Since returning to the NFL in 1999, the Browns have been synonymous with losing in the NFL. On a decade plus long playoff drought dating back to 2002, the Browns underwent a radical tear down of their roster that saw the team roll large amounts of cap space to the future, accumulate a significant amount of future excess draft capital, and play a borderline unprecedented amount of young, cheap, and inexperienced players.
The result in the short-term was a 2-year stretch in which the team won a single game total from 2016-2017, going 1-31, but in the process they received back-to-back #1 overall draft picks, only adding to their stockpile of future assets with which to build this team. It took a few years, but the Browns are definitely starting to see the results of that process, going 11-5 in 2020 and securing the franchise’s first playoff appearance in 18 seasons and first playoff win in 26 seasons.
Probably the most important decision the Browns have made throughout the process was the selection of quarterback Baker Mayfield, who was selected #1 overall immediately following Cleveland’s winless 2017 season. It wasn’t a slam dunk decision for the Browns, who considered multiple options in a strong quarterback class and even could have selected running back Saquon Barkley and used another first round pick they acquired, 4th overall, to select their quarterback.
Even in hindsight, it’s not clear that the Browns made the best decision they could have made, with 7th overall pick Josh Allen and 32nd overall pick Lamar Jackson so far having shown a higher ceiling. However, Mayfield is clearly the best quarterback the Browns have had in decades and he looks like an obvious long-term franchise quarterback just three seasons into his career. He’s completed 61.9% of his passes for an average of 7.38 YPA, 75 touchdowns, and 43 interceptions, while finishing 11th among quarterbacks on PFF in 2018, 17th in 2019, and 14th in 2020.
For the Browns to take the next step, however, they will need Mayfield to take the next step and consistently play at a level he hasn’t been able to maintain for a full season yet, unlike his contemporaries in Allen and Jackson. It’s somewhat concerning that Mayfield’s highest rated season on PFF still remains his rookie season and, even though last season was by far his most successful season from a wins and losses standpoint, he also had by far the most talent around him on offense and, even with all that talent, the Browns still ranked just 11th in the NFL in first down rate over expected, which they arguably should have exceeded given how talented the Browns are at other offensive positions.
Mayfield is still young (age 26 season in 2021) and has shown a high level for stretches throughout his limited time in the NFL, so he could easily have some untapped potential and continue to get better, but that’s not a guarantee. The Browns will have to make a decision on his long-term contract in the next couple years and Mayfield is eligible for an extension now, but, after seeing the Carson Wentz and Jared Goff contracts end in disaster for their respective teams, the Browns may want to give Mayfield another year to prove he’s worth top quarterback money before giving it to him, even if it means ultimately paying a little more in the long-term.
Mayfield has one remaining cheap year on his rookie deal before a much more expensive option for 2022 kicks in at 18.858 million and Mayfield will almost definitely exceed that amount on an annual basis on his next contract, with top quarterbacks now getting contracts in the range of 35-40 million annually. Whenever it happens, Mayfield will almost certainly be signing long-term with the Browns, who are all in on their young quarterback, with only veteran backup Case Keenum, a 9-year veteran in his age 33 season with a career 85.2 QB rating in 62 career starts, behind him on the depth chart as another option. Keenum is an above average backup, but, unless Mayfield gets hurt, Keenum will ride the pine all season. If Mayfield can stay healthy and take a step forward, this should be one of the best offenses in the league, but that’s of course not a guarantee.
The biggest reason that Mayfield had easily the best offensive supporting cast of his career last season was the Browns’ drastically improved offensive line. A subpar group for Mayfield’s first two seasons in the league, the Browns saw significantly improved play at left tackle, right tackle, and right guard in 2020. At left tackle and right tackle, the Browns made significant investments last off-season, signing right tackle Jack Conklin to a 3-year, 42 million dollar contract and using the 10th overall pick on left tackle Jedrick Wills, but arguably their best offensive lineman was one that was added without much fanfare, right guard Wyatt Teller.
A 5th round pick of the Bills in 2018, Teller made 7 starts as a rookie, but he was underwhelming and, when the Bills overhauled their offensive line from 2018 to 2019, he was the odd man out and was sent to the Browns ahead of the 2019 season for a swap of late round picks, so the Bills could get at least something for a player they were presumably planning on releasing with final cuts. Teller’s first season in Cleveland was more of the same, as he made 9 underwhelming starts down the stretch, but he maintained his starting job throughout last off-season and shocked everyone with a breakout 2020 season, finishing first among guards on PFF, especially dominating as a run blocker, but also holding up well in pass protection.
