating, averaging 2.62 yards per carry after contact and breaking 39 tackles on 156 touches.

The Browns wisely re-signed Johnson to a 3-year, 15.6 million dollar extension this off-season, ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal in 2018, but he’ll likely have a smaller role this season. With a better receiving corps, the Browns won’t have to rely on dump offs to the running back as often and I would expect their pass attempt total to drop as well (574 last season), as they have a quarterback who likes to take off and run and likely they won’t be in catch up mode as often as they were last season.

Johnson also figures to have a smaller role in the run game in 2018. The Browns lost lead back Isaiah Crowell (206 carries last season) to the Jets in free agency, but they signed Carlos Hyde from the 49ers to a 3-year, 15.25 million dollar deal and used a 2nd round pick on Georgia’s Nick Chubb. Much like his predecessor Crowell, Hyde is an early down power back who is basically useless on passing downs. He’s averaged 4.17 YPC on 655 carries in 4 seasons in the league on some mediocre offenses in San Francisco and has earned positive run grades from PFF in all 4 seasons in the league, but he’s also earned negative pass catching and pass protecting grades in all 4 seasons.

Hyde’s worst season on pass downs came last season, when the 49ers attempted to turn him into an every down back. He played a career high 388 pass snaps, but averaged just 4.02 yards per attempt on 87 targets, dropped 9 passes, and allowed 3 sacks, 3 hits, and 7 hurries on 111 pass block snaps. In Cleveland, he figures to be purely an early down back. Overall, he’s a slight downgrade from Crowell and he’s more injury prone, missing 14 games in 4 seasons in the league.

He is owed just 5.5 million in the first year of his deal and doesn’t have any guaranteed money left after this year, so it’s possible he could spend just one season in Cleveland. The Browns used the 35th pick on Nick Chubb, so they clearly envision a big long-term role for him. He’ll push Hyde for playing time immediately, though he’s a raw passing down player, so Johnson will play the vast majority of pass snaps. Johnson likely won’t get the ball as much in 2018 though, on an offense with much more skill position talent than 2017.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

As bad as the Browns have been in the last decade, the one thing they could always count on was Joe Thomas’ strong play at left tackle. The 3rd overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, Thomas played 11,058 straight snaps (167 starts) to start his career before tearing his triceps last season and he finished in the top-9 among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in all 11 seasons in the league. The best pass protector of his generation spent his entire career on a team without much worth protecting, which is why it’s a shame that he decided to retire this off-season, right when it finally looked like the Browns were building something. He’ll almost definitely be a first ballot Hall of Famer in 5 years.

Thomas was going into his age 34 season, but he was still playing at a high level before the injury (he was ranked #1 at his position on PFF at the time) and he’ll obviously be missed. That’s especially true because this was a bad off-season to need a left tackle, as both free agency and the draft had few options. It will likely be one of two players replacing him, either last year’s starting right tackle Shon Coleman or rookie Austin Corbett, who the Browns selected with the first pick of the second round (#33).

Coleman was a 3rd round selection in 2016, but has struggled thus far in his career. After playing just 62 snaps as a rookie, Coleman made all 16 starts at right tackle in 2017 and finished 68th out of 83 eligible offensive tackles. He’s only in his 3rd season in the league, but he was an old rookie, so he’s already going into his age 27 season, and he’s unlikely to get significantly better on the more difficult blindside in 2018. He would be best as a swing tackle.

Corbett is probably the better left tackle option. He was a great collegiate left tackle but his lack of size (6-4 306) and arm length (33 ⅛”) had many expecting he’d move to guard or even center at the next level. The Browns don’t have a need on the interior of their offensive line and they probably wouldn’t use such a high pick on a backup, so they clearly are going to give him a shot to be the left tackle. I would expect him to be the week 1 starter, but there’s uncertainty at one of the most important positions in the game for the first time in a while in Cleveland.

Whoever wins the left tackle job, free agent acquisition Chris Hubbard is locked in at right tackle, after signing a 5-year, 36.5 million dollar deal in free agency. Hubbard was one of the headliners of a weak offensive tackle class in free agency, but he was never even a true starter with his previous team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. An undrafted free agent in 2013, Hubbard did make 14 starts (13 at right tackle, 1 at left tackle) with the Steelers over the past 2 seasons and was about a league average starter in those starts, but he’s a projection to a larger role. Largely a desperation signing for a team that badly needed offensive tackle help, Hubbard is the 4th highest paid right tackle in the league in average annual salary. He’s an overpay at that price, but he could be a solid starter for them at right tackle.

