Cleveland Browns 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

2019 was finally supposed to be the Browns’ year. Dubbed off-season winners by most around the league, the Browns were expected not only to qualify for the post-season for the first time since 2002, but also to legitimately contend for a Super Bowl championship. It was an understandable projection, as the Browns had a young up and coming team that finished 5-2 in their final 7 games in 2018 and then added key veterans like Odell Beckham and Sheldon Richardson to the mix, but it didn’t end up being correct at all, as the Browns struggled throughout a mediocre and highly disappointing 6-10 season in which they finished just 23rd in first down rate differential at -3.21%.

How did things go so badly? Well there are four main reasons and there’s some overlap between them. For one, the problem was coaching. Freddie Kitchens was 5-3 in 2018 as the interim head coach after Hue Jackson was fired, but his ascension from position coach to full-time head coach was very quick and he proved to be overmatched in his first full year on the job, especially dealing with a new mix of players in the locker room and with the team’s new found high expectations. Kitchens lasted just one full season as the head coach in Cleveland and was replaced this off-season by Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, a long-time position coach in his own right, but one who at least has a year of coordinating experience under his belt.

The second reason is that, while this roster had plenty of star players on it, it was a very top heavy roster that somehow lacked depth even though they made 45 draft picks from 2015-2018. When key players disappointed or missed time in 2019, the Browns didn’t have the depth to compensate. I’ll get into specific absences and disappointments later, but the Browns lost defensive end Myles Garrett for the season after week 11 and fellow defensive end Olivier Vernon played just 63 snaps after week 9. Garrett and Vernon were one of the top defensive end pairs in the NFL last season when on the field together, but the Browns’ depth at the position was very suspect, leading to a massive drop off in level of play when Garrett and Vernon were out. 

The Browns had one of the toughest schedules in the NFL through the first 7 games of the season and one of the easiest schedules during the final 9 games of the season, but the Browns barely improved in first down rate differential (-3.70% in the first 7 games vs. -3.02% in the second 9 games) because their defense actually went from a 36.54% first down rate allowed in the first 7 games of the season to a 39.86% first down rate allowed in the final 9 games of the season, despite a drastically easier schedule. If Garrett and Vernon had been available for the 2nd half of the season or if they had at least had competent replacements, the Browns would have been in much better position to take advantage of their easy schedule and could have easily picked up a few more wins to at least put them in playoff contention.

The third reason is, specifically, regression at the quarterback position. The #1 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Mayfield’s career got off to an underwhelming start, as he completed 58.3% of his passes for an average of 6.60 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions in the first 6 games of his career, but he completed 68.4% of his passes for an average of 8.57 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions in the final 8 games of his rookie season after Hue Jackson was fired, which many thought was a sign of things to come. Instead, Mayfield had a significant sophomore slump, completing 59.4% of his passes for an average of 7.17 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 21 interceptions, while finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked quarterback, down from 12th overall in his up and down rookie year.

Still only going into his age 25 season and his 3rd season in the league, Mayfield still has obvious upside, but even if he does develop into a long-term franchise quarterback who is among the best in the league, the path he takes to get there may not be the smoothest. He should be better in 2020 than he was in 2019, even if only because of better coaching and more talent around him, but I don’t necessarily expect a big leap from him overnight.

The Browns do have a better backup situation this season, signing journeyman Case Keenum in free agency. Keenum’s addition isn’t a surprise, as he had the best season of his career with Kevin Stefanski and the Vikings in 2017 (98.3 QB rating, 7th among quarterbacks on PFF) and came relatively inexpensively on a 3-year, 18 million dollar deal. Keenum has struggled as a starter outside of that 2017 season (62 career starts), but you can do a lot worse than him as your backup quarterback. It would likely take a lot for Mayfield to actually get benched for Keenum, but it’s better to have an option like him behind Baker Mayfield than one like Drew Stanton (66.3 career QB rating), who backed him up in 2019. Obviously the Browns are hoping they never have to play Keenum, but he’s useful to have around at a position with uncertainty.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

The fourth major reason for the Browns’ struggles in 2019 was their horrible offensive line play. Offensive line was the Browns’ biggest area of concern going into last season and things just got worse from there. Right tackle Chris Hubbard, who finished 52nd among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 2018, fell to 82nd out of 89 qualifiers in 2019. Left tackle Greg Robinson showed some flashes down the stretch in 2018, but proved to be horrendous in his first full season as a starter. Right guard was their biggest weakness going into the season and they never solved the problem with either of the starting options they tried (Wyatt Teller and Eric Kush).

The Browns obviously viewed upgrading their offensive line as a priority this off-season. They didn’t add anything of note at right guard, but they signed right tackle Jack Conklin to a 3-year, 42 million dollar deal to leave the Titans in free agency and then used their first round pick 10th overall on Alabama’s Jedrick Wills, who will slot in at left tackle. Wills is the more questionable starter, not just because he’s a rookie, but also basically he played primarily on the right side in college. At Alabama, the right side was the blindside because they had a left handed quarterback for most of Wills’ tenure, so he has experience on a quarterback’s blindside, but Wills will still have to re-learn his technique for the left side, which could add to his growing pains as a rookie.

Conklin, meanwhile, has some injury history, but was otherwise a very safe signing. Conklin tore his ACL in a playoff game in January 2018 and had a down 2018 season, finishing as PFF’s 47th ranked offensive tackle on 498 snaps, leading to the Titans declining his 5th year option which would have guaranteed him 12.86 million for injury in 2020. That proved to be a mistake as Conklin had the best season of his career in 2019, finishing 12th among offensive tackles on PFF. The 8th overall pick in 2016, Conklin also finished 18th and 31st in his first 2 seasons in the league, so aside from an injury affected season, he’s consistently been one of the better right tackles in the league and he’s still only going into his age 26 season. Assuming he can continue to stay healthy, he should continue playing at a high level for years to come.