Teller is the definition of a one-year wonder and it wasn’t even a full season as injuries limited him to 11 games, so it’s far from a guarantee that Teller will come close to duplicating last season’s level of play, but he should remain at least an above average starter and if he can stay healthier this season, that will be a big benefit to this team because they were noticeably worse running the ball when he missed time last season. The Browns also have to make a decision on his contract shortly, heading into the final year of his rookie deal. It may be risky to extend him now after just one strong season, but if he can repeat that season in 2021, Teller could become the highest paid guard in the league on the open market.
Right tackle Jack Conklin wasn’t quite as dominant, but he still had a great season, making 15 starts and finishing 8th among offensive tackles on PFF, a career best finish for the 2016 first round pick. Conklin has also finished 18th in 2016 and 13th in 2019 and, with the exception of a couple injury limited seasons in 2017-2018, he’s been a consistently high level blocker throughout his career. Still only going into his age 27 season, Conklin should continue playing at a high level as long as he continues to remain healthy, now over three years removed from a devastating torn ACL.
Left tackle Jedrick Wills was probably their worst offensive lineman last season, but that says more about the rest of this offensive line than it does about Wills. Wills fared well in pass protection, but left something to be desired in the run game and committed 11 penalties, leading to him only earning a middling grade from PFF overall. Still, the rookie stabilized a key position of need for the Browns in 15 starts and he should keep getting better going forward. Though it’s not a guarantee he ever reaches it, he has the potential to be one of the better left tackles in the league for years to come. A breakout 2021 by him would only make this offensive line that much more dominant.
Center JC Tretter and left guard Joel Bitonio have been with the team much longer, dating back to when their offensive line had a lot of problems, but they were never the problem and they continued playing at a high level in 2020. Bitonio has been with the team since all the way back in 2014, when the Browns selected him in the 2nd round, and he’s been an above average starter from the word go, finishing 14th among guards on PFF as a rookie and finishing in the top-19 in 6 of 7 seasons in the league, including top-8 finishes in each of the past three seasons. He is getting up there in age a little bit, going into his age 30 season, but he hasn’t shown any signs of dropping off and, while he did miss some time with injury earlier in his career, he hasn’t missed a game in 4 seasons. Even if he does drop off a little bit in 2021, he should remain one of the better guards in the league.
Tretter, meanwhile, originally arrived in Cleveland as a free agent. A spot starter earlier in his career with the Packers, where he made 10 starts in 4 seasons and played 4 different positions, Tretter signed a 3-year, 16.75 million dollar deal with the Browns before the 2017 season and has made all 64 starts at center in 4 seasons since, earning an above average grade from PFF in all 4 seasons, including top-9 finishes in each of the past three seasons and a 5th ranked finish in 2020. He signed a 3-year, 32.55 million dollar extension during the 2019 season and is now rightfully one of the highest paid centers in the league. Like Bitonio, he’s heading into his age 30 season, but he also hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down and even if he does drop off a little bit, he should continue playing at a relatively high level.
The Browns also have good depth upfront in case injuries strike. Chris Hubbard struggled in 2018 and 2019 as a starter for the Browns, but he fared well last season on 290 snaps (5 starts) as a versatile reserve and has proven himself throughout his 8-year career to be an above average spot starter, even if he’s been overmatched as a full-time starter. The Browns will obviously be in worse shape if they lose one of their starters, but Hubbard’s versatility and experience makes him a better option than most teams have off their bench. On top of that, the Browns used a 4th round pick on the University of Cincinnati’s James Hudson, a good value pick who could potentially develop into a starter in the long-term and, in the short-term, should provide capable depth.
Few teams, if any, have a more complete, deep, and talented offensive line than the Browns. Conklin, Tretter, and Bitonio all are close to locks to have strong seasons, Jedrick Wills could take a step forward, and Wyatt Teller could be healthier, though it’s not a guarantee that he plays as well he did last season or that the Browns have better health overall on the offensive line, as injuries as part of the game. Even if injuries strike though, the Browns should be better prepared than most teams because of their depth.
The Browns also had a key injury at the running back position last season, with lead back Nick Chubb, otherwise one of the best running backs in the league, missing 4 games and most of a 5th with injury last season. However, even with him out, the Browns still were able to run the ball well because of their talented offensive line and their running back depth. #2 running back Kareem Hunt has also proven himself as a talented feature back from his days in Kansas City and when he and Chubb are both healthy, they are arguably the best running back duo in the NFL.
A 2nd round pick in 2018, Chubb has been arguably the best runner in football since entering the league, finishing in the top-4 among running backs on PFF in all 3 seasons in the league and ranking 3rd in rushing yards (3,557), 6th in rushing touchdowns (28), and first in yards per carry (5.23 YPC, minimum 500 carries) over that stretch. Still only going into his age 26 season with no injury history aside from the 4 games he missed last season, there is no reason to expect Chubb to drop off in 2021, aside from the inherent higher risk of injury that running backs have.
