Cleveland Browns at Houston Texans: 2017 Week 6 NFL Pick

Cleveland Browns (0-5) at Houston Texans (2-3)

The Browns are 0-5 and tied for the 2nd worst turnover margin in the league at -7. Fortunately for them, turnover margins tend to be very inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. For example, the Browns were -2 against the Jets last week and teams that post a -2 turnover margin, on average, have a turnover margin of -0.1 the following week. If you look at other numbers as well, there’s really no week-to-week correlation between turnover margins. That’s great news for a team that has actually moved the ball pretty well this season when they aren’t turning the ball over.

The Browns rank 25th in first down rate differential, which isn’t great, but it’s better than their record suggests and their -2.34% mark is not terrible. They have 8 more first downs than they’ve allowed (103 vs. 95) and they rank 15th in first down rate at 34.45%, above the league average. They haven’t won a game, but they’ve won the first down margin between in 3 of 5 games, including last week’s 17-14 home loss to the Jets, a game in which the Browns had 3 drives down inside the Jets’ 5-yard line that did not result in points (interception, fumble, failed 4th down conversion) and missed 2 field goals (39-yard and 52-yard). The Browns lost by 3 despite winning the first down battle 22-14.

Not only are turnover margins inconsistent on a week-to-week basis, but the Browns also made a smart, proactive decision to improve their turnover margin by benching quarterback DeShone Kizer, who has been responsible for 11 of the Browns’ 13 turnovers, despite playing just 81.1% of the team’s offensive snaps. In addition to the turnovers, Kizer was completing just 50.9% of his passes for an average of 5.35 YPA. The 2nd round rookie was a disaster in 5 starts and will be replaced by 2016 5th round pick Kevin Hogan, who has significantly outplayed him in limited action this season, completing 68.9% of his passes for 9.92 YPA, 3 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. Hogan might not be great in his first career start, but going with him instead of Kizer increases their likelihood of winning this game.

Their big mistake might have been not going to Hogan sooner, as the Browns’ schedule has been pretty easy so far (Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, NY Jets) and gets harder going forward. They get lucky this week though, as they head to Houston to face a Texans team that just lost their two best defensive players, defensive end JJ Watt and outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus, for the season with injuries. The Texans’ offense is improved with rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson under center and 2nd year wide receiver Will Fuller playing well since his return from a broken collarbone, but they still have major problems on the offensive line and now have major problems on defense too.

They shouldn’t be favored by double digits against anyone. This line was -8.5 a week ago on the early line, but moved to 10 despite the losses of Watt and Mercilus because people are overreacting to the Browns’ loss to the Jets, a game the Browns likely would have won if they had played Hogan all game. The one concern with taking the Browns is that the Texans are going into a bye and teams are 65-24 ATS as 6+ point home favorites before a bye since 2002, but the Texans shouldn’t be favored by this many points and will have a very hard time covering as 10 point favorites without Watt and Mercilus. I have this line calculated at -5.5 in favor of the Texans, so we’re getting a ton of line value with the visitors. This is my Pick of the Week.

Houston Texans 23 Cleveland Browns 17

Pick against the spread: Cleveland +10

Confidence: Pick of the Week

New York Jets at Cleveland Browns: 2017 Week 5 NFL Pick

New York Jets (2-2) at Cleveland Browns (0-4)

Going into the season, the Jets were seen as one of the worst teams in recent memory and a legitimate candidate to go 0-16, after completely gutting their roster this off-season. However, they’ve managed to win two games in a row, so the general public is starting to think they might not be so bad. The Browns were favored by 4 in this game on the early line last week, but now this line is even, which is a significant line movement given that about 30% of games are decided by 4 points or less. That’s partially because the Browns got blown out by the Bengals, but I think the public is overrating the Jets because of their record.

I still have them ranked dead last in my roster rankings, especially given that they’re missing talented edge defender Kony Ealy with injury. Their first win came at home against the Dolphins, who are one of the worst teams in the league and who was playing in London the following week, and their second win came in overtime at home against the Jaguars, a middling team at best who had just returned from London. Despite the easy schedule and the two wins, they still rank just 28th in first down rate differential. Their defense has been middle of the pack, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 34.34% rate, but their offense has been horrendous, only picking up first downs at a 29.11% rate. On paper, this is still arguably the least talented team in the league, so it shouldn’t be a surprise if they ultimately end up with only 3-5 wins when all is said and done.

They get another easy game this week, but they have to travel to Cleveland after spending the last two games at home and they’ve looked pretty bad on the road thus far. As bad as the Browns are, I still have them one point better than the Jets, so I have this line at -4, which is where the line was before the significant line movement. I love fading significant week-to-week line movements as they tend to be an overreaction to a single week of play. The Jets are also in a tough spot with a huge home game against the Patriots on deck. Teams are 20-43 ATS since 2012 before being home underdogs of 7 or more and the Jets are underdogs of 9.5 on the early line. There’s enough line value here for me to make a small bet on the Browns, but it’s hard to be too confident in them right now, even if all they have to do is win at home against a terrible team.