The Browns also gave out big contracts to their starting interior offensive linemen last off-season. Right guard Kevin Zeitler was their big free agent acquisition, as the ex-Bengal signed a 5-year, 60 million dollar deal that made him the highest paid guard in the league at the time. A first round pick in 2012, Zeitler has made 87 starts in 6 seasons in the league, including all 16 in his first season in Cleveland in 2017. He’s been an above average starter throughout his career and has finished in the top-10 among guards in 4 straight seasons. It didn’t show up in the win/loss column, but his addition made this offensive line significantly better. Still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season, Zeitler should continue playing at a high level for at least a few more seasons.

Left guard Joel Bitonio is also one of the highest paid guards in the league, as the Browns gave him a 5-year, 51 million dollar extension last off-season, ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal in 2017. Bitonio was coming off of two injury plagued seasons, playing just 15 games in 2015 and 2016 combined, so his deal was much riskier than Zeitler’s, but he played in all 16 games in 2017 for the first time since his rookie season in 2014 and he showed his rookie year form, finishing 5th among guards on PFF, after finishing 4th as a rookie.

As long as he can stay healthy, he should continue playing well for at least a few more seasons as well, as he too is in the prime of his career in his age 27 season. He and Zeitler are arguably the best guard duo in the NFL. Bitonio played left tackle in college, so it’s possible the Browns flip him to left tackle at some point if Corbett struggles, but, like Corbett, he doesn’t have great size (6-4 302) or arm length (33 ⅞”) and the Browns probably don’t want to move him from a spot where he’s played so well to a spot where he hasn’t played since college.

Center JC Tretter rounds out this offensive line. He wasn’t as expensive as the Browns’ guards, but still got a solid contract last off-season, worth 16.75 million over 3 seasons. Like Chris Hubbard, Tretter was never really a starter on his previous team (Green Bay), but the 2013 4th round pick made 10 starts at center as an injury fill-in during his final 2 seasons in Green Bay and earned positive grades from PFF for both seasons. In 2017, he made all 16 starts for the Browns and finished as PFF’s 14th ranked center. He should continue being a solid starter in 2018. If Corbett doesn’t work out at left tackle, it’s possible they move him to center at some point in the future to compete with Tretter, but this is Tretter’s job for the foreseeable future. Even with unproven players at tackle, this is still a strong offensive line.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

The Browns actually had a decent defense in 2017, finishing 21st in first down rate allowed at 34.80%. They allowed 42 touchdowns, 3rd most in the league, but that was largely because their offense so often stuck them with terrible field position. They allowed 315 first downs, just 15th most in the NFL. They struggled in pass coverage, allowing 7.39 YPA, 26th in the NFL, but they had the 2nd best run defense in the league, allowing 3.35 yards per carry. Given all of their cap space and their high draft picks, the Browns had an opportunity to get better on defense this off-season. They made a lot of moves, but it’s unclear if they actually got any better.

One of their weirder moves was sending defensive tackle Danny Shelton to the Patriots for a swap of a 2018 5th round pick for a 2019 3rd round pick. The 12th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Shelton only had 1.5 sacks and 3 quarterback hits in 3 seasons with the Browns and was only a two-down player in the Browns new 4-3 defense in 2017 (469 snaps), but he was a dominant run stuffer and a huge part of the reason why the Browns were so good against the run last season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked run stopping defensive tackle in 2016 and their 13th ranked run stopping defensive tackle last season. In his career, the Browns allowed just 3.9 yards per carry with him on the field, as opposed to 4.6 YPC without.

Fortunately, the Browns do have an obvious internal replacement for him, as 2017 3rd round pick Larry Ogunjobi flashed serious potential on 300 snaps as a rookie. Despite the limited playing time, he was PFF’s 18th ranked defensive tackle against the run and he also flashed more pass rush ability than Shelton. The 6-2 305 pounder is not quite the run stuffer Shelton is and he’s not nearly as proven, but he has much more upside as an every down player. He should see a significant role in his 2nd season in the league and could lead the Browns’ defensive tackles in snaps.