Left guard Joel Bitonio and center JC Tretter both remain and they were the lone bright spots on this line in 2019, both finishing 9th among guards and centers respectively on PFF. Bitonio has been a starter for the Browns since his rookie year in 2014 and he has finished in the top-19 among guards on PFF in 5 of 6 seasons in the league (79 starts), including 3 straight seasons in the top-11. Tretter, meanwhile, flashed as a spot starter early in his career in Green Bay and has earned an above average grade in all 3 seasons in Cleveland, while making all 48 starts at center, since signing with the team prior to the 2017 season. Originally signed to a 3-year, 16.75 million dollar deal, Tretter was extended on a 3-year, 32.55 million dollar deal during last season, making him one of the highest paid centers in the league. Both Bitonio and Tretter are going into their age 29 season, so I wouldn’t expect much drop off from either player.

Right guard is the only spot still unsettled on this line. Wyatt Teller made the final 9 starts of the season at the position last year, after being acquired from the Bills for a swap of late round picks last off-season, but he didn’t play particularly well, finishing 61st among 89 qualifying guards on PFF. A 5th round pick in 2018, Teller also struggled in 7 rookie year starts in Buffalo, which is what led to him being replaced in free agency and traded to the Browns. Teller doesn’t have a particularly high upside, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he never developed into a dependable starter.

Teller will face competition from veteran Chris Hubbard, who struggled at right tackle last season, but who also has experience at guard as well, and 2019 6th round pick Drew Forbes, who missed his entire rookie year with a knee injury. Hubbard is probably their best alternative, as much as he struggled last season. He’s experienced (43 career starts), still relatively young in his age 29 season, has generally been better than he was last season, and he played some guard earlier in his career. He wouldn’t necessarily be an upgrade on over Teller though and the same is true of Forbes, who is totally unproven. Right guard is a position of weakness on an overall strong and much improved offensive line.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

Even with some of the big off-season splashes the Browns have made in recent off-seasons, they still had cap space to play with this off-season. In addition to signing right tackle Jack Conklin to a big contract in free agency, the Browns also signed former Falcons tight end Austin Hooper to a 4-year, 42 million dollar deal that makes him the highest paid tight end in the league. His contract may seem like an overpay, but the tight end market is undervalued due to great value contracts that were signed years ago by guys like Zach Ertz, Rob Gronkowski, and Travis Kelce. 

When those guys come up for extensions and when all-everything tight end George Kittle inevitably gets his massive extension after his rookie deal runs up next off-season, Hooper’s contract suddenly will look reasonable by comparison. If you look at his salary compared to wide receivers, he’d rank just 22nd at the position in average annual salary between Sterling Shepard and Tyler Boyd. That’s pretty reasonable for his skill set.

A 3rd round pick in 2016 by the Falcons, Hooper has seen his production increase in every season in the league, from 19/271/3 and 49/526/3 in 2016 and 2017 respectively to 71/660/4 and 75/787/6 in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Last season, he posted his career best numbers in just 13 games, giving him a 92/969/7 slash line extrapolated over 16 games, which would have been among the best in the league at the tight end position.

Hooper played on a very pass friendly offense in Atlanta and is an unspectacular player overall, but he’s very impressively caught 77.3% of his career targets and he’s one of the few tight ends in the league who is a threat in the passing game and who can also hold their own as an inline blocker. He’s also still got room to continue to get better, only going into his age 26 season. He’ll be a valuable addition for a Browns team that had just 42 catches by tight ends in 2019.

David Njoku was supposed to lead this tight end group last season, after the 2017 1st round pick was the Browns’ 2nd leading receiver with a 56/639/4 slash line in his 2nd season in the league in 2018. Instead of the breakout year many projected for him in 2019, injuries, inconsistent play, and problems with the coaching staff led to him playing just 99 snaps and catching just 5 passes in 4 games.

Hooper’s addition would seem to signal the end of Njoku’s time in Cleveland, but the Browns picked up his 5th year option for 2021, which guarantees him 6.013 million for injury, so they clearly still value him on some level. He’d need Hooper to get hurt to ever have the kind of breakout year he was expected to have last season, but new head coach Kevin Stefanski comes from Minnesota where the tight end position is very important where and two-tight end sets are used frequently, so there should still be a role for Njoku in 2020. The Browns also used a 4th round pick on Florida Atlantic’s Harrison Bryant, who is likely to play a significant role if either Hooper or Njoku get hurt.

The Browns will need to use two tight end sets frequently to mask their depth problems at wide receiver. Outside of 1000+ yard receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, the Browns didn’t have another wide receiver with more than 12 catches in 2019 and they didn’t add anything of significance at the position this off-season. In fact, their wide receiver situation is made even more problematic by Jarvis Landry’s off-season hip surgery, which is threatening his availability for all of the off-season and even possibly into the start of the season.

Landry would be a big loss if he missed time, as he’s been their leading receiver the past two seasons. A 2nd round pick by the Dolphins in 2014, Landry has finished in the top-34 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in all 6 seasons in the league, while averaging a 94/1031/5 slash line, topping 1000 yards three times, and topping 100 catches twice. After spending the first four seasons of his career in Miami, Landry came to Cleveland on a 5-year, 75.5 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago.

Landry has still been productive in Cleveland, but his usage has been very different. Landry still primarily lines up in the slot, but in Miami his average depth of target was just 4.67 yards from the line of scrimmage and he broke 76 tackles on 400 catches and averaged 5.43 yards per catch after catch. In Cleveland, his average depth of target is 8.75 yards from the line of scrimmage and he’s broken just 22 tackles on 164 catches and averaged just 4.36 yards per catch after catch.

It’s fair to wonder if the Browns would be better off using him as Miami did, as they completed 70.5% of their passes to Landry with 22 touchdowns to 13 interceptions, while the Browns have completed 57.1% of their passes to Landry with 10 touchdowns to 10 interceptions, but there are no indications they plan on significantly changing how he’s used. If anything, he’s likely to be less productive overall, in part due to an injury recovery which could affect him into the season even if he doesn’t miss time and in part to the Browns being a run heavier team that uses more two tight end sets, which means fewer pass attempts and allows fewer opportunities for Landry on the slot in three wide receiver sets.