Chubb leaves something to be desired as a pass catcher, averaging just 6.01 yards per target in his career and catching just 72 passes in 44 games, but that’s primarily what Hunt is for, as he has an average 48/446/5 slash line per 16 games in his career, including a 38/304/5 slash line last season. Hunt also has a career 4.57 YPC average on 694 carries and has a history as a feature back, averaging 16.8 carries per game in the first two seasons of his career with the Chiefs in 2017-2018, before being kicked off the team for off-the-field reasons.
The Browns took a chance on Hunt and have been rewarded for it on the field. He’s averaged just 8.7 carries per game when Chubb has been healthy, but he gives them a valuable insurance policy in case Chubb misses time and, even when Chubb is healthy, Hunt still sees plenty of action, not just because of his passing down abilities, but also just because of how much this team runs the ball in general.
The running game is such an important part of this offense, as they ranked 3rd in the league in carries last season and that’s even more pronounced if you take into account that the Browns don’t have a running quarterback, with only Derrick Henry and the Titans averaging more carries per game by running backs in 2020. The Browns running frequency and ability make things significantly easier for this passing game, which especially benefits on play action plays. Baker Mayfield averaged 3.0 yards per attempt more on play action than non-play action plays last season, 4th most in the league, and that’s not a coincidence.
The Browns don’t have any proven depth behind Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, but D’Ernest Johnson, however inexperienced the 2019 undrafted free agent may be (37 career carries), showed a lot of promise last season as the #2 back when Chubb was out, averaging 5.03 YPC to give him a 5.05 career YPC average. He would only see action in case of an injury, but he’s not a bad insurance policy to have in a very talented overall position group.
With the Browns being a run heavy team, there is less importance on the receiving corps in this offense, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have good depth and talent at those positions as well. The Browns were somewhat thin at wide receiver last season, with underwhelming options like Donovan Peoples-Jones and KhaDarel Hodge seeing action (268 snaps and 292 snaps respectively), but they should be in better shape this season, with starting wide receiver Odell Beckham set to return from a torn ACL that cost him all but 316 snaps last season and rookie Anthony Schwartz being added in the third round to provide depth.
The Browns also retained Rashard Higgins, who was the #2 wide receiver in Odell Beckham’s absence last season, to play in three wide receiver sets with Beckham and Jarvis Landry, meaning Peoples-Jones and Hodge could find themselves competing for a final roster spot this season, rather than playing significant snaps. Landry and Beckham both have histories of being 1000+ yard receivers, with Landry topping that mark three times and Beckham five times, in seven seasons each, but it’s going to be tough for either player to top that mark on this run heavy team, as long as the other one is healthy to take away targets.
Landry couldn’t even manage a 1000 yard season last season with Beckham missing most of the season, but that’s not to say he had a bad year. His 72/840/3 slash line is actually pretty impressive all things considered and he ranked 17th in the NFL in yards per route run at 2.11, while earning PFF’s 16th highest wide receiver grade overall. Remarkably consistent throughout his 7-year career, Landry has topped 758 receiving yards and finished 34th or higher among wide receivers on PFF in every season in the league, while never missing a game due to injury. He’s not overly explosive, averaging just 11.1 yards per catch in his career, but he’s been a very reliable possession receiver who has caught 66.6% of his career targets. Still only going into his age 28 season, I see no reason why anything would be different this season, even if he doesn’t put up flashy numbers in a run heavy offense that has plenty of other talented options in the passing game
Also a 7-year veteran, Beckham has been the more productive player on a per game basis in their careers as compared to Landry, but Landry has been more productive overall because of his durability, as Beckham has missed 30 games in his career, including the 9 games he missed last season. He’s topped 1000 yards receiving in all five healthy seasons in his career, while finishing in the top-10 among wide receivers on PFF in four of those seasons, and he has averaged a 95/1333/10 slash line per 16 games throughout his career, but his injury history is a growing concern and, even if he can bounce back from the ACL tear and stay healthy all season, his receiving production is unlikely to approach to his career averages in this offense.
Rashard Higgins fared pretty well last season in Beckham’s absence, totalling a 37/599/4 slash line on the season, including a 57/971/4 per 16-game slash line in the games in which Beckham was hurt and a 2.04 yards per route run average on the season that actually ranked 23th among wide receivers in the league. The 2016 5th round pick has never had an impressive season long receiving total, but he also showed potential in 2018, when he had a per 16-game slash line of 58/822/6 in the final 5 games of the season, before an injury ruined 2019 campaign.