Ogunjobi is not their only 2nd year defensive tackle who could see a bigger role, as 2017 6th round pick Caleb Brantley also figures to play more in 2018. He wasn’t a high pick, but he fell mostly because of an uncertain legal situation around the time of the draft and was originally projected to go in the 2nd or 3rd round. He only played 217 snaps as a rookie, but fared well enough that he’s deserving of a larger role. The 6-2 307 pounder is a better run stuffer than pass rusher, but has the upside to be an every down player.

His primary competition figures to be Trevon Coley, who actually led this defensive line in snaps last season with 656. The 2016 undrafted free agent didn’t play a snap as a rookie and bounced between the Ravens, Redskins, and Browns, but the Browns strangely gave him a large role in his second season in the league. Coley was a decent run stopper at 6-1 310, but led this defensive line in pass play snaps as well and managed just 2 sacks, 1 quarterback hit, and 9 hurries on 360 pass rush snaps. He should still play a big role in 2018, but may be more of a two-down player. The Browns also have Jamie Meder returning from a season ending ankle injury, but he only played 178 snaps in 10 games last season. He’s been a capable depth player for the Browns over the past 3 seasons, but is not a lock to make the final roster.

The Browns also like lining up their defensive ends up inside in passing situations, which makes sense, because their defensive ends are bigger than average and their defensive tackles are not great pass rushers. Carl Nassib (6-5 275), Myles Garrett (6-4 272), and Emmanuel Ogbah (6-4 275) were their top-3 defensive ends in 2017 with 643, 518, and 462 snaps respectively and they also added Chris Smith (6-1 266) and Chad Thomas (6-5 281) this off-season.

The Browns struggled to get consistent pass rush in 2017, hence why they added Smith and Thomas. They had just 34 sacks as a team (21st in the NFL) and only one edge rusher finished with a positive pass rush grade on PFF. They should be better in 2018 though. Myles Garrett was easily their best pass rusher, but an ankle injury and a concussion limited him to 518 snaps in 11 games. Even on just 300 pass rush snaps, Garrett had 7 sacks, 11 hits, and 19 hurries. He also played well against the run and finished 12th among 4-3 defensive ends on PFF overall. The 1st overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Garrett has a sky high ceiling and is an obvious breakout candidate if he can stay healthy for a full season. He’ll likely lead this defensive line in snaps in 2018 and should push for double digit sacks and quarterback hits.

Emmanuel Ogbah should also be healthier, after missing 6 games with a broken foot last season. The 32nd overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Ogbah has been a bit of a disappointment thus far in his career. Despite playing 73.8% of the snaps in 26 career games, Ogbah has just 9.5 sacks and 13 quarterback hits. He’s developed into a capable run stuffer, but he’s earned a negative pass rush grade from PFF in both seasons in the league. He could be better this season, going into his 3rd year in the league, and he’ll likely be healthier as well. Of his 268 pass rush snaps in 2017, 120 of them came from the interior, so he has the versatility to play close to every down, even on a relatively deep defensive line.

Chris Smith is also versatile, playing 99 pass rush snaps outside and 176 pass rush snaps inside last season with the Bengals. Unfortunately, he isn’t that good. The 2014 5th round pick played just 312 total snaps in his first 3 seasons in the league and was underwhelming in his first significant action in 2017, finishing 53rd out of 64 eligible 4-3 defensive ends. The Browns signed him to a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal with 4.5 million guaranteed as a free agent this off-season, so he’s locked into a roster spot, but he might not have much more than a rotational role.

Chad Thomas is also a roster lock, given that the Browns just used a 3rd round pick on him. He’s very raw though, so he might not play a huge role as a rookie, although he also has the versatility to line up in multiple spots. That leaves Carl Nassib and Nate Orchard competing for spots at the bottom of the roster. Nassib led all Cleveland defensive ends in snaps with 643 in 2017, but, with Garrett and Ogbah healthy and Smith and Thomas coming in, he falls down the depth chart.

Nassib is a decent run stopper, but he’s managed just 5.5 sacks and 9 quarterback hits in 2 seasons since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2016, despite playing 30 of 32 games and 57.7% of the snaps. Orchard is also a former high pick that hasn’t panned out, going in the 2nd round in 2015. He’s been underwhelming on 998 career snaps in 34 games. Nassib’s versatility (239 pass rush snaps on the edge and 110 on the interior in 2017) likely gives him a better chance at a job, as the 6-4 255 pound Orchard is only an edge player. Even without Danny Shelton, this is still a deep defensive line. They should get more pass rush this season, though their run defense might not be quite as good.

