For about two decades after the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999, they were consistently among the worst teams in the league. From 1999-2017, the Browns went just 88-216, 25 games worse than any team over that stretch, culminating in the worst two-year stretch in modern NFL history, when they went a combined 1-31 in 2016 and 2017, including an 0-16 season in 2017, the second 0-16 season in NFL history. The Browns’ bottoming out in 2016 and 2017 was the result of an aggressive rebuilding strategy designed to finally get them to respectability long-term, rolling forward cap space, accumulating long-term draft assets, playing young players, possibly even outright tanking for better draft position, and, at the very least, caring very little about short-term results.
Their terrible 2016 and 2017 seasons got them back-to-back #1 overall picks, taking stud edge defender Myles Garrett in the 2017 NFL Draft and then in the 2018 NFL Draft taking a quarterback who they were hoping would finally give them a long-term answer at the position, Baker Mayfield, who, when he took over as the Browns’ starting quarterback in week 3 of the 2018 season, was the 30th quarterback to make a start for the Browns since they returned 19 seasons prior.
Mayfield had some struggles early in his rookie year, but improved as the season went on, especially following the dismissal of head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley. In total, Mayfield completed 63.8% of his passes for an average of 7.66 YPA, 27 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions as a rookie, while finishing as PFF’s 11th ranked quarterback. The Browns still finished under .500 and out of the playoffs at 7-8-1, but it was the most optimism the franchise had in years, seemingly having found their guy under center and having yet to spend many of the resources they accumulated during their rebuild.
Because of how well Mayfield did once he took over, the Browns kept new offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens on as head coach, even though he had barely had any prior coordinating experience, and then they cashed in some of those accumulated resources to supplement their roster around Mayfield, most notably trading away a first and third round pick, as well as recent first round pick Jabrill Peppers, to the Giants for wide receiver Odell Beckham, who had just recently been signed to a contract that made him one of the highest paid wide receivers in the league.
The Browns did not live up to sky high expectations in 2019, as Kitchens proved to be overmatched in his new role and his offensive schemes became very bland and predictable which, along with an underwhelming defense, led to the Browns falling to 6-10, with Mayfield’s statistical production dropping significantly, as he completed just 59.4% of his passes for an average of 7.17 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 21 interceptions. Mayfield still finished 17th among quarterbacks on PFF in 2019 though, suggesting a lot of his poor production wasn’t his fault and, with an even better supporting cast and a real coaching staff in 2020, the Browns had their breakout year a year later than expected.
The 2020 Browns finished 11-5, led by an offense that ranked 13th in offensive efficiency, with Mayfield ranking 14th among quarterbacks on PFF and completing 62.8% of his passes for an average of 7.33 YPA, 26 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions, and, perhaps most importantly of all, they not only made the post-season for the first time since 2002, but they also won a playoff game for the first time since returning as a franchise, with their previous post-season victory coming all the way back in 1994. Mayfield did not sign an extension with the Browns following the 2020 season, when he was first eligible, but it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Mayfield would be the Browns’ starting quarterback long-term.
The 2021 season started off similarly, with Mayfield completed 66.9% of his passes for an average of 8.55 YPA, 4 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions in the first five games of the season, while leading the Browns to a 3-2 record, but Mayfield got hurt in a week 6 loss to the Cardinals and played through numerous injuries the rest of the way, completing 57.1% of his passes for an average of 6.48 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions in his final nine starts, while going 3-6, before finally being shut down for the season when the Browns’ playoff hopes were ended, finishing the year as PFF’s 30th ranked quarterback out of 39 eligible, by far the worst finish of his career.
It was another disappointing season for the Browns and seemed to complicate long-term extension talks for Mayfield this off-season, but, if anything, Mayfield showed toughness by playing through injury and, while his play may have been hurting the team, not to mention exacerbating his own injuries, the responsibility is with the coaching staff to pull an injured player that is hurting a team if that is the case. It ultimately seemed likely going into the off-season that Mayfield would eventually get an extension and, even if he didn’t, there seemed like little chance he wouldn’t return to the Browns in 2022 on a 18.858 million dollar 5th year option that would make him just the 15th paid quarterback in the NFL if it was an average annual value.
