The Browns didn’t win a single game in 2017 and won just 1 game in 2016 and 2017 combined, but they currently have the 3rd best odds to win the AFC at 7 to 1, a pretty sudden turnaround. The Browns went just 7-8-1 last season, but there are plenty of reasons to believe they’ll be better than that in 2019. They went 5-3 after firing head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley, thanks in large part to the emergence of rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield in new offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens’ offense. They also added several key players this off-season.
Kitchens was promoted to head coach this off-season, which is a risky move considering he had never been anything higher than a position coach prior to last October, but Baker Mayfield is very comfortable in his system, which was clearly something they valued highly when making their coaching selection. In 8 games with Kitchens calling plays, Mayfield completed 68.4% of his passes for an average of 8.57 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions, as opposed to 58.3% of his passes for an average of 6.60 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions with Jackson and Haley. Through 8 games with Jackson and Haley, the Browns ranked 28th in the NFL in first down rate at 30.25%. The rest of the way they had a 40.78% first down rate, which would have been 6th in the NFL over the full season, a very drastic improvement with both the team and the quarterback.
All in all, Mayfield finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked quarterback in 13 starts. Now going into his age 24 season, the 2018 #1 overall pick has a massive upside and could easily continue developing into one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. It’s important not to get too far ahead of ourselves with a quarterback with 13 career starts and a strong 8-game stretch, but Mayfield looked like the real deal coming out of the University of Oklahoma and he’s impressed in the short time he’s been in the league. With Tyrod Taylor signing with the Chargers this off-season, the Browns only have mediocre veteran Drew Stanton (66.3 career QB rating in 17 starts) behind Mayfield, so this is fully Mayfield’s team.
Mayfield was not the only rookie that broke out without Hue Jackson and Todd Haley, as 2nd round rookie running back Nick Chubb had a strong finish to the season. Chubb averaged 10.8 yards per carry in his first 6 games, but only got 16 carries, despite starter Carlos Hyde averaging just 3.35 yards per carry. A couple weeks before Jackson was let go, the Browns front office literally had to trade Hyde to the Jacksonville Jaguars for a late round pick to force Jackson to use Chubb, who was clearly the better back.
Chubb went on to average 4.68 yards per carry on 176 carries in 10 games the rest of the way and was a big part of why this offense was significantly better down the stretch. On the season, he averaged 5.19 yards per carry, with 4.47 yards per carry after contact, and 44 broken tackles on 192 carries. He finished 2nd among qualifying running backs in elusive rating and was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked running back overall. Still not even 24 until December, Chubb has a very bright future.
The Browns also added running back Kareem Hunt in free agency, one of several key additions. Hunt is suspended for the first 8 games of the season for domestic violence and the Browns are taking a big PR hit by signing him, but there’s no denying his talent, as he’s averaged 4.75 yards per carry on 453 carries since going in the 3rd round in 2017. He and Chubb could have close to an even timeshare in the second half of the season after Hunt’s return and they’d obviously be among the best, if not the best running back duo in the NFL.
Where Hunt will really help this team is in the passing game, as he’s had 79 catches in 27 career games, while Chubb managed just 20 catches in his rookie season and was not a pass catcher in college either. While Hunt is suspended, the passing down role will likely be filled by Duke Johnson, although he has requested a trade, as he knows he’ll have next to no role when Hunt returns. Johnson is owed 2.3 million in 2019, but the Browns are not interested in moving him, as he’ll be needed for the first 8 games of the season and provides valuable depth in case of an injury.
Johnson caught 47 passes in 2018, but he only had 40 carries. That was down from 156 touches (82 catches and 74 passes) in 2017 and Johnson clearly believes he’s deserving of a bigger role. It’s a situation to monitor as the Browns would be forced to turn to 2018 undrafted free agent Dontrell Hilliard (9 career touches) as Chubb’s backup and their primary passing down back for the first 8 games of the season if Johnson is not on the team this season. That’s not something the Browns want to do. It’s one of the problems that comes with having a lot of talent at a position.