Higgins is unlikely to come close to those totals in 2021, however, unless the Browns have more injuries ahead of him on the depth chart. He is expected to be the third receiver after re-signing in free agency, but, in addition to being a run heavy team, the Browns use two and three tight end sets as much as any team in the league, so Higgins won’t get the playing time or targets that a typical third receiver gets. He’s still a useful player, but the box scores probably won’t show it.
As of right now, the Browns go three deep at tight end with Austin Hooper, a free agent addition signed to a 4-year, 42 million dollar deal last off-season, David Njoku, a 2017 1st round pick, and 2020 4th round pick Harrison Bryant. I say as of right now because Njoku is on his 5th year option, which is set to pay him 6.013 million, but none of that is guaranteed. The Browns aren’t strapped for cap space right now, but Njoku’s salary stands out as being excessive given the Browns depth at the position and the role that Njoku will likely play in this offense and he could also have trade value to a team looking to upgrade their starting tight end, so there is a chance that either by trade or release, Njoku is not on the final roster.
Njoku is only going into his age 25 season and has shown potential, but has not proven to be worth the draft pick the Browns invested in him. He seemed to be on his way, progressing from a 32/386/4 slash line as a rookie to a 56/639/4 slash line in his second season in the league, but injuries limited him to just 5 catches in 4 games in 2019 and, while he was healthier and played in 13 games, he found himself in a much more crowded depth chart with Hooper and Bryant being added to the mix. As a result, Njoku played just 410 snaps and mostly contributed as a run blocker, with a 19/213/2 slash line on just 29 targets. A trade may make the most sense for all involved, as Njoku is not worth his salary to play the role he played last season, but he’s talented enough that he could start at least a few teams around the league.
An Njoku trade would benefit Bryant the most, but he still played 590 snaps as a rookie last season even with Njoku on the roster, so he is going to have a significant role either way, now with a full season under his belt. Bryant wasn’t overly impressive as a rookie, as his 0.94 yards per route run carry were significantly behind both Njoku (1.23) and Hooper (1.43) and he ranked 40th out of 48 eligible tight ends on PFF overall, but he wouldn’t be the first tight end to take a big step forward from year one to year two and it’s clear the Browns believe in him long-term, so he is going to get an opportunity to prove himself for better or worse.
Hooper remains as the starter, though it’s fair to question if the Browns overpaid for him after an underwhelming first season with the team. Hooper earned an above average grade from PFF overall, his 3rd straight season doing so, but he did not repeat his 2019 season, in which he finished 8th among tight ends on PFF and had a 75/787/6 slash line in 13 games. Hooper’s passing stats were always going to take a hit going from pass heavy Atlanta to the Browns, but his 46/435/4 slash line in 13 games in 2020 was a significant drop off.
Only going into his age 27 season, it’s possible Hooper is better in 2021, but that’s not a guarantee, as his 2019 campaign stands out as a bit of an outlier right now. With a deep receiving corps that goes three deep at both wide receiver and tight end and that has a talented pass catching back in Kareem Hunt, Hooper isn’t going to get the targets to have a big statistical season even if he is better this season, but from a team perspective, the depth they have is an obvious benefit. Even if Beckham is healthier in 2021, injuries are part of the game and the Browns can’t expect everything to go perfectly, but they are better prepared for adversity than most teams.
The Browns had a solid offense (11th in first down rate over expected) and won 11 games last season, but their defense really struggled (29th in first down rate over expected allowed) and, overall, the Browns were not as good as their record, finishing with a -11 point differential and ranking 25th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -1.48%. They benefited from winning a high percentage of their close games, going 7-2 in games decided by one score or less, but that isn’t predictive on a year-to-year basis. However, there are reasons to believe the Browns’ defense can be a lot better this season and be a complementary unit to this offense, meaning the Browns wouldn’t have to rely on winning close games like they did last season to accumulate a significant win total.
The first reason is simply that defensive performance is much less predictable and consistent on a year-to-year basis. Teams that struggle on defense tend to fare much better defensively the following season when you compare to the average improvement on offense among teams that struggle on that side of the ball. The Browns also should be healthier on defense this season. While they didn’t have an excessive amount of injuries on offense and can’t necessarily depend on better health on that side of the ball this season, the Browns finished with the 6th most adjusted games lost to injury on defense last season and I would expect that to be somewhat better in 2021.
On top of that, the Browns added a significant amount of talent to this unit this off-season. One key addition was defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. Clowney takes the place of Olivier Vernon, who was not the problem last season, but Vernon tore his achilles in week 17 and Clowney has a good chance to be an upgrade, so it’s understandable why they brought him in. Clowney comes with his own injury risk, as he has played all 16 games just once in 7 seasons in the league and had his 2020 season cut short after 8 games. Concerns about his durability already forced Clowney to settle for a one-year deal in free agency last off-season after being franchise tagged in 2019, but that one-year deal was still for 13 million. Now after last year’s injury, Clowney had to settle for 8 million from the Browns.