Odell Beckham is also recovering from an injury. Like Landry, he played all 16 games last season, but he was limited by a core muscle injury for most of the year and it affected him noticeably. Beckham’s 74/1035/4 slash line would be a good season for most wide receivers, but Beckham averaged a 106/1485/12 slash line per 16 games with the Giants, so that’s a disappointing total from him for a 16-game season. He also finished 58th among wide receivers on PFF after finishing in the top-10 in four of his five seasons in New York and he saw his yards per route run drop from 2.40 with the Giants to 1.81 last season with the Browns. His disappointing season is a big part of why the Browns disappointed in general, as he was the prize of their big off-season.

Beckham is a better fit than Landry for a run heavier offense that figures to use a lot of two tight end sets because they can set up big plays for him on the outside off play action, so I would expect him to lead the team in receiving this time around. Only going into his age 28 season, he has obvious bounce back potential if he can stay healthy, though he’s been pretty banged up throughout his career and has only one other time played all 16 games. Both him and Landry are injury concerns, so the Browns’ lack of depth at the position is a big problem.

The Browns brought back Rashard Higgins on a minimum deal this off-season and he’ll likely be the third receiver. Higgins was a 5th round pick in 2016 and seemed to be showing potential in 2018, with a 39/572/4 slash line as a part-time player and a 1.80 yards per route run average, but a combination of injury and ineffectiveness limited him to 4 catches and 172 snaps in 10 games last season. 

Overall in his career, his 2018 season is an outlier, as he’s averaged 1.01 yards per route run overall. With only bottom of the roster types like Taywan Taylor (53 career catches) and KhaDarel Hodge (6 career catches) competing with him for playing time, the Browns don’t have a better alternative for Higgins, who would likely be forced into action in two wide receiver sets if Landry misses the start of the season or if Beckham gets hurt at some point. They would likely struggle to generate plays through the air in that scenario.

Without a pass catching threat at tight end or a 3rd wide receiver last season, the Browns 3rd leading receiver was pass catching back Kareem Hunt, even though he played just 8 games. Hunt’s 37/285/1 slash line is nothing to write home about, but he’s averaged a 53/511/5 slash line per 16 games in 3 seasons in the league and is one of the most gifted pass catching running backs in the NFL. He should remain actively used in that role and could push for 60 catches if he can stay in the lineup all season. With Hunt out of the backfield and two pass catching tight ends in Hooper and Njoku who will play significant roles, the Browns should be able to somewhat mask their depth problems at wide receiver, but they need both Landry and Beckham healthy. If both can stay healthy, there is definitely potential here, but there’s a lot of potential downside as well.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Hunt won’t be nearly as involved on the ground, but he did add 179 yards and 2 touchdowns on 43 carries (4.16 YPC) in 8 games last season. In addition to his pass catching ability, he’s also plenty proven as a lead back, averaging 4.75 yards per carry with 15 touchdowns on 453 carries in 27 games in the first 2 seasons of his career, after being drafted in the third round by the Chiefs in 2017. Hunt looked like he was going to be one of the best running backs in the league for years to come, but his career was put on hold when he was suspended indefinitely following a video release of a domestic violence arrest. Between the 5 games he didn’t play in 2018 after the Chiefs released him and the 8 game suspension he was given by the league after the Browns signed him last off-season, Hunt missed close to a full year, but is still only going into his age 26 season and, if he can stay out of trouble, he could give the Browns arguably the best running back duo in the NFL.

The other half of that duo is lead back Nick Chubb, a workhorse who has averaged 18.3 carries per game in 26 career starts. The 35th overall pick in 2018, Chubb somehow was only given 16 carries in the first 6 games of his career (despite a 10.81 YPC average) and the Browns front office actually had to trade veteran Carlos Hyde just to get Hue Jackson to make Chubb the starter, but, once he did, Chubb never looked back and has rushed for a 4.88 YPC and 14 touchdowns on 474 carries in 26 games since. He’s also done this despite an underwhelming offensive line in front of him and has averaged a ridiculous 4.04 yards per carry after contact in his career. Chubb is still only going into his age 25 season and it’s scary to think what he could do running behind easily the best offensive line of his career. 

The Browns obviously are going to want to get Hunt involved as a runner as well, but Chubb’s talent and durability make him tough to take off the field and they can give Hunt plenty of passing game work to make up for his lack of carries because Chubb (5.47 yards per target on 78 career targets) is not particularly useful on passing downs. Hunt’s return from suspension last season barely affected Chubb’s workload (154 carries in the first 8 games of the season compared to 144 in the final 8 games of the season) and there will be plenty of carries to go around on what should be a run heavier offense. Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked running back in each of his first 2 seasons in the league, despite his underwhelming play on passing downs, Chubb has a good shot to lead the league in rushing in 2020, especially if the Browns are winning games and playing with leads. He and Hunt are arguably the top running back duo in the NFL.

Grade: A

Edge Defenders

As I mentioned, this defense fell apart in the second half of the season without defensive ends Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon. When on the field, Garrett and Vernon finished as Pro Football Focus’ 12th and 21st ranked edge defenders on 544 snaps and 508 snaps respectively and combined for 13.5 sacks, 16 hits, and a 14.3% pressure rate. Without them, the Browns had arguably the thinnest edge defender group in the NFL. It was especially disappointing because the Browns used high draft picks on edge defenders like Emmanuel Ogbah and Carl Nassib who developed into productive players elsewhere after the Browns got rid of them for next to no return.

In their absence, the Browns had to turn to a trio of Chad Thomas, Bryan Cox, and Porter Gustin at defensive end and they combined for just 5.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a pathetic 7.4% pressure rate. Gustin flashed against the run in limited action, but all three earned below average pass rush grades from PFF. Thomas in particular struggled, finishing last season as PFF’s 115th ranked edge defender out of 118 qualifiers on 464 snaps. It’s unsurprising the Browns were unable to stop some of the most underwhelming offenses in the league down the stretch last season, given their lack of pass rush.