Sunday Update: This line has jumped to Cleveland +2 and the money line is now worth a play at +110.

Cleveland Browns 24 New York Jets 20 Upset Pick +110

Pick against the spread: Cleveland +2

Confidence: Medium

Cincinnati Bengals at Cleveland Browns: 2017 Week 4 NFL Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (0-3) at Cleveland Browns (0-3)

After not scoring a touchdown in either of their first 2 games, the Bengals nearly beat the Packers in Green Bay last week, taking a 21-7 lead early before eventually losing in overtime. The Browns, meanwhile, blew their first opportunity to be road favorites since 2007, losing 31-28 in Indianapolis in a game in which they got down 28-7 early. As a result, this line has shifted from 1.5 in favor of the visiting Bengals on the early line to 3 this week.

Ordinarily, I like to go against significant line movements like that, but I think this line is about right. The Bengals’ offense is better than it looked when they were held without a touchdown by 2 of the better defenses in the league (Baltimore and Houston) and they now have a new playcaller with Ken Zampese getting relieved of his duties after week 2. Green Bay was missing several key players in that near loss, but the Bengals should still be pleased with their progress, as taking the Packers to overtime in Lambeau is not easy feat as long as Aaron Rodgers in healthy. They’ll have offensive issues all year because of their offensive line, but they have an underrated defense and they’re definitely better than their record suggests.

The Browns, meanwhile, have major issues, as they are missing arguably their three best front 7 players with injuries. Linebacker Jamie Collins will miss his 2nd straight game. Defensive end Myles Garrett will miss his 4th straight game. And defensive tackle Danny Shelton will join them on the sideline for the first time. Without those three, the Browns have arguably the worst defense in the entire league. I have these two teams about 6 points apart in my roster rankings, so this line is about right. I’m taking the Browns for one reason only and that’s because the public is betting heavily on Cincinnati, but this is maybe my lowest confidence pick of the week. A push seems like a good possibility as well, as about 1 in 6 games are decided by exactly a field goal.

Cincinnati Bengals 20 Cleveland Browns 17

Pick against the spread: Cleveland +3

Confidence: None

Cleveland Browns at Indianapolis Colts: 2017 Week 3 NFL Pick

Cleveland Browns (0-2) at Indianapolis Colts (0-2)

The Colts have been one of the worst teams in the league this season, but injuries are the major reason why. Obviously the injury to Andrew Luck is the big one, but they’re also missing top cornerback Vontae Davis, talented hybrid safety/linebacker Clayton Geathers, and starting center Ryan Kelly. The Browns enter this game with significant injuries too though, and unlike the Colts, they are not that good even when healthy.

Rookie defensive end Myles Garrett, the #1 overall pick in the draft, remains out with a high ankle sprain and will be joined on the sideline this week by linebacker Jamie Collins, who has a concussion. Those are arguably their two best defensive players, from a defense that wasn’t good to begin with. The Colts are significantly better with Jacoby Brissett under center than Scott Tolzien and could move the ball pretty easily in this one.

The Browns could also move the ball against Indianapolis’ weak defense, but these two teams are about even and this line suggests that the Browns are a whopping 4.5 points better than the Colts. With Cleveland now missing Collins, I actually have the Colts one spot better in my roster rankings, so we’re getting good value with the Colts as home underdogs here. The Colts are also in a better spot as home underdogs tend to cover off of a loss as home underdogs, going 75-57 ATS in that spot since 2002. The Browns, meanwhile, host the Bengals next week in a game in which they are expected to be home underdogs and road favorites are 52-73 ATS since 2002 before being home underdogs. The Colts should win this outright by a field goal or more.

Indianapolis Colts 23 Cleveland Browns 20 Upset Pick +105

Pick against the spread: Indianapolis +1.5

Confidence: Medium

Cleveland Browns at Baltimore Ravens: 2017 Week 2 NFL Pick

Cleveland Browns (0-1) at Baltimore Ravens (1-0)

Coming into the season, I had the Ravens winning just 6 games. They pulled the week 1 upset in Cincinnati last week, shutting out the Bengals in a 20-0 victory, but the Bengals are having major offensive problems after losing their top-2 offensive linemen in free agency, not scoring a single touchdown so far through 2 games (including this week’s Thursday night game). The Ravens have a strong secondary, but are very inexperienced in the front 7, with first-time starters at 4 of 7 spots, so I don’t expect them to be that dominant defensively all season.