However, the Browns shocked everyone by not only getting involved in Deshaun Watson trade talks, but by working out a deal for Watson at the last second, after they were reportedly out of the running, sending a package of picks centered around a trio of first round picks and winning Watson over by replacing the 136 million over 4 years remaining on his contract with a brand new fully guaranteed 5-year, 230 million dollar deal that makes him the second highest paid quarterback in the league in average annual salary, on top of being fully guaranteed. The Browns also did this without first finding a new home for Baker Mayfield and eventually being forced to eat most of his salary in a trade that netted just a future mid round pick from the Panthers, with most other team’s locked into a quarterback by the time Watson was acquired and Mayfield became available.
It would have been a risky move in any circumstances, but trading for Watson is more complicated because of his ongoing legal situation, with numerous sexual misconduct accusations, including settled and still unsettled civil cases. In addition to the obvious moral questions around acquiring Watson, he was also facing a suspension under the NFL’s personal conduct policy, despite sitting out all of last season. After a long investigation and negotiations between the NFL and NFLPA, Watson was suspended for the first eleven games of this season and, making matters worse, the Browns also have already paid almost all of Watson’s first year salary in the form of a 45 million dollar signing bonus.
That’s a standard move on big contracts that helps for salary cap purposes, but, in Watson’s case, it will mean that he will essentially be paid for the full 2022 season even though he won’t play most of the season. It also means that his salary cap hit will be significantly higher in 2023, the first year the Browns can realistically expect to compete for a championship, with a tough road to even qualify for the post-season in 2022 without Watson for most of the year. The Browns still have significant cap space for 2022, but, even if they roll it forward to next year, they’re still already over the projected 2023 salary cap and will find it hard to keep talent around Watson.
Even with the off-the-field situation and the price they had to pay to get him, it’s still understandable why the Browns would be intrigued by Watson’s talent, as he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the league, in his prime in his age 27 season, and, even if Mayfield could have been a capable starter for them in 2022 when healthy, Watson is still an obvious upgrade, as he would have been for most teams around the league. His contract will make it tough to build and keep talent around him, but he has played well enough thus far in his career to suggest that he’s the kind of quarterback capable of winning a Super Bowl with a big cap hit, something that has been rare in the salary cap era.
The 12th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Watson burst onto the scene as a rookie, completing 61.8% of his passes for an average of 8.33 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions, while rushing for 7.47 YPC and 2 touchdowns on 36 carries, in 7 games, before going down for the year with a torn ACL. Despite that injury, Watson returned for the start of 2018 and has arguably improved in every season of his career, ranking 12th among quarterbacks on PFF in his first season back, followed by a 9th ranked finish in 2019 and a career best 2nd ranked finish in 2020. In total, he completed 68.7% of his passes for an average of 8.32 YPA, 85 touchdowns, and 28 interceptions, while rushing for 5.20 YPC and 15 touchdowns on 271 carries over those three seasons, before sitting out all of last season with his legal situation in limbo.
Mayfield played pretty well for the Browns when healthy, but the Browns never seemed comfortable fully opening up this offense with him as the quarterback, even after adding high-priced receivers for him. He never attempted more than 534 passes in a season and, even in his best year in 2020, he attempted just 486 passes in 16 games, as the Browns had the 5th fewest pass attempts in the league, even with Mayfield rarely taking off and running on his own. Their conservative play calling has been in part because of their talent at running back and on the offensive line, but, when Watson returns, I would expect this offense to open up significantly. They’ll still remain run heavy, but they’ll incorporate more quarterback runs and I would expect more pass attempts as well, after again having the 5th fewest in the NFL in 2021.
In the meantime, however, the Browns are likely to remain very run heavy, with the underwhelming Jacoby Brissett currently expected to start in Watson’s absence, after being signed as a free agent around the same time Watson was acquired, with Mayfield’s time in Cleveland coming to an end. Brissett could be a downgrade even from an injured Mayfield, finishing 33rd out of 39 eligible quarterbacks on PFF in 2017 and 32nd out of 42 eligible in 2019, in the only two seasons of his 6-year career in which he’s been a full-time starter, while totaling a 60.2% completion percentage, 6.41 YPA, 36 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions in 37 career starts.
Already in his age 30 season, unlikely to have any remaining untapped upside, Brissett is best off as a backup and, even if it’s not for the whole season, he would be one of the worst starting quarterbacks in the league. However, the Browns seem committed to him for at least as long as Watson is suspended and don’t really have much of a choice otherwise. Their third string quarterback is Josh Rosen, who could theoretically still have upside, as a former 10th overall pick who is still in his age 25 season, but he has just a 61.1 career QB rating on 513 pass attempts, with 120 of those pass attempts coming in the past three seasons, and he’s already on his 6th team, only going into his 5th season in the league.