Hunt is not the only addition the Browns made to this offense. Their biggest move was sending their first and third round picks along with young starting safety Jabrill Peppers to the Giants for wide receiver Odell Beckham, who instantly becomes the Browns’ #1 receiver. The Browns paid a steep price to get him, but they’ve drafted 25 times in the first 3 rounds in the past 5 drafts, so they didn’t need more premium draft prospects. Beckham is the highest paid wide receiver in the NFL on a 5-year, 90 million dollar extension, but the Giants already paid 13 million of that in a signing bonus and Baker Mayfield makes 8.15 million annually on his rookie deal at a time when 16 quarterbacks make at least 20 million annually, so the Browns can afford to be more aggressive than other teams to maximize their chances of winning during Mayfield’s rookie contract. Even given the price, adding Beckham is an obvious win for the Browns.
Beckham got a reputation for being a diva with the Giants, but his teammates never had any problems with him. The bigger concern is that he’s missed 21 games with injury in 5 seasons in the league and has only once played all 16 games, but he’s been one of the best wide receivers in the league when healthy, averaging a 106/1485/12 slash line per 16 games. Now he gets an upgrade at quarterback in Baker Mayfield. With Beckham still in the prime of his career for a few more seasons, only going into his age 27 season in 2019, Beckham and Mayfield should put up big numbers for years to come if both can stay healthy.
Jarvis Landry led this team with a 81/976/4 slash line last season, in his first year in Cleveland after coming over from Miami on a 5-year, 75.5 million dollar contract. Landry will take on more of a complimentary role with Beckham coming in, but Landry and Beckham are old friends who won’t have any issue splitting targets with the other and Beckham’s arrival could easily help Landry. Landry was pretty productive last season, but he was utilized much more on deeper routes than he was in his first 4 seasons in Miami, with his average reception depth shooting up from 4.8 yards from scrimmage to 9.5 yards from scrimmage. That’s not where he’s best and he only caught 54.5% of targets thrown his way, significantly down from 70.2% in Miami. With Beckham threatening the defense deep, Landry will be free to dominant in the underneath part of the field. It’ll be very tough for defenses to stop both of them.
The Browns also have emerging young tight end David Njoku as the 3rd option in the passing game. A first round pick in 2017, Njoku flashed in limited action as a rookie, averaging 1.36 yards per route run on 284 routes despite terrible quarterback play. With better quarterback play and a bigger role, he took a step forward in 2018, with a 56/639/4 slash line. Njoku has never been much of a blocker, but he’s still only in his age 23 season and could easily take another step forward as a receiver. He played 79.8% of the Browns’ offensive snaps in 2018 and should see a similar amount with only mediocre veteran blocking tight end Demetrius Harris (57 catches in 71 career games) behind him on the depth chart.
The Browns have better depth at wide receiver, where Antonio Callaway and Rashard Higgins will compete to be the third receiver behind Beckham and Landry. Higgins was the more effective of the two on a per route run basis in 2018, averaging 1.80 yards per route run, as opposed to 1.20 for Callaway, but Callaway got more playing time (765 snaps vs. 483 snaps) and has a higher upside. Despite falling to the 4th round, Callaway had first round talent and only fell because of off-the-field issues. Higgins, meanwhile, was a 5th round pick in 2016 and hasn’t shown all that much in 3 years in the league. Higgins is good depth to have, but the Browns are likely to give Callaway another shot to play ahead of Higgins again. He’d play outside opposite Beckham in 3 wide receiver sets, with Landry as the slot receiver. If Callaway and Njoku break out, this receiving corps could be unstoppable.
If this offense doesn’t quite perform up to expectations in 2019, the offensive line will likely be the reason why. Left tackle remains a question mark position and the Browns traded their best offensive lineman, right guard Kevin Zeitler, who Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked guard in 2018. The Browns acquired talented edge defender Olivier Vernon in that trade and the Browns did it knowing they had 2018 33rd overall pick Austin Corbett waiting in the wings, but it’s a big loss for this offensive line.