Grade: B

Linebackers

The Browns also like to rush their linebackers off the edge in sub packages. Jamie Collins is the best suited for that role, but he missed 10 games between a concussion and a knee injury. A do everything linebacker, Collins earned positive grades for his pass rush, pass coverage, and run stopping ability in each of his first 4 seasons in the league prior to his injury plagued 2017 season, with his best seasons coming in 2014 and 2015, when he finished 5th and 7th respectively among linebackers. On 427 career pass rush snaps, he has 13.5 sacks, 17 hits, and 41 hurries.

Given how good he’s been at his best, it was a surprise that the Browns were able to acquire Collins from New England for a mere 3rd round pick during the 2016 season. With Collins set to hit free agency, they re-signed him to a 4-year, 50 million dollar extension last off-season, but his first season in Cleveland was a major disappointment. Not only did he miss the time with injury, but he was underwhelming even when on the field. He managed just 1 sack, 1 hit, and 1 hurry on 78 pass rush snaps and was Pro Football Focus’ 31st ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 39 eligible. Collins is still probably in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, so he has bounce back potential if he’s healthy.

Collins was technically their 3rd linebacker in 2017, as fellow linebackers Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey both played every single defensive snap last season. Unlike most 3rd linebackers, Collins played 92.0% of the snaps in the games he was healthy, as the Browns frequently kept all 3 on the field in passing situations, with one of them serving as an edge rusher or even a slot cornerback (Kirksey was 2nd on the team with 135 snaps on the slot, allowing 24 completions on 28 attempts). Even when Collins was out, backup James Burgess played 91.2% of the snaps in 9 starts, even though the 2016 undrafted free agent struggled in the first significant action of his career, finishing 28th among 39 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers.

The Browns added veteran linebacker Mychal Kendricks in free agency this off-season to improve their depth. Kendricks has been inconsistent in his 6-year career, but he’s made 74 starts and is coming off of arguably the best season of his career, finishing 3rd among 4-3 outside linebackers on PFF. The Eagles cut him this off-season, but that’s because his salary (6 million non-guaranteed) was excessive for a team with cap problems and an already strong linebacking corps. He doesn’t fill a huge need for the Browns, but he came inexpensive on a one-year deal (3.5 million) and should be a part of a rotation at linebacker. He fits in well in Cleveland because he’s a plus pass rusher for a linebacker, with 14 sacks, 25 hits, and 48 hurries on 436 pass rush snaps in his career.

As I mentioned, Schobert and Kirksey played every snap on defense last season, even staying on the field for dime packages. They were two of just three defensive players in the league to play every snap. With Kendricks coming in and and Collins coming back healthy, I would expect them to get more breathers in 2018. Schobert and Kirksey are both solid run stuffers, but they’re also underwhelming in pass coverage. This is an improved linebacking corps, but they still don’t have a great coverage linebacker.

Grade: B-

Secondary

Most of the moves the Browns made on defense this off-season were in the secondary. They added 3 cornerbacks through free agency, a new starting safety through a trade, and drafted a cornerback with the 4th overall pick. Then they traded last year’s starting cornerbacks Jason McCourty and Jamar Taylor for last round picks, even though both earned positive grades from Pro Football Focus in 2017 and had reasonable salaries (3 million and 4.25 million respectively).

Fourth overall pick Denzel Ward and free agent signing TJ Carrie (31 million over 4 years) were their biggest investments this off-season, so they figure to start. Ward was a surprise pick with the 4th overall pick, as most expected them to take defensive end Bradley Chubb, but the Browns felt they had a bigger need at cornerback for some reason and drafted a player most felt would go somewhere from picks 8-12. He has a bright future, but he’s no guarantee to be an upgrade over last year’s starters as a rookie.