The Browns could sign another quarterback who would be a better backup, but they aren’t likely to find anyone at this stage of the off-season who would be a significant upgrade on Brissett as the starter. Watson is one of the best starting quarterbacks in the league and Brissett is one of the best backups, but Watson not being available for a significant portion of the season hurts this position group’s grade significantly, as does their lack of depth behind Brissett, which could be a factor if Brissett suffers an injury while Watson is suspended.
The Browns had high hopes for their receiving corps when they added a pair of former 1,000 yard receivers in their prime in back-to-back off-seasons, acquiring Jarvis Landry in 2018 and Odell Beckham in 2019. They both had 1,000-yard seasons in their first season in Cleveland, with slash lines of 83/1174/6 and 74/1035/4 respectively, but that came on target totals of 138 and 133 respectively (10th and 15th most in the league respectively) and on an offense that was underwhelming overall. Their offense was better in 2020, but Beckham tore his ACL in week 7, ending his season, while Landry posted a 72/840/3 slash line that was his worst since his rookie season.
In 2021, Beckham returned in week 3, but gave them just 17/232/0 in six games before demanding his release, which the Browns granted him, while Landry missed the first five games of his career with injury and posted a career worst 52/570/2 slash line, leading to him being released as well this off-season, originally owed a non-guaranteed 15.1 million for his age 30 season in 2022. With Landry and Beckham not producing much in 2021, the Browns were actually led in receiving by second year player Donovan Peoples-Jones, but he had just a 34/597/3 slash line and a 1.46 yards per route run average. Peoples-Jones averaged 2.34 yards per route run as a rookie in 2020, but that came in very limited playing time (268 total snaps) and he was just a 6th round pick, so he probably doesn’t have the upside to develop into more than a solid starter long-term.
With Peoples-Jones leading the way, this receiving corps was part of the reason why this Browns passing game struggled, on top of Mayfield playing at far less than 100%, so rebuilding this group was a big need for the Browns this off-season. Unfortunately, the Browns were limited in terms of draft picks after the Watson trade and in terms of financial flexibility, given all of the big contracts they have handed out, so they weren’t able to improve this group drastically this off-season, but they did make at least one big addition, trading for former Cowboys wide receiver Amari Cooper, who is likely to be better than any wide receiver the Browns had a year ago.
Cooper was essentially salary dumped on the Browns, who surrendered just a 5th round pick to take on Cooper’s 20 million dollar annual salary, which makes him the 10th highest paid wide receiver in the league. Cooper has surpassed 1,000 yards receiving in five of seven seasons in the league and is still only in his age 28 season, but his career 1.85 yards per route run average, which dropped to 1.65 yards per route run last season, suggests he’s more of an above average wide receiver than an elite #1 wide receiver, so it’s understandable why the Cowboys wouldn’t want to pay his salary, especially given that they have a budding young #1 wide receiver in Ceedee Lamb. Still, he’s not a bad addition for a Browns team that was desperate for wide receiver help and, if he disappoints, the Browns don’t owe him any guaranteed money beyond this season.
Cooper was their only major addition to this group this off-season though. That leaves Donovan Peoples-Jones locked in as the #2 receiver and, while he’s not a bad option in that role, he isn’t a great one either, while the #3 receiver job could be left to 3rd round rookie David Bell, who could easily underwhelm in his first year in the league. Incumbent #3 wide receiver Rashard Higgins wasn’t retained this off-season and, while he was underwhelming, the Browns only competition for the rookie Bell is 2021 3rd round pick Anthony Schwartz, who struggled mightily as a rookie, playing just 295 snaps and averaging just 0.82 yards per route run. Depth is a big issue behind Cooper and Peoples-Jones, with the latter being an underwhelming starting option in his own right.
With a thin group at wide receiver, expect tight ends to be a big part of the Browns’ passing game this season. The Browns released Austin Hooper this off-season and he led Browns tight ends with 61 targets last season, but he was a disappointment on a 4-year, 42 million dollar deal that he signed two off-seasons ago and was an obvious release candidate ahead of a 9.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2022, after a 2021 season in which he averaged just 1.14 yards per route run.