Myles Garrett should return to full form, as his time missed was suspension related rather than injury related. As well as Garrett has played since being drafted by the Browns 1st overall in 2017, he’s played with a reckless streak that has led to him being penalized 27 times in 37 career games and he let that get out of control when he assaulted Steelers’ quarterback Mason Rudolph with his own helmet, costing Garrett the final 6 games of the season. Garrett has also totaled 30.5 sacks, 36 hits, and a 12.5% pressure rate in his career, while finishing in the top-25 among edge defenders on PFF in all 3 seasons, including back-to-back seasons in the top-13. His overall grades have been hurt by his penalties, but if he can play more under control in 2020, he still has Defensive Player of the Year type upside, still only 25 in December.

Vernon’s return I’m less sure about, as he’s going into his age 30 season and now has missed 15 games in the past 3 seasons combined. Vernon has finished in the top-32 among edge defenders on PFF in 5 straight seasons, totaling 33.5 sacks, 77 hits, and a 12.7% pressure rate in 65 games over that stretch, but durability is becoming a significant concern for him and his best days could easily be behind him at this point. Having him back healthy will undoubtedly help this team, but he might not play at quite the same level he’s used to and he’s becoming close to a guarantee to miss at least some time with injury, not topping 12 games in a season since 2016.

The Browns signed ex-Falcon Adrian Clayborn in free agency to upgrade their depth. Clayborn has played just 26.1 snaps per game over the past two seasons and doesn’t contribute at all against the run and he’s now going into his age 32 season, but he also has a 13.9% pressure rate over the past 3 seasons, so he could still be effective in a situational role. Chad Thomas will also likely still have a role as a reserve and, while he struggled mightily in the first significant action of his career in 2019, the 2018 3rd round pick theoretically has some untapped upside and it would be hard for him to be worse in 2020. Depth is still somewhat suspect, but if Garrett and Vernon can stay on the field together all year, this is a strong group.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

The Browns also added depth inside at defensive tackle this off-season, using a 3rd round pick on Missouri’s Jordan Elliott and signing ex-Bengal Andrew Billings to a one-year, 3.5 million dollar deal. Both were great values. Elliott went 88th overall, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked player in the draft class and he could make an immediate impact as a rotational player. Billings, meanwhile, is a 2016 4th round pick who has developed into a solid player over the past 2 seasons, earning above average grades from PFF on 632 snaps and 657 snaps respectively. The big 6-1 325 pounder is best against the run, but has also added 3.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 7.4% pressure rate over the past 2 seasons combined. He also is still only going into his age 25 season, so he could keep getting better.

Elliott and Billings will compete with incumbent starter Larry Ogunjobi for the starting job, although, regardless of who is nominally the starter, all three figure to rotate heavily. Ogunjobi has averaged 55.1 snaps per game over the past 2 seasons, but has mostly been a snap eater and hasn’t made much of an impact. He played better on 300 snaps as a rookie in 2017 and the former 3rd round pick is still only going into his age 26 season and has plenty of upside, so he could have a strong year as a rotational player. Regardless of how the snaps are broken out, the Browns obviously have much better depth than last year when players like Chris Smith (144 snaps), Daniel Ekuale (114 snaps), Devaroe Lawrence (222 snaps), and Eli Ankou (178 snaps) were the primary reserves and struggled mightily.

Sheldon Richardson is the only every down player at the position and should play a similar amount as last season, when he played 774 snaps in 16 games. Richardson was one of the prizes of the Browns’ off-season last year and lived up to the 3-year, 37 million dollar deal the Browns gave him in free agency, finishing as PFF’s 27th ranked interior defender, his 7th straight season in as many seasons in the league with an average or better grade on PFF and his 4th season in the top-27 at his position. His age is a minor concern as he turns 30 this season, but he should remain a solid every down player for at least another couple seasons. This is a much deeper position than last season.

Grade: B

Linebackers

Linebacker was also a position of weakness for this defense last season, especially after every down linebacker Christian Kirksey went down for the season week 2. In his absence, 5th round rookie Mack Wilson was forced into significant action (942 snaps) and proved to be totally overmatched, finishing 93rd out of 100 qualifying off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus. He was a big part of the Browns’ defensive struggles last season. 

Despite that, the Browns released Kirksey and his 8.75 million dollar non-guaranteed salary this off-season and allowed free agent Joe Schobert, an every down player who was far and away the Browns’ top off ball linebacker last season, to sign a 5-year, 53.75 million dollar deal with the Jaguars this off-season. Kirksey also signed a sizable deal, getting snatched up by the Packers on a 2-year, 12 million just a few days after he was released. The Browns had the cap space to keep one or both of those veterans this season, so they seem to be purposefully embracing a youth movement at the position, which could prove to be a mistake.

Wilson figures to remain an every down player and will likely take over Schobert’s role as the leader of this group. It’s possible he’s better in his 2nd season in the league, but there’s a reason the league let him fall to the 5th round, so he’s not necessarily a guarantee to improve. The Browns also drafted a linebacker in the 3rd round of the 2019 NFL Draft, Sione Takitaki, who also figures to have a significant role this season, though it’s concerning he was barely able to get on the field as a rookie (105 snaps) at a thin position group. His draft classmate Mack Wilson seems to be ahead of him despite being drafted later and struggling thus far in his career. The Browns also added another young linebacker in the 3rd round of this year’s draft, LSU’s Jacob Phillips, who will compete for a role.

Free agent acquisition BJ Goodson is the relative veteran of the group, though he’s only going into his 5th season in the league. Goodson is a solid run stuffer, but has struggled mightily in coverage throughout his career and has never topped 513 snaps in a season as a result. Even in a thin linebacking corps, I don’t expect that to change in 2020, as Goodson figures to be primarily a base package player. Merely because he’s had some success against the run in the past, Goodson is the most proven linebacker in one of the worst linebacker groups in the NFL.