That will expose their offense, which has been weak over the past couple seasons and is arguably as weak as it’s ever been right now, thanks to free agent departures and injuries. They’ve lost 3 starting offensive linemen (Alex Lewis, Jeremy Zuttah, Ricky Wagner), 2 of their top-3 receivers (Steve Smith, Dennis Pitta), and their most promising running back (Kenneth Dixon) from last season. They added veterans like Jeremy Maclin, Austin Howard, and Danny Woodhead to plug holes in free agency, but none of those players are spectacular and Woodhead is already out for an extended period of time with injury. Injuries have seriously thinned depth on both sides of the ball for the Ravens, as they now have a league-high 12 players on injured reserve.

Despite that, they’re favored by more than a touchdown (7.5) here at home against the Browns. That’s not just because the Ravens are an overrated team, but also because the general public still thinks the Browns are as bad as they were last season. They’re far from a playoff team, but I think they’re noticeably improved on both sides of the ball from a year ago and aren’t that much less talented than the Ravens. They’ve drastically improved their offensive line and have taken a big step forward defensively, even if they still have issues on that side of the ball. We’re getting great value with the visitors here.

The Ravens don’t really blow teams out anyway because they tend to play low scoring games. They have just 3 wins by more than a touchdown over the past 2+ seasons. One of those wins came last season in Baltimore against the Browns, but these two teams are not the same as the last time they met. The Ravens are also in a tough spot having to travel to London to play the Jaguars next week. Teams are 10-20 ATS all-time before having to fly over to London for the week, which makes sense considering how taxing London trips can be for team’s schedules (hence why teams usually go on bye afterwards). The Browns have a very good chance to keep this one close throughout and have an outside shot at winning outright. This is one of my favorite plays of the week.

Baltimore Ravens 16 Cleveland Browns 13

Pick against the spread: Cleveland +7.5

Confidence: High

Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns: 2017 Week 1 NFL Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers (0-0) at Cleveland Browns (0-0)

This is one of the games where I just don’t have a strong lean either way. The Steelers are arguably the most complete team in the NFL, while the Browns are one of the worst, but this line is right about where it’s supposed to be at 9.5. I thought about going against the Steelers, who are a heavy public favorite despite not travelling well last season, but the Steelers always play well in Cleveland with Ben Roethlisberger (10-2 straight up, 7-4-1 ATS) and I think they’re the right side in pick ‘em leagues as long as the line is less than 10.

Pittsburgh Steelers 30 Cleveland Browns 20

Pick against the spread: Pittsburgh -9.5

Confidence: None

Cleveland Browns 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Browns were in full rebuild mode in 2016. Tired of always hanging around 5-11, the Browns got rid of pretty much any veteran who was making any significant amount of money last off-season, with the goal of letting young players play, rolling over a significant amount of cap space to the 2017 off-season, and picking up a high draft pick. The Browns went 1-15 in 2016, but ended up with the #1 overall pick and entered this off-season with the most cap space in the league, upwards of 100 million. There was nowhere to go but up and they had the ammunition to significantly improve their roster. It’s the same approach taken by the Oakland Raiders, who rebuilt in a hurry, winning 12 games last season after winning just 11 games combined from 2012-2014. It’s not always a successful approach, but it’s the right process for a rebuild.

The big key for the Raiders was finding a franchise quarterback in the draft in Derek Carr, a 2nd round pick in 2014. The Browns also used a 2nd round pick on a quarterback this season, taking Notre Dame’s Deshone Kizer 52nd overall. Unfortunately, most second round picks do not turn into Derek Carr and, unlike Carr, Kizer is nowhere near NFL ready. Kizer has all the tools, but struggles with his mechanics and reportedly did not interview well, coming off conceited and lazy. He’s only 21 and could develop into a franchise quarterback long-term if he’s mature enough to put in the work, but he’s likely to struggle if he has to play as a rookie.

Unfortunately, the Browns don’t have a great other option, so Kizer is likely to make starts at some point this season. Cody Kessler, a 2016 3rd round pick who made 8 starts as a rookie, seems to be the favorite to start week 1. Kessler isn’t much older than Kizer, going into his age 24 season, but doesn’t nearly have Kizer’s arm strength or upside. He also holds the ball too long, takes too many sacks, and isn’t durable, getting knocked out of the game in 3 of his 8 starts last season. He was also benched once, so he really only started and finished 4 games. His numbers weren’t bad, as he completed 65.6% of his passes for an average of 7.08 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, and he finished 22nd among 34th eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, which isn’t terrible, but he’s an underwhelming starting option and seems best suited to be a backup long-term.