David Njoku was their tight end 1B to Hooper’s 1A in 2021 and he was more efficient, averaging 1.56 yards per route run and totaling more receiving yards (475 vs. 345) despite fewer targets (53), so he figures to see an expanded role in 2022, especially since the Browns opted to make him the 5th highest paid tight end in the league in terms of average annual salary on a 4-year, 54.75 million dollar deal this off-season, after originally franchise tagging him to start the off-season. Njoku has potential, but the Browns are paying a lot of money for a player who hasn’t proven to be worth it yet.
His yards per route run average last season was solid, but still ranked just 11th out of eligible tight ends and it came in a part-time role. He also has just a 1.34 yards per route run average for his career and the only season of his career in which he was a true starter was back in 2018, when he had a career high 56/639/4 slash line and averaged just 1.28 yards per route run, decent, but underwhelming. Njoku was a first round pick in 2017 and the Browns are betting that, only in his age 26 season, he has untapped upside and could breakout in a bigger role in 2022, but, if that doesn’t happen, Njoku will look like an obvious overpay.
Third year tight end Harrison Bryant is also expected to have an expanded role in 2022 with Hooper gone and with the Browns’ wide receiver group being thin. Bryant played an average of 496 snaps per season in 2020 and 2021, despite the 2020 4th round pick being a de facto #3 tight end behind Hooper and Njoku, and figures to see a significant uptick on that number in 2022. He’s been underwhelming overall, but saw his yards per route run average jumped from 0.94 as a rookie in 2020 to 1.47 last season and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he had his best year yet in an expanded role in his third year in the league in 2022, though that’s obviously not a guarantee.
Depth is a question at tight end behind Njoku and Bryant, with the rest of their tight end room filled with recent undrafted free agents who have never caught a pass, so the Browns would have a problem if either of their tight ends got hurt, but Njoku and Bryant aren’t a bad tight end duo. They’ll need them to stay healthy and have a solid year to compensate for their lack of depth at the wide receiver position, in an overall underwhelming receiving corps.
With Watson out for most of the season, the Browns will likely continue relying heavily on their running backs. When Watson returns, running backs figure to be less involved in the offense, with the passing game likely to open up and Watson likely to take off and run on his own somewhat regularly as well, but running backs still will be a big part of this offense either way, both in the running game and in the passing game, and having Watson around as a dual threat option should open up more running room for the Browns’ impressive running backs, who are led by the talented tandem of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, a pair of talented backs in their prime, both going into their age 27 seasons.
Chubb and Hunt first teamed up in 2019, after Hunt was signed the previous off-season to a team that had already used a 2nd round pick the year prior on Chubb, who had an impressive rookie season, with 5.19 YPC and 8 touchdowns on 192 carries, with almost all of his production coming in the final 10 games of the season. Chubb has continued being a talented lead back over the past three years, with a 5.34 YPC average and 28 touchdowns on 716 carries (17.1 carries per game) combined over that stretch, while Hunt has averaged 4.41 YPC over that time period as a change of pace back, while providing the pass catching ability (1.38 yards per route run over the past three seasons) that Chubb (career 0.97 yards per route run average) does not.
Hunt missed 8 games in his first season in Cleveland with a suspension for domestic violence, which is why he was available for the Browns to sign, despite rushing for 4.75 YPC and 15 touchdowns on 453 carries in his first two seasons in the league with the Chiefs, and then Hunt again missed 9 games with injury last season, but he has averaged 9.9 carries per game in 32 games with the Browns, despite the presence of Chubb, including 8.9 carries per game when Chubb is healthy and 15.8 carries per game in 5 games in which Hunt has played but Chubb has not. Both Chubb and Hunt could see fewer carries per game after Watson returns, but Chubb is too talented of a lead back not to give a significant carry total to, while Hunt can make up for any lost carries with more targets in the passing game.
Both Chubb and Hunt are capable of being a true feature back for a few games if the other one misses time with injury, but the Browns also have one of the best #3 running backs in the league in D’Ernest Johnson, a 2018 undrafted free agent who has impressed with a career 5.27 YPC average on 137 carries, including 5.34 YPC with a 55% carry success rate (15th in the NFL) on 100 carries last season, getting an extended role when Hunt was out with injury. He hasn’t shown much in the passing game (1.08 yards per route run), but he’s definitely impressed as a runner thus far in his career and isn’t a liability as a passing down back either.