Grade: C-

Secondary

The secondary was also a problem for stretches of last season, primarily due to injury. Cornerbacks Denzel Ward, Greedy Williams, and TJ Carrie and safeties Damarious Randall and Morgan Burnett were supposed to be their top-5 defensive backs last season, but none of them played all 16 games. Ward and Williams were limited to 12 games each, while Carrie missed 1 game. Randall and Burnett were limited to 11 games and 8 games respectively. The Browns should be healthier in the secondary this season, just due to random variance.

The Browns have almost completely new faces at safety though. Morgan Burnett was released after a torn achilles and Randall was signed by the Raiders this off-season and their injury replacements Jermaine Whitehead and Juston Burris are elsewhere now as well. Only Sheldrick Redwine, who played 374 nondescript snaps as a 4th round rookie last season, remains from last year’s safety group, so this is a completely rebuilt group. The Browns didn’t make any splash additions, but they signed experienced veterans Karl Joseph and Andrew Sendejo in free agency and used a 2nd round pick on LSU’s Grant Delpit. Those 3 will compete with Redwine for playing time and the two starting jobs.

Joseph could prove to be a big value signing on a 1-year, 2.5 million dollar deal. A first round pick by the Raiders in 2016, Joseph was a solid starter in 24 starts in his first 2 seasons in the league, but he fell out of favor with the coaching staff when Jon Gruden took over. He’s been limited to just 17 starts over the past 2 seasons and had his 5th year option for 2020 declined, even though it would have guaranteed him just 6.466 million for injury. 

Joseph continued his solid play in more limited action over the past 2 seasons, so it’s surprising he wasn’t more highly valued on the open market, given that he’s a former first round pick with 41 career starts who is only going into his age 27 season, although a foot injury that ended his 2019 season after 9 games likely complicated his market. He should at least be a snap eater for this team, but he has the upside to be more. I like his chances of winning one of the two starting jobs.

Sendejo is even more experienced, starting 61 games in 10 seasons in the league, but he’s going into his age 33 season and has played just 710 snaps over the past 2 seasons, so he’s likely to be a reserve. Redwine could develop into a starter long-term, but the Browns figure to try to get Delpit onto the field sooner rather than later, given that they used the 44th overall pick on him, so I’d consider him the favorite to start for at least most of the season, even if he begins the season on the bench. It’s possible all four players see snaps at an unsettled position.

The Browns also got rid of #3 cornerback TJ Carrie this off-season. Carrie was Pro Football Focus’ 100th ranked cornerback out of 135 qualifying on 676 snaps last season, but Kevin Johnson, signed in free agency as his replacement, has had significant injury problems in his career. In total, Johnson has played in just 51 of a possible 80 games (19 starts) in his career and, while he played in all 16 games last season, it’s important to note he played just 335 snaps total as a reserve cornerback and that he hasn’t topped 579 snaps in a season since his rookie season in 2015. 

Johnson played pretty well last season when in the lineup, as he has for most of his career when healthy, and he’s a former 16th overall pick in just age 28 season, so he’s a worthwhile flyer who certainly has the potential to be an upgrade on Carrie, but he’s hard to rely on as your 3rd cornerback. His only real competition for the job is veteran Terrance Mitchell, who has made just 22 starts in 7 seasons in the league. Mitchell is a solid depth cornerback, but has topped 445 snaps in a season just once in his career and is best as a 4th cornerback. 

Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams remain as the outside cornerbacks. They finished just 37th and 108th out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF last season, but they have the potential to be a lot better in 2020. Ward was the 4th overall pick in 2018 and lived up to it as a rookie, finishing as PFF’s 15th ranked cornerback. He had a down year in an injury plagued 2019 season, but still played relatively well all things considered and, only going into his age 23 season, Ward has obvious bounce back potential and could develop into one of the best cornerbacks in the league for years to come. Williams is also young, going 46th overall in 2019 and not turning 23 until December, so he could easily take a step forward in his second season in the league. This should be an improved unit in 2020 simply by being healthier.

Grade: B

Conclusion

In 2019, the Browns disappointed because of their coaching, quarterback play, offensive line play, and depth when injuries hit. Whether or not first year head coach Kevin Stefanski is up for the job and whether or not Baker Mayfield can bounce back in his third season in the league are both up in the air and, while the Browns should have better depth in some spots this season, they still have some obvious weak spots, particularly on defense, and they can’t necessarily count on better injury luck, after having the 7th fewest adjusted games lost to injury in 2019. That doesn’t include Myles Garrett’s suspension, but all things considered, the Browns didn’t have an unreasonable about of absences last season.

The one thing that is drastically improved for the Browns between 2019 and 2020 is their offensive line, especially at both tackle positions. Between that and some improved depth in some areas, the Browns should be better equipped this season than last season. They could also benefit from lesser expectations in 2020. It’s going to take a lot to catch Baltimore atop the division, but the Browns should at least compete for one of the three wild card spots in the expanded post-season format and they have the upside to be a real threat if certain players progress, particularly Mayfield. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 76.26

Defensive Score: 72.47

Total Score: 74.37 (3rd in AFC North)

Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

Cleveland Browns (6-9) at Cincinnati Bengals (1-14)

The Bengals have just one win this season, but they’ve been much more competitive than their record suggests. Of their losses, 8 of them have come by one score or less and they rank 26th in the NFL in first down rate differential at -3.98%, which obviously isn’t great, but far from the worst in the league. They’ve been killed by turnovers, tied with the Chargers for the worst turnover margin in the league at -16, but turnovers are highly unpredictable on a week-to-week basis, so the Bengals aren’t necessarily going to lose the turnover battle in this matchup just because they’ve struggled with them all season.

The Bengals have also played better in recent weeks since getting left tackle Cordy Glenn back from injury and switching back to veteran quarterback Andy Dalton, rather than hapless rookie Ryan Finley. Over the past 4 weeks, the Bengals actually have a positive first down rate differential at +1.19%. The Browns, meanwhile, have gone in the opposite direction, as their defense has completely fallen off since losing stud defensive ends Olivier Vernon and Myles Garrett. Over the past 4 games, the Browns rank 29th in the NFL with a -7.76% first down rate differential, primarily due to a defense that ranks dead last in the NFL with a 44.36% first down rate allowed over that stretch.  