The Browns also used some of their cap space on the quarterback position this off-season, though not in a traditional way. In the type of trade that only happens in sports where players have fully guaranteed contracts, the Browns acquired Brock Osweiler, a 2017 6th round pick, and a 2018 2nd round pick from the Texans for a 2017 4th round pick, essentially buying a 2nd round pick. Osweiler was going into just the 2nd year of a 4-year, 72 million dollar deal with the Texans and was owed 16 million fully guaranteed, but he was so bad in his one season as a starter that the Texans were willing to give up a 2nd round pick to get out of paying him.

Osweiler isn’t just a salary dump for the Browns, as he actually has a legitimate chance of winning the starting job, given the Browns’ lack of a better option. Osweiler finished last season 32nd out of 34 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus last season, completing just 59.0% of his passes for an average of 5.80 YPA, 15 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions and was benched down the stretch for the inexperienced Tom Savage, who was not considered a starting option at the beginning of the season. He was slightly better in 7 starts with the Broncos in 2015, completing 61.8% of his passes for an average of 7.15 YPA, 10 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions, but still struggled to move the Broncos’ offense and was benched for an ancient Peyton Manning when he returned from his foot injury.

A 2012 2nd round pick, Osweiler is still only going into his age 27 season, so he has some potential, but he’s running out of chances. He’s part of an open 3-man competition and all 3 quarterbacks could see action at some point this season. The Browns are likely to get poor quarterback play once again in what is likely going to end up as more of an evaluatory year than anything. The Browns will try to see if they have anything in any of their 3 quarterbacks and could consider another quarterback at the top of the draft in a much better quarterback year in 2018.

Grade: D

Offensive Line

The Browns decided to spend their cap space first and foremost on the offensive line, again mirroring the Oakland Raiders, who have added 4 of 5 starters on their strong offensive line in free agency on multi-year big money deals. The Browns added two new starters upfront this off-season, signing Kevin Zeitler from the Bengals and JC Tretter from the Packers. The offensive line was a natural place to start, given that they led the NFL with 66 sacks allowed last season. Part of that was quarterbacks like Kessler holding the ball too long, but they had major issues upfront all season.

Left tackle Joe Thomas isn’t to blame though. He’s never been to blame. Tragically, the best offensive lineman of his generation has been stuck for 10 years in Cleveland without much worth protecting. The 3rd overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, Thomas hasn’t just made all 160 starts in his career, but he’s never so much as even missed a snap and he’s finished in the top-10 among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in all 10 seasons, including 5 seasons in which he finished #1. Last season, he “only” finished 5th, but he doesn’t seem to be showing any signs of aging, going into his age 33 season. One of the few veterans who was kept during the Browns’ purge, Thomas would obviously like to see this team become a contender sooner rather than later. It wouldn’t be a shock if he declined a little bit this season, but he’s still arguably the best left tackle in the game.

Left guard Joel Bitonio is a very good player as well, but he missed 11 games with a broken foot last season, which really hurt this offensive line. Bitonio was Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked guard as a rookie in 2014, but was limited to 10 games and fell to 32nd among guards thanks to injuries in 2015 and then had essentially a lost season in 2016 because of injuries. Still only going into his age 26 season, Bitonio has a very high ceiling if he can stay healthy, but that’s not a guarantee. The Browns still believe in him long-term though, giving him a 5-year, 51 million dollar extension this off-season, ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal, making him the 3rd highest paid guard in the NFL in average annual salary.

Zeitler, meanwhile, comes in on a 5-year, 60 million dollar deal from the Bengals and is the highest paid guard in the NFL. Bitonio and Zeitler could be the best guard duo in the NFL if both are healthy. Zeitler missed 8 games in 2013 and 2014 combined, but otherwise has been healthy in his career, so he’s not really an injury risk. Going into his age 27 season, the 2012 1st round pick has 71 career starts and has finished above average in all 5 seasons in the league, including 4 seasons in the top-12 among guards. He finished a career best 7th in 2016.

JC Tretter, meanwhile, will slot in at center, after signing a 3-year, 16.75 million dollar deal as a free agent this off-season. Tretter was never a regular starter in Green Bay, but made 10 starts in 4 seasons as an injury replacement and has the versatility to play all 3 interior offensive line positions. His longest stretch of starting came last season when he started the first 7 games at center in place of an injured Corey Linsley and finished 9th among centers on Pro Football Focus. He’s a projection to a 16-game starting role and comes with some risk for that reason, but could definitely turn into a solid starting center. He should be an upgrade over Cam Erving, who made 12 starts at center last season and finished dead last at the position.

Erving was a first round pick by the Browns in 2015, but struggled mightily in limited action at guard as a rookie and then was even worse at center last season. In an effort to salvage his career, Erving will be moved to right tackle this season, the Browns’ only real weakness on this offensive line. Erving played tackle in college, but did not become a big-time prospect until he moved to center as a senior and is unlikely to find much more success at right tackle in the NFL.