It’s a move that could definitely pan out. Clowney gets a lot of heat for not getting a sack before getting hurt last season, but he played better than that suggests, as he had 6 hits and 22 hurries on 266 pass rush snaps (10.5% pressure rate) and played the run at a high level as well, leading to Clowney ranking 18th among edge defenders on PFF at the time he went down. That’s essentially been the story of Clowney’s career, as he’s never had double digit sacks in a season (though he’s had 9 and 9.5 before), but he plays the run at a high level and has a 10.4% career pressure rate that is made more impressive by the fact that he has lined up on the interior in passing situations throughout his career more than your typical edge defender does.
Before last year’s injury ruined campaign, Clowney finished 10th among edge defenders on PFF in 2018 and 9th in 2019 and, overall, he hasn’t finished worse than 36th since his rookie year in 2014. A former #1 overall pick who is still only going into his age 28 season, Clowney comes with a lot of bounce back potential and was worth the risk for a Browns team that badly needed a replacement for Vernon. He’ll start opposite Myles Garrett, who is also a former #1 overall pick, selected in 2017, the first of two straight #1 overall picks for the Browns during their 1-31 stretch.
Garrett has been even better than Mayfield and, if he and Clowney can both stay healthy, they could be one of the top edge defender duots in the league. Like Mayfield, Garrett’s selection was not a no brainer, as the Browns were in desperate need of a quarterback and could have chosen between Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, or Mitch Trubisky, but the Browns opted to take one of the top defensive prospects of the decade and the decision has panned out, as Garrett has developed into a Defensive Player of the Year caliber player and the Browns found their quarterback the following year.
Garrett has made an impact from day one and he’s also gotten better every season, progressing from 25th among edge defenders on PFF in 2017 to 13th in 2018, 12th in 2019, and a career best 4th last season. All in all, he has 42.5 career sacks and 44 hits in 51 career games, while averaging a 12.2% pressure rate and also playing at a high level against the run. Still only going into his age 26 season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Garrett be even better in 2021 and even if he isn’t, he should remain one of the top players in the league at his position. He’s also played all 16 games once in four seasons in the league, but durability isn’t a major concern for him. Some of the time he has missed was with suspension and illness, so he hasn’t missed a game due to injury since his rookie season. The Browns will obviously hope that continues in 2021.
The Browns will really need both Garrett and Clowney to stay healthy, not just because they’re talented players who should be key parts of this defense, but also because their depth at the position is suspect. Adrian Clayborn struggled on 404 snaps as their top reserve last season and was not retained this off-season. In an attempt to upgrade, the Browns took a flyer on former first round pick Takkarist McKinley in free agency, which could prove to be a smart signing, especially on only a 1-year, 4 million dollar contract, but that’s not a guarantee.
McKinley was picked 26th overall by the Falcons in 2017 and had 13 sacks in his first 2 seasons in the league combined, while adding 13 hits and a 12.1% pressure rate. That sack total fell to 3.5 in 2019 though and, while he still had 10 hits and a 11.1% pressure rate, he injured his shoulder late in the season, leading to the Falcons declining his 5th year option and making 2020 his contract year. McKinley was off to a solid start to the 2020 season with 1 sack and 4 hits week one against the Seahawks, but he played just 42 snaps the rest of the way due to injury, ultimately being released by the Falcons and bouncing around multiple teams with whom he was unable to pass a physical.
If he’s healthy, McKinley gives the Browns some upside as an edge rusher, still only in his age 26 season, but that may be a big if and he’s always been an underwhelming player against the run, so the Browns will want him to be only be a situational pass rusher, possibly with Garrett and/or Clowney seeing some action on the interior in sub packages. The Browns also have Porter Gustin in the mix, after the 2019 undrafted free agent saw 225 snaps as a rookie and 326 snaps last season, but he hasn’t shown much in his limited action and would be an underwhelming option if he had to play significant snaps. This group has a high upside, but both Clowney and McKinley come with significant potential downside.
The Browns lost Sheldon Richardon and Larry Ogunjobi this off-season, after they started 16 games and 15 games respectively at defensive tackle last season, but Ogunjobi struggled, finishing 103rd out of 138 eligible interior defenders on PFF, so only Richardson will be missed and the Browns added some options to replace him. Richardson, who finished 37th among interior defenders on PFF last season, was released ahead of a 12 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for his age 31 season in 2021, but he remains available as a free agent, so it’s also possible the Browns could reunite with him at a cheaper rate.