Even though the Bengals have been the better team in recent weeks, this line still favors the Browns by a field goal on the road. The Browns won their matchup against the Bengals a few weeks ago, but that Bengals actually won the first down rate in that game by 2.35%, with the 8-point game largely swinging on a long interception return touchdown by the Browns. That first matchup was in Cleveland and, now back home Cincinnati, the Bengals have a great chance to win outright. Getting field goal protection is just a bonus. This is my Pick of the Week.

Cincinnati Bengals 24 Cleveland Browns 20 Upset Pick +135

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +3

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Baltimore Ravens at Cleveland Browns: 2019 Week 16 NFL Pick

Baltimore Ravens (12-2) at Cleveland Browns (6-8)

When these two division rivals met back in week 4, the Browns won somewhat easily by a final score of 40-25, resulting in both teams being 2-2 after 4 games. At the time, it looked like a sign of things to come, as the Browns were the pre-season favorite to win the division. However, while the Browns have fallen to 6-8 and out of the playoff race entirely, the Ravens haven’t lost since that first matchup against the Browns way back in week 4.

I would expect this matchup to be much more similar to how these teams have played in the past 10 games than how they played in week 4. While the Browns rank just 23rd in first down rate differential on the season at -2.31% and are the without talented defensive end duo of Myles Garrett (suspension) and Olivier Vernon (injury), the Ravens have completely reinvented their defense since the start of the season and are the most complete team in football. They have added cornerback Marcus Peters and middle linebacker Josh Bynes, have gotten breakout play from edge defender Tyus Bowser and safety Chuck Clark, and have gotten cornerback Jimmy Smith back from injury.

Peters was their most important addition and since adding him in week 7, the Ravens rank 2nd in first down rate allowed at 30.18%, after ranking 24th in first down rate differential through the first 6 games of the season at 37.95%. Lamar Jackson and this offense gets by far the most attention on this team, but they’ve been a dominant unit the whole season, ranking 5th in first down rate through the first 6 games of the season at 40.68% and 1st in the past 8 games at 43.30%. The defensive improvement is the reason why this team now looks unbeatable. Since week 7, the Ravens have a ridiculous +13.11% first down rate differential, which is best in the NFL by a wide margin (the second ranked team is at +5.32%).

With the Ravens playing as well as they are and the Browns treading water at best, I have this line calculated at Baltimore -11. The Browns have recognizable stars on both sides of the ball, but are a top heavy roster with poor depth, so they might still be a little overrated, even with the way their season has gone. Some think that their previous victory over the Ravens is proof that they are the Ravens’ Achilles heel, but these are not the same teams as the last time and history suggests the Ravens actually have a better chance of covering this spread because they lost the previous matchup. Divisional road favorites of 3+ are 39-27 ATS since 1989 in a same season, regular season rematch against a team that beat them previously as home favorites. There’s not enough here to for the Ravens to be worth betting, but I like them for pick ‘em purposes.

Baltimore Ravens 33 Cleveland Browns 20

Pick against the spread: Baltimore -10

Confidence: Low

Cleveland Browns at Arizona Cardinals: 2019 Week 15 NFL Pick

Cleveland Browns (6-7) at Arizona Cardinals (3-9-1)

Expected to be a contender in the AFC this year, the Browns have been massively disappointing, entering this game at 6-7 with little chance of getting into the post-season. Despite their underwhelming record, I think they’re still a little overrated. People look at their roster and see the big name stars, but they are a very top heavy roster with minimal talent beyond their stars and little depth at the bottom of their roster. Now without star defensive ends Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon, the Browns have arguably the worst defensive line in football, giving significant snaps at defensive end to bottom of the roster type players. I have them just 22nd overall in my roster rankings without those two players.

The Browns are also in an awful spot this week, flying across the country to play a last place non-conference opponent with a huge home game against the Ravens on deck. With their season essentially over, I don’t expect the Browns’ best effort at all this week, especially with how undisciplined and poorly coached they are. Road favorites are 44-75 ATS since 2008 before being home underdogs, including just 4-16 ATS as road favorites of 3+ before being home underdogs of 4+ (the early line has Cleveland +7 next week). 

Unfortunately, it’s hard to justify a big bet on the Cardinals this week as they’ve been pretty terrible this season. First overall pick Kyler Murray has been promising and could easily develop into a franchise quarterback long-term, but he’s not good enough right now to elevate this team by himself and outside of him their roster isn’t that much better than it was last season when they finished with the worst record in the NFL at 3-13. The Cardinals rank just 29th in first down rate differential at -6.40% and 26th in point differential at -102, and their only three wins have come by a combined 10 points against teams that are a combined 7-32 on the season. They still have a good shot to catch the Browns off guard in a tough spot and I like getting the field goal protection with them at home, but I wouldn’t go crazy with this bet because the Browns would be the best team the Cardinals have beaten this season.

Arizona Cardinals 24 Cleveland Browns 23 Upset Pick +135

Pick against the spread: Arizona +3

Confidence: Medium

Cincinnati Bengals at Cleveland Browns: 2019 Week 14 NFL Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (1-11) at Cleveland Browns (5-7)

The Browns’ season might have ended last week, with their loss in Pittsburgh dropping them to 5-7 on the year. A tough schedule has been part of the problem, as they have the highest opponents winning percentage in the NFL at 62%, but this team has also been overrated from the start because they lack depth on the roster beyond their stars. Running back Nick Chubb, wide receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, left guard Joel Bitonio, center JC Tretter, defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, defensive ends Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon, linebacker Joe Schobert, and cornerback Denzel Ward are all among the best in the league at their respective positions, but this is a very top heavy roster.