Erving will compete for the starting job with 2016 3rd round pick Shon Coleman, who played just 72 snaps as a rookie. It’s also possible the Browns could throw left guard Spencer Drango into the mix at right tackle. Drango, a 2016 5th round pick, was adequate in 9 starts at left guard last season as an injury replacement for Bitonio and has the size and ability to move to right tackle. Like Erving, he spent a lot of time at tackle in college. Even with issues at right tackle, this is one of the better offensive lines in the league. This is a solid foundation for their rebuild.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Now the Browns just need to get better at other positions. Despite having the most cap space in the league entering this off-season, the Browns still let their best offensive free agent leave, as Terrelle Pryor signed with the Redskins and did so pretty inexpensively, taking an incentivized 1-year, 6 million dollar deal. Pryor led the Browns with 77 catches for 1007 yards and 4 touchdowns and finished the season 31st among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. He won’t be easily replaced, though the Browns did sign ex-Ram Kenny Britt to a 4-year, 32.5 million dollar deal in free agent to replacement him.

Like Pryor, Britt also had a 1000 yard season on a bad offense in 2016, catching 68 passes for 1002 yards and 5 touchdowns with the Rams. It was his first career 1000+ yard season and it was a long-time coming for him, as the 2009 1st round pick was in his 8th season in the league. Britt showed promise early in his career, but caught just 73 passes combined in 29 games from 2011-2013, thanks to several factors: injuries, motivation issues, off-the-field problems, and clashes with his coaching staff.

He got a fresh start in 2014 with the Rams and finished above average on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons there, culminating with his impressive 2016 season. He received a career high 111 targets last seasons, averaged 9.03 yards per target on a team that averaged 6.18 yards per pass attempt overall, and finished 39th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Somehow still only going into his age 29 season, Britt could be an adequate replacement for Pryor, but he does come with a lot of risk given his past.

Pryor got 140 targets last season, but the Browns are hoping Britt is more of a 1a to 2nd year receiver Corey Coleman’s 1b. That would obviously require Coleman staying healthy. The 15th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Coleman flashed in the beginning of the season, catching 7 passes for 173 yards and 2 touchdowns in his first 2 games, but then missed 6 games with a broken hand and was not nearly the same upon his return, catching 26 passes for just 240 yards and 1 touchdown on 61 targets (3.93 yards per target) in his final 8 games of the season. Overall he caught just 33 of 74 targets (44.6%) and finished 100th out of 115 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. The Browns need more from him in his 2nd season in the league, though he’s unfortunately missed most of the off-season with hamstring problems. He’s expected to return for training camp, but he’s far from a sure thing.

Coleman was one of four wide receivers the Browns drafted in 2016. With Coleman out, Andrew Hawkins actually finished 2nd among Cleveland wide receivers in snaps played with 647 last season, but he’s in New England now, so it’ll likely be one of the other 3 second year receivers who wins the #3 receiver job. Ricardo Louis, a fourth round pick who led the trio in snaps as a rookie with 316, is reportedly the favorite, but he will face competition from 5th round picks Rashard Higgins (180 snaps) and Jordan Payton (32 snaps).

None of the three played well as rookies, but Louis struggled mightily, finishing 104 out of 115th eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. He caught just 50% of his targets and averaged fewer than a yard per route run. He could be better in his 2nd season in the league, but that’s far from a guarantee and he could still struggle even if he’s improved. Wide receiver depth is a serious problem for the Browns, especially since Coleman and Britt are injury risks.

Not only are Terrelle Pryor and Andrew Hawkins gone, but the Browns also moved on from tight end Gary Barnidge this off-season, rather than paying him 3 million non-guaranteed in his age 32 season in 2017, continuing their theme of getting rid of any veterans making significant money. Barnidge wasn’t a great tight end in 2016, but was capable as a pass catcher, run blocker, and pass protector was their 2nd leading receiver with a 55/612/2 slash line. Between Pryor, Hawkins, and Barnidge, the Browns lost 273 targets from last season, 3rd most in the NFL, so they’re completely remaking their receiving corps.

The catalyst for getting rid of Barnidge was the selection of David Njoku with the 29th overall pick in the first round, after the Browns moved up from 33 atop the 2nd round to grab him. Like last year’s first rounder Corey Coleman, they will need him to play a big role and develop into a playmaker in this new remade receiving corps. Not yet 21 until July, Njoku was one of the best athletes in the draft and has a huge upside, but may struggle with some of the finer points of the game as a rookie and needs to improve significantly as a run blocker.