Corbett was originally drafted to play left tackle, which was his collegiate position, but he lost the starting job before the season started to undrafted rookie Desmond Harrison and played just 14 snaps as a rookie. Now with Zeitler gone, Corbett is moving to guard, which many felt would be his best pro position, but he hasn’t locked down the starting job yet, competing with 2017 undrafted free agent Kyle Kalis, who has played just 150 snaps in his career. Corbett should still ultimately end up starting, but the fact that he hasn’t won the job yet is concerning, considering the Browns got rid of a dominant right guard with the idea of Corbett replacing him and considering he failed to lock down the left tackle job against underwhelming competition last pre-season.
Desmond Harrison started the first 8 games of the season at left tackle, but was very underwhelming and eventually got benched for Greg Robinson, a former #2 overall pick bust that the Browns decided to start instead of Corbett. Robinson wasn’t horrible in 8 starts, but he committed 10 penalties and has 55 penalties in 56 career starts. Still only in his age 27 season with tremendous physical tools, Robinson has theoretical upside, but the Browns brought him back on a one-year deal that pays him 7 million in 2019, which doesn’t make a lot of sense. He’s not worth that if he plays like he has so far in his career and even if he does exceed expectations the Browns will have to pay him even more as a free agent next off-season. It would be one thing if the Browns were able to lock Robinson in for 3 years with 2020 and 2021 essentially being option years, but this one-year deal doesn’t have a whole lot of upside.
Left guard Joel Bitonio, center JC Tretter, and right tackle Chris Hubbard remain as starters in the other three spots on this offensive line and all three played every single snap in 2019. Bitonio is the best of the bunch, finishing 4th among guards on PFF, his 4th season in the top-19 at his position in 5 seasons in the league. With Zeitler gone, he’s now the Browns best offensive lineman and should have another strong season in his age 28 season in 2019.
Tretter and Hubbard also earned average or better grades from PFF. Tretter was signed to a 3-year, 16.75 million dollar deal as a free agent two off-seasons ago, while Hubbard was signed to a 5-year, 36.5 million dollar deal last off-season. Neither was more than a spot starter before the Browns signed them, but they showed potential in limited action and have translated to larger roles in Cleveland. Tretter has been PFF’s 15th and 7th ranked center the past two seasons respectively and, while Hubbard hasn’t been quite as good, he still earned an average grade from PFF in 2018. This offensive line isn’t bad, but they have some question marks up front and they will miss former right guard Kevin Zeitler.
The Browns also added some key pieces on defense this off-season, to shore up a unit that finished 18th in first down rate allowed. One of those key additions is defensive end Olivier Vernon, who comes over from New York in the Kevin Zeitler trade. Vernon gives them a big upgrade over Emmanuel Ogbah, who started at defensive end last season and finished 90th out of 113 qualifying edge defenders on Pro Football Focus. Vernon has finished in the top-32 among edge defenders on PFF in 5 straight seasons, with 36 sacks, 79 hits, and a 12.2% pressure rate across those 5 seasons. Vernon finished last season 14th at his position and had 7 sacks, 14 hits, and 25 hurries on 414 pass rush snaps (11.1%). Still only in his age 29 season, Vernon should have a comparable year again in 2019.
Myles Garrett remains as the opposite starter. The first overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Garrett flashed a ton of potential as a rookie, finishing as PFF’s 25th ranked edge defender and totaling 7 sacks, 11 hits, and 19 hurries on 300 pass rush snaps (12.3% pressure rate) in just 11 games, missing 5 with injury. In 2018, he played all 16 games and took his game to the next level, finishing as PFF”s 13th ranked edge defender and totaling 13.5 sacks, 17 hits, and 36 hurries on 599 pass rush snaps (11.1% pressure rate), despite rarely coming off the field (85.9% of defensive snaps). Not even 24 until December, Garrett could still just be scratching the surface on his upside. He could easily be one of the top defensive players in the league for years to come.
Emmanuel Ogbah was traded this off-season to the Chiefs for reserve safety and special teamer Eric Murray, so Genard Avery will remain in the #3 edge defender role. Avery is undersized at 6-0 248, but he plays outside linebacker in base packages and showed a lot of promise as a pass rusher as a rookie, totalling 4.5 sacks, 8 hits, and 29 hurries on 366 pass rush snaps (11.3% pressure rate), despite being just a 5th round rookie. He struggles mightily in coverage and doesn’t hold up well in the run game, but he still has value as a situational edge rusher. He could easily have a similar performance in 2019.