With linebacker Christian Kirksey out for the season, the Browns have gotten horrible play from their linebackers other than Schobert. Their defensive line depth is horrendous and now with Myles Garrett suspended and Olivier Vernon hurt they arguably have the worst defensive line in the NFL. Things aren’t much better on the offensive line, where they’ve had problems everywhere except left guard and center. Kareem Hunt has given them a third weapon in the passing game since returning from suspension and they’re expected to get tight end David Njoku back from injury this week as well, but they’re also without starting safety Morgan Burnett for the season on the other side of the ball, which is a big loss. All in all, I have the Browns ranked just 23rd in my roster rankings without Garrett, Vernon, or Burnett. 

Despite their loss last week, the Browns remain overrated, favored by a touchdown at home against a Bengals team that is better than their record suggests. Of the Bengals’ 11 losses, 6 of them have come by a touchdown or less and that’s despite the fact that they’ve had the 3rd toughest schedule in the NFL (57% opponents winning percentage) and despite the fact that they’ve benched quarterback Andy Dalton for overmatched 4th round rookie Ryan Finley for 3 games. 

On the season, the Bengals rank 27th in first down rate differential at -4.59%, led by a defense that is actually middle of the pack, ranking 16th with a 35.60% first down rate allowed. Their defense has been even better in recent weeks, ranking 8th in first down rate allowed since week 7. Their offense has been a problem, but they’ve been about 3% better in first down rate with Dalton under center vs. Finley and they got left tackle Cordy Glenn back from injury a few weeks ago as well, which is a big help.

I have the Bengals 27th in my roster rankings about a point and a half behind the Browns. My calculated line is Cleveland -4, so we’re getting enough line value with Cincinnati +7 to justify betting on that, even with the Bengals in a tough spot before a home game against the Patriots (teams are 30-58 ATS since 2014 before being 7+ point home underdogs). Even in a tough spot, this should be another close game for the Bengals, who should be focused for a division rival.

Cleveland Browns 20 Cincinnati Bengals 16

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +7

Confidence: Medium

Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers: 2019 Week 13 NFL Pick

Cleveland Browns (5-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5)

A week ago, the Steelers were favored in this game by a field goal on the early line. That line made sense, as the Browns were favored by a field goal in the first matchup between these two teams a couple weeks ago in Cleveland. Three points for homefield advantage is standard, so both of those lines suggested these two teams were about even. However, this line has since shifted all the way to Cleveland -2.5 this week, suggesting a significant difference between these two teams.

I don’t really understand that line movement. The Browns blew out the Dolphins last week in Cleveland, but that’s not all that impressive. The Steelers had an underwhelming performance in Cincinnati, but still managed a 6-point win as 6.5 point favorites. It’s possible this line movement has a lot to do with the Steelers benching Mason Rudolph for Devlin Hodges, but that could ultimately prove to be an upgrade. Although he’s seen very limited action, Hodges has a QB rating 17 points higher than Rudolph so far this season. Over the past 6 weeks, the Steelers have a first down rate of just 28.66%, second worst in the NFL over that span, so it would be hard for Hodges to be a significant downgrade. At the same time, the Steelers have the best defense in the league in terms of first down rate allowed at 29.35% over that time span, so they can definitely win games even without great quarterback play.

In the previous matchup between these two teams, the Browns won 21-7 at home, but that’s primarily because they won the turnover margin by 4 (due to 4 Rudolph interceptions) in a game in which the Browns actually lost the first down rate battle by 0.28%. That’s despite the fact that they had defensive end Myles Garrett in that game and he’ll be a very notable absence (for multiple reasons) from this matchup. The Browns could get fellow defensive end Olivier Vernon back from a 3-game absence, but that’s far from a guarantee, after he was limited in practice all week and he’s not the same caliber player as Garrett. The Browns will also be without both of their starting safeties from the previous matchup, with Morgan Burnett out for the season with a torn Achilles and Damarious Randall listed as out for disciplinary reasons. 

The Steelers won’t have running back James Conner and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, but both of those players barely played in the first matchup and the Steelers still were able to play about even in first down rate on the road. If Hodges can avoid throwing 4 interceptions like Rudolph did, the Steelers have a good chance to win this game at home. I have this line calculated at even, so we’re not getting quite enough line value with the Steelers for them to be worth betting, but if this line moves up to 3 and/or Vernon is ruled out I would reconsider.

Pittsburgh Steelers 17 Cleveland Browns 16 Upset Pick +120

Pick against the spread: Pittsburgh +2.5

Confidence: Low

Miami Dolphins at Cleveland Browns: 2019 Week 12 NFL Pick

Miami Dolphins (2-8) at Cleveland Browns (4-6)

Even though the Browns got off to a 2-6 start, there was some optimism they could go on a second half run and compete for a playoff spot in the weaker AFC. That optimism came from the fact that their schedule, which was one of the toughest in the league in the first half of the season, suddenly became one of the easiest in the league in the second half of the season. The Browns also looked to be trending towards being closer to 100%, with players like cornerback Denzel Ward, safety Damarious Randall, and running back Kareem Hunt returning after missing significant time in the first half of the season.

The Browns’ second half is off to a good start in the win/loss column, as they’ve won a couple of home games against a pair of easier opponents, the Bills and Steelers, to improve to 4-6. However, they’re now very much trending away from being 100%. After losing defensive end Olivier Vernon to injury in the game against the Bills, the Browns lost safety Morgan Burnett to injury in the game against the Steelers and also lost defensive end Myles Garrett and defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi to suspensions of indefinite length and one game respectively, for their roles in the on field brawl with the Steelers at the end of the game. The absences of Vernon and Garrett are the biggest, as not only are they two of the better defensive ends in the league, but the Browns also completely lack depth behind them. 

The good news for the Browns, at least for this week, is that their schedule is about to get even easier, with the Dolphins coming to town. The Dolphins have managed a pair of wins, but they still rank dead last in the NFL in point differential (-166) and first down rate differential (-8.72%), as well as in my roster rankings. They’re better offensively with Ryan Fitzpatrick under center, but they completely lack talent around him on both sides of the ball. Still, it’s a question whether or not the Browns can cover this 10.5-point line. Without Garrett and Vernon, I have the Browns calculated as just 9-point favorites. It’s hard to be confident in the Dolphins at all without a lot of line value, but they’re my pick for pick ‘em purposes.