He’ll face competition for snaps from Seth DeValve, a 2016 4th round pick who played 92 snaps as a rookie, and Randall Telfer, a 2015 6th round pick with 2 catches for 4 yards in his career. DeValve is a converted receiver and has reportedly looked good this off-season, while Telfer is probably the best blocking tight end left on the roster. This receiving corps is very young and probably won’t help their quarterbacks much. Britt is their only capable receiver who isn’t in his 1st or 2nd year in the league.

Grade: C

Running Backs

The Browns’ actually finished last season 2nd in the league in yards per carry with 4.89 last season, though that’s a little misleading because they spent a lot of last season in catch up mode against defenses expecting the pass. They only had 350 carries all season, tied for dead last in the NFL. Still, running the ball is easily their best chance of moving the ball on offense this season, especially with an improved offensive line. Game flow likely won’t allow them to run much more than they did last season though.

Isaiah Crowell led the team in carries with 198 and turned them into 952 yards and 7 touchdowns, an impressive 4.81 YPC average. That too is a little misleading, as Crowell got 20% of his yards on 3 carries, and averaged just 3.89 yards per carry on the other 195 carries, but he definitely took a step forward in his 3rd year in the league, after averaging just 3.94 yards per carry overall in his first 2 seasons in the league. The 2014 undrafted free agent was also significantly improved as a pass catcher, catching 40 passes for 319 yards, after catching just 28 passes in 2014 and 2015 combined. He finished the season 28th among running backs on Pro Football Focus, finishing above average for the first time in his career, and could easily have another solid season in 2017, his age 24 season and the final year of his rookie deal.

Passing down back Duke Johnson actually ran better than Crowell did last season, averaging 4.90 yards per carry, despite his longest carry only going for 22 yards. Granted, Johnson had just 73 carries and was primarily running the ball in situations where the defense was expecting pass, but he still was much improved from his rookie year, when the 2015 3rd round pick averaged just 3.64 yards per carry on 104 carries.

Johnson also has 114 catches in 2 seasons in the league, which is where he brings the most value. He’s finished 4th and 11th among running backs on Pro Football Focus in pure pass catching grade over the past 2 seasons respectively. With few proven options in the passing game, look for them to lean on Crowell and Johnson again in the passing game, after they caught a combined 93 passes in 2016. They’re a solid running back duo, though they lack any proven depth behind them, so they need both to stay healthy again.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

With no obvious franchise quarterback atop the draft, the Browns decided to use the #1 overall pick on Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett, the consensus top prospect in the draft. The Browns’ biggest need was quarterback, but it was a wise decision to take Garrett instead. They got a developmental quarterback in Deshone Kizer on day 2 and figure to be picking high again next year in a much better quarterback class if Kizer doesn’t pan out. Defensive end was also a big need for the Browns and Garrett is instantly their best player at the position. He’ll be a week 1 starter and play every down. He’s a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate and could be one of the best pass rushers in the league in 3-4 years.

Emmanuel Ogbah led the Browns with 5.5 sacks last season, for a team that finished with just 26 sacks as a team, 2nd fewest in the NFL. The 33rd overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft (the first pick in the second round), Ogbah struggled on 849 snaps as a rookie, finishing 94th out of 109 eligible edge defenders on Pro Football Focus, particularly struggling against the run, but could be better in his 2nd season in the league. The Browns are switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 under new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and Ogbah could benefit from the switch. He played in a 4-3 in college at Oklahoma State and his skill set fits a 4-3 defense better.

The Browns also used a 3rd round pick on a defensive end in 2016, taking Penn State’s Carl Nassib. He too struggled as a rookie, finishing 107th out of 109 eligible edge defenders on Pro Football Focus on 541 snaps, but could also benefit from a switch to a 4-3. He’ll be their primary reserve at defensive end with Garrett coming in and can also rush the passer from the interior in sub packages at 6-7 275. In sub packages, Nate Orchard will be the Browns’ top reserve defensive end. A 2015 2nd round pick, Orchard hasn’t shown much in two seasons in the league and was limited to 87 snaps in 3 games last season by injury. He’s also a candidate to play outside linebacker in base packages.

The player who is most negatively affected by the scheme switch is Danny Shelton, which is unfortunate because he was a first round pick by the Browns in 2015 and is coming off of a mini-breakout season. Shelton was alright on 514 snaps as a rookie, but jumped to 10th among defensive tackles on 748 snaps in his 2nd season in the league, excelling against the run at 6-2 335. He finished 5th among defensive tackles in pure run stopping grade. Shelton might not be good enough of a pass rusher to stay on the field for all 3 downs in this new 4-3 defense though and doesn’t fit Gregg Williams’ aggressive one-gap defensive line style.