Carrie also has a high upside, but he’s been inconsistent in his career. A 7th round pick in 2014 by the Raiders, Carrie made 14 starts in his 2nd season in the league in 2015, but struggled mightily, finishing 108th out of 118 eligible cornerbacks on PFF. As a result, he was limited to just 325 snaps in 16 games in 2016, but injuries forced him back into the starting lineup in 2017 and he finished 33rd at his position in 15 starts. It’s possible he’s turned a corner and will continue being an above average cornerback, but he’s a one-year wonder at that level. The Browns are set to pay him 16 million over the first two years of the deal, so it’s a risky signing, but it could pay off. He has the versatility to play both outside and slot cornerback, giving the Browns flexibility. He played 394 snaps on the slot last season, 4th most in the NFL.

Fellow free agent additions EJ Gaines and Terrance Mitchell will also compete for roles, as will incumbent slot cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun. Gaines is a talented cornerback when healthy and finished last season as PFF’s 23rd ranked cornerback, but concerns about his durability limited him to a 1-year prove it deal worth just 4 million this off-season. He was PFF’s 29th ranked cornerback in 15 starts with the Rams as a 6th round rookie in 2014 but then he missed all of the 2015 season with a foot injury and was not the same player in 2016, finishing 111st among 120 eligible at his position, which led to him being a throw-in to the Bills in the Sammy Watkins trade last off-season. Even last year, when he had a solid season, he missed 5 games with injury. He can earn a role as an outside cornerback with a strong off-season, but he might not make it through the season.

Mitchell was also a starter in 2017, playing 705 snaps with the Chiefs, but he’s not as good of a player as Gaines is when Gaines is healthy. Mitchell flashed in limited action early in his career, but the 2014 7th round pick only played 373 snaps in 3 seasons prior to struggling in the first significant action of his career in 2017. He’d be best as a depth cornerback, but his contract (10 million over 3 years with 4 million in the first year) suggests he’ll at least get a shot at a big role.

All of these off-season additions might leave Boddy-Calhoun as the odd man out, even though he was one of the better slot cornerbacks in the NFL last season. He played 216 of his 346 cover snaps on the slot and allowed just 11 of 22 for 84 yards and a touchdown on those snaps. He allowed just 0.42 yards per coverage snap on the slot, which was the best in the NFL. The 2016 undrafted free agent was not as good outside as a rookie though and he faces an uphill battle against Carrie for snaps on the slot. It’s possible the Browns could trade him before the start of the season if they get a good offer.

The Browns also added Damarious Randall in a trade from Green Bay this off-season, giving up DeShone Kizer and a swap of mid round draft picks. Randall played cornerback with the Packers, but will move back to his collegiate position of safety in Cleveland. Randall struggled in 3 seasons with the Packers, earning negative coverage grades in all 3 seasons, which is why the Packers decided to move on from him, but moving back to his college position could help. He was a 1st round pick (30th overall) back in 2015 and is still only going into his age 26 season. If he continues to struggle, his 9.069 million dollar salary for 2019 is guaranteed for injury only, so he could easily be one and done in Cleveland.

Randall will take the place of Derrick Kindred in the starting lineup. Kindred, a 4th round pick in 2016, was not bad in 2017 (10 starts), but Randall is a better fit next to 2017 1st round pick Jabrill Peppers. Peppers is best as a box safety, but Kindred is as well, so they lined Kindred up in the box (within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage) on 72.1% of snaps (12th most in the NFL) and lined Peppers up in the box on just 20.7% of snaps (6th fewest in the NFL).

Predictably, Peppers struggled, finishing 85th out of 89 eligible safeties on PFF. In his 2nd year in the league, he should have a much better year in a better spot. If he doesn’t, the Browns still have Kindred as insurance and could possibly bench Peppers down the stretch. This is a much deeper secondary than last year, but it’s unclear how much better they actually are. At the very least, they’re better prepared to deal with injuries and are more versatile to deal with a variety of different matchups.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

Simply switching from the turnover prone DeShone Kizer to the much more careful Tyrod Taylor should have a big impact on this offense, but the Browns also have a much improved receiving corps and a solid running game and offensive line. They could easily be a capable offense. Defensively, they should be better at rushing the passer and they are deeper and more versatile in the secondary, though their run defense might not be quite as good. The AFC is definitely the weaker of the two conferences, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see this team compete for a playoff spot. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: The Browns might not make the playoffs, but they should be competitive for the first time in a while thanks to improved quarterback play and better offensive weapons.

Prediction: 7-9 3rd in AFC North

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