Chris Smith could also be in the mix at defensive end, but he played 52.1% of his snaps on the interior last season. The 6-1 270 hybrid defensive lineman didn’t play much in either spot, totalling 336 snaps on the season. Smith has been in the league for 5 years, but hasn’t topped 401 snaps or earned an above average grade from PFF in a season and I wouldn’t expect that to change in 2019. He’s not a lock for the final roster at a 3.25 million dollar non-guaranteed salary. He’s buried on the depth chart behind a talented trio of edge defenders.
The Browns also made a key addition at defensive tackle this off-season, signing Sheldon Richardson to a 3-year, 37 million dollar deal in free agency. He is a much needed upgrade over Trevon Coley, who has finished 105th out of 133 qualifying interior defenders and 126th out of 129 qualifying interior defenders on Pro Football Focus in the past 2 seasons respectively on an average of 635 snaps per season. Richardson has bounced around the league a little bit, but he’s still only in his age 29 season and he’s an above average starter who can play every down. He’s earned an above average grade from PFF in all 6 seasons in the league, including 3 seasons in the top-24 at his position. He should continue his above average play in 2019.
Richardson will start next to Larry Ogunjobi, who played 78.9% of the snaps in 2018. He wasn’t bad, but he’d likely benefit from more breathers to keep him fresh. A 3rd round pick in 2017, Ogunjobi has proven himself to be a strong run stuffer, doesn’t consistently get to the quarterback, with 6.5 sacks, 12 hits, and 29 hurries on 703 pass rush snaps in his career (6.8% pressure rate). Giving him some snaps off in sub packages would benefit him and this team, but there’s also a chance he takes a step forward in his 3rd season in the league.
Unfortunately, the Browns still don’t have much depth at the defensive tackle position. Chris Smith will play inside on some passing downs, but Coley is still their primary reserve. He could be better in a smaller role than he was as a starter, but the 2016 undrafted free agent has struggled throughout his career and is a bottom of the roster talent. The Browns were in the hunt for veteran cap casualty Gerald McCoy, but he ended up signing Carolina. He would have done a lot to help at a position where the Browns lack depth and an impact interior rusher.
As mentioned, Genard Avery also plays some linebacker for the Browns. He’ll face competition for his base package outside linebacker role. The Browns signed ex-Buccaneer Adarius Taylor in free agency. The career special teamer struggled mightily when forced into the first significant action of his career on defense in 2018, finishing as Pro Football Focus 94th ranked off ball linebacker out of 96 qualifying on 634 snaps, but his salary (2 years, 5 million) suggests he’ll play a role on defense. Already going into his age 29 season, he’s unlikely to noticeably improve. Third round rookie Sione Takitaki and fifth round rookie Mack Wilson could also be in the mix for the 3rd linebacker job.
Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey are the nickel linebackers, staying on the field even when the 3rd linebacker comes off the field for a 5th defensive back. Schobert has some issues against the run, especially when it comes to missing tackles, but he’s one of the best coverage linebackers in the league. He was PFF’s 2nd ranked off ball linebacker in coverage grade in 2018, behind only Bobby Wagner, and allowed just 0.42 yards per coverage snap, best among qualifying off ball linebackers. Despite missing 24 tackles, most among off ball linebackers, he was still PFF’s 10th ranked off ball linebacker overall because of his dominance in coverage.
Schobert’s absence was definitely noticed when he missed three and a half games with injury last year, as the Browns had a 34.24% first down rate allowed in his 12 healthy games and a 46.69% first down rate allowed in their other 4 games. The 2016 4th round pick is a one-year wonder in terms of playing at the level he did last season, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he continued playing well. Having him for all 16 games would be a boost for this defense, as he’s by far their best coverage linebacker.