Jamie Meder and Desmond Bryant will compete for the other starting job opposite Shelton, but both players should play a significant amount of snaps. Meder was a first-time starter last season and played 721 snaps on the season, but did not play well, finishing 105th out of 127 eligible interior defensive linemen on Pro Football Focus. The 2014 undrafted free agent could easily struggle again in 2017. Desmond Bryant might not necessarily be an upgrade though and is not even a lock to make the final roster, owed 3 million in his age 32 season, after missing all of last season with a torn pectoral. Bryant was a good player in Oakland in his prime, but he was pretty mediocre in three seasons with the Browns before the injury. He’s only still on the roster because the Browns are desperate at the position.

The Browns also used a pair of draft picks on the position, taking UNC Charlotte’s Larry Ogunjobi in the 3rd round and Florida’s Caleb Brantley in the 6th round. Ogunjobi didn’t face tough competition in college and could take a year to transition to the NFL, but will likely have a base package role as a rookie. Brantley, meanwhile, has first round talent, but fell to the 6th because of a pre-draft assault charge and because his motor ran hot and cold in college. He too could see base package snaps as a rookie.

The Browns also have 2015 3rd round pick Xavier Cooper, but he’s been terrible in two seasons in the league and isn’t even a lock to make the final roster. He finished last season 107th out of 127 eligible interior defensive lineman on 445 snaps on Pro Football Focus. The Browns have options on the defensive line, but lack difference makers and need young players to step up. They’re improved over last season, but largely by default.

Grade: C

Linebackers

In addition to the money they spent on Brock Osweiler, Kevin Zeitler, Joel Bitonio, and JC Tretter this off-season, the Browns also used a big chunk of their cap space to re-sign linebackers Christian Kirksey and Jamie Collins. Kirksey received a 4-year, 38 million dollar extension this off-season, ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal, after finishing 15th among middle linebackers last season. Kirksey is a one-year wonder because last season was his first full season as a starter, but he was solid in a part-time role in his first 2 seasons in the league in 2014 and 2015 as well and could easily continue playing well. The 2014 3rd round pick is still only going into his age 25 season and seems to have a bright future.

Collins, meanwhile, was acquired from New England mid-season last season. In one of the stranger trades in recent memory, the Patriots traded Collins for a 3rd round compensation pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, even though they would have received a 3rd round compensation pick in the 2018 NFL Draft if they had just kept him through the end of the season. Collins is one of the better linebackers in the league, but Bill Belichick, in the middle of another Super Bowl run, simply decided he liked his team better without him, growing tired of his antics and his freestyling on defense.

Collins’ play did slip in 2016, as he fell much closer to the middle of the pack on Pro Football Focus, after finishing in the top-3 among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2014 and 2015. The Browns re-signed him for 4 years, 50 million this off-season, making him the highest paid non-rush linebacker in the league, so they clearly believe he can bounce back and be a difference maker for this defense going forward. He will likely move back to outside linebacker in this new 4-3 defense, with Kirksey remaining inside at middle linebacker. Both should be every down players again and Collins will probably be given a few chances at rushing the passer off the edge in sub packages. The 6-3 250 pounder can cover, stop the run, and rush the passer.

Veteran Demario Davis was penciled in as the 3rd linebacker, a role that only plays in base packages and comes off the field for a 5th defensive back in sub packages, but Davis was traded to the Jets, leaving an opening. Nate Orchard was a solid run stopping outside linebacker in a 3-4 before he got injured, so he’s probably the best fit for the job, but he’ll face competition from 2016 4th round pick Joe Schobert, who was underwhelming on 246 snaps in primarily a base package 3-4 outside linebacker role as a rookie. His skill set fits the role as well.

There’s also talk that the Browns might move Kirksey outside and play career special teamer Tank Carder as a pure base package middle linebacker, with Kirksey moving inside in sub packages. Carder has just 2 career starts in 5 seasons in the league, so he would be a weird choice. Orchard and Kirksey seem like better fits. Regardless of who wins the job, it is just a two-down base package job, so it’s not that important. They will see about half the snaps at most. Collins and Kirksey make a solid every down linebacker duo and the linebacking corps is one of the Browns’ few strengths.

Grade: A-

Secondary

The Browns’ secondary was also a major problem last season, particularly at the safety position. In the trade that sent Demario Davis to the Jets, the Browns acquired safety Calvin Pryor, who is penciled in as a starter. Pryor has 38 starts in 3 seasons in the league and the 2014 1st round pick actually played pretty well in his first 2 seasons, but he fell to 74th out of 90 eligible safeties last season and fell out of favor with the coaching staff.

After the Jets used their first two draft picks on safeties, there was talk that the Jets would cut Pryor if they could not trade him, despite owing him just 1.588 million in 2017. The Browns were willing to take a flyer on him and it could pan out, as Pryor is in just his age 25 season and may have just needed a change of scenery. Pryor’s biggest competition will be Ed Reynolds, a career special teamer who has been mediocre in 10 starts over the past 2 seasons, especially struggling in coverage. Pryor is the heavy favorite unless he really struggles to impress his new coaching staff.