Johnson’s name has been mentioned in trade rumors because he is overqualified as the Browns’ #3 back and could potentially return the Browns a somewhat significant draft pick, ahead of the final year of his rookie deal in 2022, but, even if the Browns trade Johnson, they have a good insurance policy in 5th round rookie Jerome Ford, who would not be a bad #3 back if he had to be. This is probably the most talented running back group in the league.
The strength of the Browns’ offense over the past two seasons has been their offensive line, which has had the same starting five in both seasons, but that won’t quite be the case this season and there is reason to expect them to not be quite as good upfront this season. For one, the Browns released center JC Tretter this off-season. Tretter was owed 8.25 million non-guaranteed in his age 31 season in 2022, so it’s understandable that the Browns would want to move on from him, given the big contracts they have locked in at other positions and their lack of long-term financial flexibility, but Tretter was still PFF’s 6th ranked center last season and had been a reliably above average starter for them over the past few seasons, so he will be missed.
Part of the reason the Browns were comfortable moving on from Tretter is they had 2020 5th round pick Nick Harris waiting in the wings, having shown some promise, albeit in just two career starts. However, Harris suffered a season ending knee injury in the first pre-season game, leaving the job to veteran Ethan Pocic, a free agent addition added for barely over the minimum this off-season. He’s not a bad option, but he’s not a particularly good one either.
A 2nd round pick in 2017, Pocic struggled mightily at guard earlier in his career, but has moved to center over the past two years and has developed into a capable starter, making 24 starts total, including 10 starts last season, when he finished a career best 16th among centers on PFF. He probably doesn’t have much upside and he hasn’t been the most durable player in his career, but he’s still in his prime in his age 27 season and should remain at least a marginal starter, even if he’s likely to be a significant downgrade from Tretter. It’s possible the Browns look to free agency to at least replenish depth at the center position.
The other concern on this offensive line going into this season is right tackle Jack Conklin, who is one of the best players in the league at his position when healthy, but tore his patellar tendon in week 12 of last season, after previously missing time with another injury, ending his 2021 season after 7 starts and leaving him very questionable for the start of the 2022 season. Patellar tendon tears are about as serious of a lower body injury as an athlete can have and, while offensive lineman have an easier time returning from them because they aren’t as reliant on athleticism, it’s very likely that Conklin either misses time with injury in 2022 and/or is not quite the same upon his return, especially since he has already suffered one significant knee injury in his career.
Even if Conklin is not at his best, however, the Browns will still take as many games out of him as they can get though, as he’s finished 12th, 8th, and 19th among offensive tackles on PFF over the past three seasons, with four finishes in the top-19 among offensive tackles in six seasons in the league since being drafted 8th overall by the Titans in the 2016 NFL Draft. Conklin probably won’t be quite that good in 2022 when he returns, but he still has a good chance to remain an above average starter, still theoretically in his prime in his age 28 season, provided another leg injury doesn’t completely sap his athleticism.
Blake Hance made 8 starts as Conklin’s primary replacement last season, but he struggled mightily, finishing 77th out of 88 eligible offensive tackles on PFF in the first starting experience of his career, and the 2019 undrafted free agent was only in the swing tackle role because veteran Chris Hubbard was on injured reserve and only played 39 snaps in 2021. Hubbard is expected to be healthier in 2022 and will likely remain the Browns top reserve offensive lineman, with the ability to play both inside and outside.
Hubbard has largely been underwhelming in 48 career starts in nine seasons in the league and is now going into his age 31 season, but he’s a good insurance policy to have, especially when you consider his versatility. Hance is also versatile, with the ability to play guard as well, though it remains to be seen if he’ll develop into a capable backup at any position. The Browns also have 2021 4th round pick James Hudson, who made 4 rookie year starts and who could easily end up ahead of Hance on the depth chart in his second season in the league. Hudson was a bit underwhelming in his limited rookie year action, but still could develop into a useful swing tackle or even a capable starter long-term. Hubbard, Hudson, Hance, and potentially a new backup center that will be added will likely be the Browns’ top reserves upfront this season.