The Browns are also hoping for better health from outside linebacker Christian Kirksey, who was limited to 474 snaps in 7 games in an injury plagued 2018. Kirksey isn’t the coverage athlete that Schobert is, but he’s a solid starter who earned an average or better grade from PFF in each of his first 4 seasons in the league, while playing all 64 games (43 starts), prior to last year’s injury plagued year. Cap casualty Jamie Collins, a useful player who wasn’t worth his 10.5 million dollar salary, isn’t around as insurance anymore, so the Browns will need better health out of their linebackers in 2019.
The Browns didn’t have a first round pick because of the Odell Beckham trade, but they still might have added a first round talent through the draft, as expected first round pick Greedy Williams fell to pick 46 in the 2nd round, where the Browns traded up to select him. In terms of coverage ability, Williams is a top-5 talent, but teams were concerned about his toughness, tackling ability, and coachability. He has the physical tools to prove to be a steal, but is a bit of a boom or bust prospect. The Browns got a great outcome when they surprisingly used the 4th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft on Denzel Ward, who was Pro Football Focus’ 15th ranked cornerback as a rookie. They are hoping Williams can be a long-term complement and be part of one of the better cornerback duos in the league for years to come.
For now, Williams will compete with veterans TJ Carrie and Terrance Mitchell for roles behind Ward. Carrie was signed to a 4-year, 31 million dollar deal last off-season and has earned an average or better grade from PFF in 4 of 5 seasons in the league, while starting 44 of 76 games. He’s at his best on the slot, so he should at least be their primary slot cornerback. Mitchell is experienced as well, starting 16 games in the past 2 seasons, but he’s only been a middling corner. The Browns are probably hoping Mitchell winds up as the 4th cornerback and that Williams can at least lock down a job in 3-cornerback sets.
At safety, the Browns lost Jabrill Peppers, PFF’s 23rd ranked safety in 2018, in the Odell Beckham trade and replaced him with veteran free agent Morgan Burnett. Burnett is a hybrid safety/linebacker that will play as a box safety in Cleveland. He was underutilized in Pittsburgh last season (390 snaps), which led to his release just one year and 5.25 million into a 3-year, 14.35 million dollar deal, but he made 98 starts in 7 seasons in Green Bay from 2011 to 2017 and earned above average grades from PFF in 4 straight seasons from 2014-2017. His age is a concern, going into his age 30 season, and he has durability issues, missing 19 games in the past 6 seasons and not playing all 16 games since 2012, but he could prove to be a value on a 2-year, 7.5 million dollar deal.
With Burnett playing as a box safety, Damarious Randall will remain as the deep safety. A 2015 first round pick, Randall was underwhelming in 3 seasons in Green Bay, but the Browns traded for him last off-season and converted him into a safety, which led to him having a mini breakout season, finishing 34th among safeties on PFF. He’s a one-year wonder, but could easily prove to be a late bloomer now that he’s at a position where he is a better fit. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, he is a candidate for a long-term extension before the season starts. Randall is worth a significant amount of money, but wouldn’t break the bank and any long-term extension he signs would likely lower his 9.069 million dollar cap hit for 2019.
The Browns also have Eric Murray, acquired from the Chiefs from Emmanuel Ogbah, as a 3rd safety. The 2016 4th round pick has made 11 starts the past two seasons, but hasn’t performed well and was benched down the stretch last season in Kansas City. He’ll primarily play a special teams role, but the Browns could also use some 3 safety looks with Burnett playing as a linebacker or Randall playing as a cornerback, depending on the matchup. Fourth round rookie Sheldrick Redwine could also play himself into a situational role down the stretch. This is a solid secondary with decent depth.
The Browns have done a great job turning over their roster since their 2017 season and have a good mix of cheap young talent and talented veterans on big contracts. In particular, the additions of wide receiver Odell Beckham and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson this off-season are both significant upgrades at their respective positions. Much of how far this team goes is dependant on Baker Mayfield. If he continues to play like he did down the stretch last season, this team is a legitimate contender. If he has some growing pains in his 2nd season in the league, this is still a team that will contend for the division title, but they might be a year early as a true Super Bowl contender.
Prediction: 12-4, 1st in AFC North