Cleveland Browns 34 Miami Dolphins 24

Pick against the spread: Miami +10.5

Confidence: None

Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns: 2019 Week 11 NFL Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers (5-4) at Cleveland Browns (3-6)

This is going to be one of my lowest confidence picks of the week. Not only do I not have a strong lean either way, but Thursday games have been tough to predict this season, as I am just 2-7 ATS on Thursday this season, dating back to week 2. The Browns’ 3-6 record is in part the result of a tough schedule (5th highest opponent’s DVOA), but a lot of their losses haven’t been close, as they have an average margin of defeat of 14.67 points per game rank 25th in point differential at -50. 

The Steelers’ 5-4 record is largely the result of a +13 turnover margin, 2nd best in the NFL, and turnover margins are highly unpredictable on a week-to-week basis, but even in first down rate differential the Steelers hold slight edge, ranking 22nd at -2.52%, while the Browns rank 26th at -3.20%. The Steelers haven’t faced a cupcake schedule either, with the 15th highest opponent’s DVOA, and they have a solid +42 point differential since being blown out week 1 by the Patriots. The also hold the slight edge in my roster rankings, ranking 16th, while the Browns rank 21st. 

This line, favoring the Browns at home by 2.5 points, suggests the Steelers are the slightly better team, which is about right. I have this line calculated at Cleveland -1.5, but that’s barely any line value, as only about 4% of games are decided by exactly 2 points. If the Browns had defensive end Olivier Vernon healthy, I’d pick them because that would mean the Browns would be as healthy as they’ve been all season, but he is a big absence, as the Browns lack capable players behind him on the depth chart. The Steelers would be my pick for pick ‘em purposes, but I don’t like either side that much.

Cleveland Browns 19 Pittsburgh Steelers 17

Pick against the spread: Pittsburgh +2.5

Confidence: None

Buffalo Bills at Cleveland Browns: 2019 Week 10 NFL Pick

Buffalo Bills (6-2) at Cleveland Browns (2-6)

These two teams have mirror image records, with the Bills at 6-2 and the Browns at 2-6, but it’s fair to wonder if they’d have a similar record if they played the same schedule. While the Browns have faced the 4th toughest schedule in terms of opponents DVOA, the Bills have faced the second easiest. The combined record of the 6 teams the Bills have defeated (by an average of 8.5 points per game) is 9-42 and they’ve lost both games they’ve played against teams with a winning record. The Browns, despite having 4 fewer wins than the Bills, are the only team in this matchup that has defeated a winning team, beating the now 6-2 Ravens 40-25 in Baltimore back in week 4. The Browns’ 6 losses have come against teams that are a combined 34-17.

Unfortunately, we still aren’t getting any line value with the Browns, who are favored by 2.5 points here at home over the Bills. I still have the Bills slightly higher in my roster rankings right now, especially with the Browns missing talented defensive end Olivier Vernon. The Browns are also on a tight turnaround with another game against the Steelers on deck 4 days after this game (favorites cover at a 45% rate all-time before Thursday Night Football), and though I do expect them to be focused, having lost 4 straight, the Bills are in a great spot, with only a trip to Miami on deck (underdogs are 57-36 ATS since 2002 before being road favorites of 4.5+). I have this line calculated at even and, while there’s not enough here to bet the Bills confidently at +2.5, I do like the money line at +120 in a game that should be a toss up. If this line moves up to 3, I might consider a bet on the Bills against the spread as well.

Update: +3s are showing up Sunday morning. If you can get that line, the Bills are worth a bet.

Buffalo Bills 20 Cleveland Browns 19 Upset Pick +120

Pick against the spread: Buffalo +3

Confidence: Medium

Cleveland Browns at Denver Broncos: 2019 Week 9 NFL Pick

Cleveland Browns (2-5) at Denver Broncos (2-6)

Broncos quarterback Joe Flacco is done for the season with a neck injury and, with expected backup Drew Lock still working back from off-season thumb surgery, the Broncos will instead turn to Brandon Allen, a 2016 6th round pick who has never thrown a regular season pass across stints with 3 teams: the Jaguars, Rams, and Broncos. As a result, this line that opened at Denver -1.5 has now moved all the way to Denver +4.

It’s always risky to bet on a quarterback with no regular season experience, but it’s hard to justify a 5.5-point shift like that given the way Joe Flacco has played this season, especially in recent weeks. This offense has problems beyond Flacco, especially with Emmanuel Sanders now with the 49ers and right tackle Ja’Wuan James again injured, but they’ve ranked just 29th in first down rate this season at 31.54%, so Allen is unlikely to be a significant downgrade. And given the way we’ve seen some inexperienced backup quarterbacks come out and play well in their first few starts this season, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Allen actually ended up being a little bit of an upgrade under center for a few games.

Even with their offensive struggles, the Broncos have ranked 17th in first down rate differential this season at -0.41%, as a result of a dominant defense that ranks 4th in first down rate differential. An already talented unit last season, they have been taken to the next level in 2019 by defensive minded head coach Vic Fangio and free agent acquisition Kareem Jackson, who has been one of the best defensive backs in the league this season. The Broncos are just 2-6, but three of their losses came on last second field goals, so they aren’t far away from being a 4-5 win team right now. 

The Browns, meanwhile, rank 25th in first down rate differential at -3.70% and have had below average play on both sides of the ball, ranking 25th in first down rate and 20th in first down rate allowed. They’ve had one of the toughest schedules in the NFL, but the Broncos haven’t had a cakewalk schedule either. This line suggests the Browns would be favored by about 10 points if this game was in Cleveland, so I think it’s way too high. I have the line calculated at Denver -1, even with the uncertainty of Allen under center. There’s too much risk here for this to be a big bet, but the Broncos are worth a play this week.

Cleveland Browns 17 Denver Broncos 16

Pick against the spread: Denver +4

Confidence: Medium