The Browns other moves this off-season may signal that won’t happen though, as they added veterans Malik Jackson and Damion Square in free agency and used a 4th round pick on Ohio State defensive tackle Tommy Togiai, in addition to getting another veteran Andrew Billings back from an opt out. Along with holdover 2020 3rd round pick Jordan Elliott, who played 307 snaps as a rookie, the Browns have a variety of options at the defensive tackle position.
Unfortunately, all of their options have significant question marks. Jordan Elliott has the upside to get better, but he struggled as a rookie, finishing 96th among 138 eligible interior defenders on PFF, especially struggling as a pass rusher, not recording a sack or a hit on the quarterback all season and only hurrying the quarterback three times on 157 pass rush snaps. Togiai also doesn’t project as much of a pass rusher, so, if he contributes as a rookie, it’s likely to be in an early down role.
Veterans Andrew Billings and Damion Square also are primarily run stuffers. Billings has the best chance to start and see early down snaps, as he played 632 snaps in 2018 and 657 snaps in 2019 with the Bengals prior to last year’s opt out and earned a slightly above average grade overall from PFF in both seasons, after missing his rookie year in 2016 and showing little on 334 snaps in 2017. It’s never ideal when a player misses an entire season like Billings did last year, but he is still in his prime in his age 26 season and doesn’t have a recent injury history. He’s at his best against the run, but also added 3.5 sacks, 10 hits, and a 7.4% pressure rate in 2018-2019 combined, which could make him valuable to a Browns team that lacks interior pass rush options.
Square, meanwhile, has been a capable rotational player for the Chargers over the past 5 seasons, but he’s averaged just 382 snaps per season with a maximum of 530 snaps played in a season over that stretch and, while he’s a capable run stuffer, he’s never gotten any pass rush, with 6.5 sacks, 13 hits, and a 4.1% pressure rate in 91 career games. Now going into his age 32 season, it’s pretty unlikely he gets any better and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he was unable to earn himself a role or make the roster in a position group that is unsettled, but has depth.
Malik Jackson is the best pass rusher of the bunch and should see a significant amount of snaps purely for that reason. Jackson was one of the better players in the league at his position for a few years, finishing in the top-29 among on PFF in 4 straight seasons from 2014-2017, but he’s fallen off pretty significantly, earning middling grades in 2018 and 2020, with a lost season due to injury in between. He’s still shown pretty well as a pass rusher recently, with 2.5 sacks, 11 hits, and a 10.7% pressure rate last season, but he has been a liability against the run. Now going into his age 31 season, his best days are almost definitely behind him and he could easily continue declining as well. The Browns will be counting on him for a significant role in an underwhelming position group.
The Browns also made some additions at linebacker this off-season. BJ Goodson was the closest thing the Browns had to an every down linebacker last season, as he played 848 snaps in 12 games. He fared well against the run, but left something to be desired in coverage, so the Browns opted not to retain him and instead to add Anthony Walker from the Colts in free agency and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah from Notre Dame in the second round of the draft. The Browns also bring back Malcolm Smith (559 snaps), Sione Takitaki (435 snaps), Jacob Phillips (169 snaps), Mack Wilson (372 snaps), who saw playing time last season, to compete for roles in an unsettled group.
Owusu-Koramoah is basically the opposite of Goodson, as he might be the best coverage player of the bunch as a rookie, but his lack of size is a concern against the run. He might not play every down, but he should have a role at least in coverage situations and he had the potential to go in the first round if not for medical concerns, so he could easily develop into an every down player long-term and well exceed the value of his draft slot.
Walker, meanwhile, has started 46 games over the past three seasons with the team that drafted him in the 5th round in 2017 and he has been something close to an every down player, averaging 46.9 snaps per 16 games, but he’s never been more than a replacement level starter and is coming off of a season in which he finished 74th out of 99 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF, so he shouldn’t be guaranteed a role, despite his recent history of receiving significant playing time.
Malcolm Smith is also a veteran, but he’s past his prime, going into his age 32 season. He was an every down player in 2015 and 2016 with the Raiders, but was never particularly good and has been limited to just 978 snaps in 4 seasons since. He actually fared well in coverage last season and could continue seeing playing time as a situational coverage linebacker, but he’s not a candidate to play an every down role in this crowded group. It would even be a small surprise to even see him exceed the 37.3 snaps per game he played last season.