Jabrill Peppers will likely be the starter on the other side. Peppers was one of 3 first round picks by the Browns. The Browns picked up an extra first rounder from the Eagles to move down from 2 to 8 in the first round in 2016 and then picked up another extra first rounder when they traded down from Philadelphia’s spot at 12 in 2017 to the Texans’ spot at 25, where they selected Peppers. Tight end David Njoku was then selected 4 spots later after the Browns traded back into the first round from 33 atop the 2nd round. The Browns now have two first round picks in 2018 as well and three second round picks, between their own pick, the pick they got from Houston to take on Brock Osweiler, and a 2nd rounder from the trade with Philadelphia last year. They are rightfully building through the draft.

Peppers fills an obvious hole at safety, but was far from a traditional safety prospect. Peppers played safety and linebacker at the University of Michigan and also returned kicks and played on offense in spots as a running back and slot receiver. The 5-11 213 pounder drew a wide range of evaluations, from teams that liked him best on offense, to teams that liked him best as a sub package linebacker, to teams that wanted to try him outside at cornerback, but the Browns see him as a traditional 3-down safety long-term. Peppers is a great athlete and a great tackler, but lacks ball skills. He could have a solid rookie year and become a good player, but he was a risky selection. He’ll upgrade their return game significantly though, at the very least.

Cornerback was also an issue for the Browns last season and they used a 4th round pick on Houston’s Howard Wilson, but he broke his kneecap this off-season and could miss his entire rookie season. Even if he is able to play by the end of the season, he’s unlikely to play a big role, given all the valuable off-season time he missed. He was only a fourth round pick, but was an NFL ready slot cornerback who likely would have had a role as a rookie. After losing Wilson, the Browns signed veteran Jason McCourty and he’s currently the favorite to man the slot in 3-cornerback sets, though the Browns have talked to him about moving to safety, so he could be an option there if Pryor struggles.

McCourty was solid on 814 snaps with the Titans last season, but is going into his age 30 season and is not the same player he once was. After finishing in the top-20 among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons from 2010-2013, excelling against the run and in slot coverage, McCourty has been no better than a league average cornerback over the past 3 seasons and has played in just 34 of 48 games over that time period. He could easily remain a solid slot cornerback for another couple seasons though and he has the skill set to play safety too. His biggest competition for the slot job is Briean Boddy-Calhoun, a 2016 undrafted free agent who played 571 underwhelming snaps as a rookie. Ideally, Calhoun would start the season as the #4 cornerback.

Outside, Joe Haden and Jamar Taylor remain the starting cornerbacks. Haden is their highest paid player, after signing a 5-year, 67.5 million dollar extension 3 off-seasons ago ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal in 2014. The 7th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, Haden was a top-20 cornerback on Pro Football Focus in each of his first 4 seasons in the league, but fell to 28th in 2014, was limited to 286 unimpressive snaps in 5 games by injury in 2015, and then fell to 85th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks in 13 starts last season. Only going into his age 28 season, Haden still has bounce back potential, but hasn’t been good since 2014 and has dealt with a lot of injuries over the years, so he’s far from a sure thing.

Taylor, meanwhile, is coming off of a solid season, finishing 19th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, but is also far from a sure thing. That’s because he’s a complete one-year wonder, struggling mightily in the first 3 seasons of his career (9 starts), before playing well in the final year of his rookie deal in 14 starts last season. As recently as 2015, he finished 106th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on 712 snaps (6 starts) Pro Football Focus. He is a former 2nd round pick, going #54 overall in 2013, and it’s possible he’s turned a corner as a player, but it’s also very possible he regresses now that he’s been paid. The Browns kept him on a 3-year, 16.5 million dollar deal this off-season. The Browns are improved in the secondary, but still have issues at both cornerback and safety.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Browns are trusting the process in a big way right now. They are improved over last season’s 1-15 team, but still have one of the least talented rosters in the NFL and are likely to be one of the worst teams in the league again this season. The Browns will roll about 53 million in cap space forward to 2018, so they could make some more big splashes in free agency next off-season, and they have 5 picks in the first 2 rounds of next year’s draft, but they have a long way to go to build a contender. 

Final update: As if it wasn’t clear, the Browns are fully embracing the youth movement. They selected rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer to start at quarterback, while releasing expensive veterans Brock Osweiler, Joe Haden, and Desmond Bryant. They’re still not the worst team in the NFL, but they’re a year or two away from being a threat to win more than a few games.

Prediction: 4-12, 4th in AFC North