The rest of this offensive line remains the same from the past couple years. If there is a position on this offensive line where the Browns could be better in 2022 than in 2021 it’s left tackle where Jedrick Wills has been a solid starter (28 starts) in two seasons since the Browns selected him 10th overall in the 2020 NFL Draft, but who also has yet to break out as the kind of player worth that draft pick. It’s very possible he could have that break out this season though, still only in his age 23 season with plenty of upside, and, even if he doesn’t have a true break out, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he at least took a step forward from his first two years in the league, which would be a boost to this offensive line.
The strength of this offensive line will remain the guard position, where left guard Joel Bitonio and right guard Wyatt Teller are arguably the best guard duo in the NFL. They’re both highly paid, ranking 2nd and 4th respectively among guards in average annual salary, with contracts worth 48 million over 3 years and 56.8 million over 4 years respectively, but they’re both worth it, as they are both among the best players in the league at their respective positions.
For Bitonio, being one of the best guards in the league is nothing new, making 112 starts in 8 seasons in the league since being drafted by the Browns in the 2nd round in the 2014 NFL Draft, and finishing in the top-19 among guards on PFF in 7 times in those 8 seasons, including a 6th ranked finish in 2020 and a 2nd ranked finish in 2021. Bitonio is now heading into his age 31 season and will likely start to decline soon, but he hasn’t shown any signs of doing so yet and, even if he does, he will likely remain one of the better guards in the league, even if he’s unlikely to repeat last year’s dominant year, the best of his career. Bitonio has also shown the ability to move to his collegiate position of left tackle in a pinch without a significant drop off, which makes him even more valuable.
Teller, on the other hand, was a late bloomer, being selected in the 5th round in 2018 by the Bills and making 16 underwhelming starts in his first two seasons in the league, before breaking out as PFF’s 1st ranked guard in 2020 and then backing that up with a 5th ranked finish in 2021, proving his 2020 campaign was no fluke. Teller isn’t as proven as Bitonio, but he’s significantly younger, still only in his age 28 season, and it’s unlikely he is going to regress to his early career form at this point, so he easily could remain one of the top guards in the league for the next couple seasons at least. This offensive line isn’t quite as good as it has been in the past couple years, but this is still one of the best offensive lines in the league.
While the Browns had problems on offense last season, their defense was actually one of the better units in the league in terms of efficiency, ranking 3rd. Unfortunately, there are good reasons to not expect them to repeat that in 2022. For one, defensive performance is much more inconsistent on a year-to-year basis than offensive performance, as evidenced by the Browns ranking just 18th in 2020 with a similar core to their 3rd ranked unit in 2021. On top of that, the Browns lost some players on defense and, because of their lack of a first round pick and the big contracts they have locked in long-term, they didn’t really have the flexibility to replace the lost players or to address other needs.
The interior defender position was their biggest weakness on defense last season and looks likely to be their biggest weakness again this year. They lost veterans Malik Jackson and Malik McDowell this off-season and, while they didn’t play all that well, they led this position group with 646 snaps and 645 snaps respectively and the Browns didn’t really do much to replace them, instead relying on contributions from young players. One of those young players is Jordan Elliott, a 2020 3rd round pick who is their top returning interior defender from a year ago in terms of snaps played (464 snaps), but he was very much part of the problem at this position last season, finishing as PFF’s 136th ranked interior defender out of 146 eligible.
Elliott also was mediocre on 307 snaps as a rookie in 2020 so, while he could have some untapped upside, his career is not off to a good start and it’s very possible he never develops into even a capable starter. Also not much of a run defender, Elliott has just a half sack, 3 hits, and a 3.1% pressure rate in 32 career games. The Browns won’t have much choice but to give him even more playing time in 2022, which could be a big problem. Tommy Togiai also will have to play a bigger role in 2022, even though the 2021 4th round pick struggled mightily on 125 rookie year snaps. He has upside, but could easily prove to be a liability in an expanded role. The Browns also used a 4th round pick in this year’s draft on interior defender Perrion Winfrey and probably will have to give him a significant role as a rookie, one he could easily struggle in.
The Browns only notable veteran addition at this position this off-season was Taven Bryan, who isn’t much more than a veteran flyer, on just a 1-year, 4 million dollar deal. Bryan was a first round pick by the Jaguars in 2018 and is only going into his age 26 season, so he could have some untapped upside, but he has failed to develop thus far in his career. His career started out with promise, as he earned above average grades from PFF in each of his first two seasons in the league, albeit across snap counts of just 301 and 481 respectively, but he didn’t carry that into a larger role in 2020, finishing 87th out of 139 eligible interior defenders across 511 snaps, leading to the Jaguars declining his 5th year option for 2022 and moving him back into a reserve role in 2021, when he played just 301 nondescript snaps.