Takitaki, Phillips, and Wilson, meanwhile, are all young, going in the 3rd round in 2019, the 3rd round in 2020, and the 5th round in 2020 respectively. Takitaki played the most of the trio last season and was also by far the best, earning an above average grade overall from PFF on 435 snaps. Phillips and Wilson, meanwhile, both ranked among PFF’s worst off ball linebackers in limited action. Both could be better in their second season in the league, but Takitaki seems like by far the most likely of the three to develop into an every down player long-term. Even in a crowded group, I would expect him to have a role, even if just in base packages. The Browns have plenty of depth in this group, but need some young players to step up if they’re going to be improved over last year’s group.
Of all the position groups that the Browns upgraded this off-season, their secondary is by far the most improved. The Browns added cornerback Troy Hill and safety John Johnson both on significant contracts in free agency, locking them up for 9 million over 2 years and 33.75 million over 3 years respectively, and they also used a first round pick on Northwestern cornerback Greg Newsome. On top of that, a pair of recent second round picks, cornerback Greedy Williams (2019) and safety Grant Delpit (2020), are set to return from injuries that cost them all of 2020. With all of that, there’s a good chance this unit, which was a massive liability in 2020, could be one of the better groups in the league.
Denzel Ward remains as the #1 cornerback, after being by far their most valuable defensive back in 2020. The 4th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, selected three picks after Mayfield, Ward’s best season still remains his rookie season, when he finished 15th among cornerbacks on PFF, but he still had a solid season in 2019 (36th) and 2020 (21st) and, only in his age 24 season, he still has the potential to take a step forward and have his best season yet in 2021.
It would also be of significant benefit if Ward were to be more durable this season, after maxing out at 13 games played thus far in his career, but it definitely shouldn’t be a surprise if he misses time with injury again. Regardless, he comes with a pretty low floor with three impressive seasons under his belt and he has a ceiling that could make him one of the top cornerbacks in the league this season.
Newsome and Hill are likely to be the 2nd and 3rd cornerbacks in some order. Greedy Williams is expected to be back this season, but he’s very inexperienced, playing just 680 mediocre snaps as a rookie before missing all of last season, and the injury he suffered last season could remain a long-term issue, so it’s unlikely he’ll be able to beat out either Newsome or Hill for playing time, especially given how big of an investment the Browns made in both players this off-season.
Who is actually the #2 and #3 cornerback between Newsome and Hill is unknown and ultimately might not matter. Hill is at his best on the slot and he figures to be their primary option there in sub packages, while Newsome projects as a boundary cornerback, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see both ultimately play around the same amount of snaps. Hill is obviously the more proven of the two and is coming off of a season in which he was PFF’s 17th ranked cornerback, so he could prove to be a steal in free agency, but he’s also going into his age 30 season and, while he had shown promise before last season, last season was his first full season as a starter, never topping 538 snaps in a season prior, so he’s a one-year wonder in terms of having the kind of season he had last season.
Hill could easily have another solid season, even if he isn’t quite as good, but Newsome obviously has the greater upside long-term and projects as a future starter opposite Ward, even if he takes some time to get used to the NFL. With Ward, Hill, and Newsome as their top-3 cornerbacks and Williams providing valuable insurance, the Browns are well positioned at the cornerback position for 2021 and have great depth, after having disastrous play behind Ward for most of last season.
The Browns also have great depth at safety. Not only will John Johnson and Grant Delpit be significant upgrades over Karl Joseph and Andrew Sendejo (85th and 95th respectively out of 99 eligible safeties on PFF in 2020) as the top-2 safeties (660 snaps and 918 snaps respectively), but they also have Ronnie Harrison as a 3rd safety and he showed a lot of promise when he made starts last season, though injuries ultimately limited him to just 325 snaps total on the season.
A 3rd round pick of the Jaguars in 2018, Harrison was underwhelming in 22 career starts in his first 2 seasons in the league, before being sent to the Browns for a late round pick last off-season, but it’s possible the Jaguars gave up on him too soon and he’s still only going into his age 24 season. He won’t see a ton of playing time, but the Browns will probably try to get all three safeties on the field together in certain situations and Harrison could easily be a plug and play starter if either Johnson or Delpit gets hurt. Delpit is also a question mark because he’s not only coming off of a major injury, but also has yet to play in the NFL, so Harrison is a good insurance policy to have in case Delpit struggles.
Johnson should be locked in as a starter, as his contract is actually an underpay for the caliber player he is. A 3rd round pick in 2017, Johnson barely played in his first few games, but made the final 11 starts of the season and, aside from 10 games missed due to injury in 2019, he hasn’t looked back, finishing 11th among safeties on PFF in 2017, 8th in 2018, and career best 3rd last season, bouncing back in a big way from his injury ruined 2019 campaign.
Otherwise healthy in his career and one of the better safeties in the league when on the field, Johnson, still not even 26 until December, likely would be have been as one of the top few safeties in the NFL if this was a normal cap year, but instead he settles for a 3-year deal that locks him in as the 8th highest paid safety, a rank that will almost definitely fall throughout the course of the deal. He should prove to be a relative steal over the next few years. He’s the headline addition for a Browns secondary that is significantly improved from last season’s group. If the Browns make a big leap defensively, which they have a good chance to do, the secondary should be the biggest reason why.
Special teams is an obvious achilles heel for the Browns, as they ranked 27th in special teams DVOA last season and were one of four teams to finish below average in DVOA in all aspects of special teams, but still didn’t make any significant additions to this group this off-season, not signing any experienced special teamers in free agency and only adding kicker Chase McLaughlin as a potential upgrade at any special teams position.
McLaughlin is only a potential upgrade by default, as he’s made just 78.6% of his field goals across stints with five different teams over the past two seasons, but could still be a better option than incumbent Cody Parkey. Parkey has hit 84.6% of his field goals in his career, which might sound impressive, but he’s hit just 4 from beyond 50 yards over the past six seasons combined and he’s hit just 90.6% of his extra points over the past four seasons. He’s also struggled on kickoffs, as has McLaughin. Regardless of who wins this job, the Browns figure to have a below average place kicker and kickoff specialist again in 2021.
No competition was added for punter Jamie Gillan, who finished 26th among 34 eligible punters on PFF in 2020, but that’s somewhat understandable, as Gillan was much better as a rookie in 2019, finishing 3rd among punters. The drop off was noticeable, as he went from 46.2 yards per punt, 42.3 net yards per punt, and 4.53 seconds of hang time to 44.0 yards, 38.3 yards, and 4.29 seconds respectively. He has a good chance to bounce back in 2021, but that’s not a guarantee and even if he does, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be as good as he was as a rookie. They’re at least in better shape at punter than kicker though, as their lack of a consistent place kicker could be a big problem for the Browns as they try to compete with the top teams in the AFC.
The Browns also got poor production out of their return games. It wasn’t always the fault of the return men, as their returners generally received middling grades from PFF, but, as a result of terrible special teams play around their returners, they averaged a middling 22.1 yards per kickoff return and just 4.8 yards per punt return, 2nd worst in the NFL. Donovan Peoples-Jones was their primary punt returner with 18 returns averaged just 4.3 yards per punt return and, while he wasn’t much better with a 21.1 yards per return average on 18 kickoff returns, reserve running back D’Ernest Johnson at least showed more with 25.1 yards per return on 14 returns.
No competition was added for Peoples-Jones and Johnson this off-season, so both will remain involved, Peoples-Jones likely as the primary punt returner and Johnson taking over the primary kickoff returner job. Both are inexperienced, but Johnson should be an upgrade as the kickoff returner and, if they can get better play around them, their production should go up, perhaps significantly, as they were not the primary problem with their return units last season.
Unfortunately, with no major additions being made to this special teams unit, they are unlikely to get better play around their returners, barring the breakout of several rookies. They didn’t even make a coaching change, which can often be an easy way to spark improvement on special teams, opting instead to stay with long-time veteran Mike Priefer. It’s not clear that the problem is Priefer, who has been a special teams coordinator for 15 straight seasons, is widely respected, and has even been an interim head coach on two occasions, but it’s possible they could get worse special teamer play in 2021.
While the Browns struggled as a special teams unit last season, they actually got good play from four of their top-5 in terms of snaps played, as Tavierre Thomas (334 snaps), Stephen Carlson (333 snaps), Sione Takitaki (218 snaps), and Andy Janovich (217 snaps) all finished above average on PFF. The problem is the rest of the bunch mostly struggled and Thomas left this off-season, hurting this group even more. The Browns also lost Tae Davis, who wasn’t great, but held his own across 211 snaps, 6th most on the team. With no replacements for Thomas and Davis added, it’s possible this group is worse in 2021 and at the very least it hurts their chances of being better after being one of the worst units in the league last season.
The Browns already had one of the more talented and complete offenses in the league, but their defense should be a significant amount improved this season, putting the Browns firmly into Super Bowl contention for the 2021 season. If quarterback Baker Mayfield can take a step forward and play at a level he hasn’t played at yet for a whole season, I could definitely see this team making it out of the AFC and representing the conference in the Super Bowl. I will have a final prediction for the Browns at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.
8/8/21 Update: The Browns projection takes a bit of a hit with special teams being more predictive than I realized and the Ravens’ projection has simultaneously improved significantly, but the Browns are still in the mix in the AFC and should be a playoff team.
9/4/21 Update: The Browns will have to contend with the Ravens for the division, but they should make the post-season and could win a game or two depending on how the matchups play out.
Prediction: 12-5 2nd in AFC North