It’s possible Bryan has some bounce back potential with a new team and he’ll get plenty of opportunity in a position group where he could easily wind up as the leader in snaps played, but he hasn’t yet shown himself to be a consistent player at a high snap count thus far in his career. Bryan is the only relatively proven veteran option at this position, with the next closest likely being career reserve Sheldon Day, who has never played more than 325 snaps in a season in six seasons in the league, so they will be relying on getting big contributions from young players, but those young players are recent mid-round draft picks who haven’t shown anything positive at the NFL level yet in their careers.
One key player the Browns did retain this off-season is edge defender Jadeveon Clowney, who returns to the team on a 1-year, 10 million dollar deal, a slight pay raise on the 1-year, 8 million dollar deal he played on in 2021, his first season in Cleveland, after spending five years with the Texans, who selected him #1 overall in 2014, and then spending a year each with the Seahawks and Titans. Despite being the #1 overall pick, Clowney has never posted a double digit sack total in his career, but he has had either 9 or 9.5 sacks in three out of the past five years, with the two exceptions being two seasons in which he dealt with significant injuries, and he has developed into an above average starter overall.
In total, Clowney has 36.5 sacks, 63 hits, and a 11.2% pressure rate in 80 games over the past six seasons, while playing at a consistently high level against the run. Durability has been a concern throughout his career, only playing in every game once, but he’s also only missed more than 3 games twice and has generally played pretty well through injury when he has had to. Clowney’s 2021 campaign was actually his lowest ranked season on PFF since his rookie season, finishing 56th among edge defenders after six straight finishes in the top-35, still above average, but not as good as he had been in the past.
Clowney’s relative down year was also largely due to his run defense not being as good as usual, rather than his pass rush declining, as he still totaled 9 sacks, 12 hits, and a 12.6% pressure rate, better than his career average, benefiting from facing more single teams than ever before, with Myles Garrett drawing double teams opposite him. Still only in his age 29 season, I would expect more of the same from Clowney this season and he could be even better if he bounces back from somewhat of a down year, although he is likely to miss at least a couple games either way.
Clowney being retained is especially important because the Browns didn’t have a good replacement for him. In fact, their top reserve could be third round rookie Alex Wright, even though he could struggle in a significant rookie year role. Takkarist McKinley (320 snaps), Joe Jackson (159 snaps), Ifeadi Odenigbo (162 snaps), and Porter Gustin (134 snaps) were not bad reserves last season, but they’re all no longer with the team. Aside from the rookie Alex Wright, their off-season additions included veterans Chase Winovich, Stephen Weatherly, and Isaac Rochell, mediocre options who are unlikely to be guaranteed a roster spot, even in a thin position group.
Winovich has the most upside of the three, even if only by default. He was a 3rd round pick in 2019 by the Patriots and played decently on snap counts of 291 and 593 respectively in his first two seasons in the league, rushing the passer at an above average rate, but struggling against the run. However, he fell out of favor in New England in 2021, leading to him playing just 112 snaps and getting traded to the Browns this off-season. Still only in his age 27 season with a career 11.3% pressure rate, there is upside here, but he’s still relatively unproven and will likely remain a liability against the run. Weatherly and Rochell, on the other hand, are veterans with 6 years and 5 years experience respectively, but they have just one season between them where they didn’t finish below average on PFF, Weatherly back in 2018.
The Browns’ lack of edge defender depth is somewhat of a problem given Jadeveon Clowney’s history of durability problems, but Clowney has played 53.0 snaps per game over the past six seasons, including 48.4 last season, and Myles Garrett almost never comes off the field, averaging 55.8 snaps per game over the past four seasons. There’s a good reason for that as Garrett, the #1 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, has developed into one of the best defensive players in the league and should be on the short list for Defensive Player of the Year candidates in 2022.
Still only going into his age 27 season, Garrett broke out immediately as a high level player as a rookie, finishing 25th among edge defenders on PFF and totaling 7 sacks, 11 hits, and a 12.3% pressure rate in just 11 games, and he only got better from there, finishing 13th, 12th, 4th, and 1st among edge defenders over the past four seasons respectively, playing the run at a high level, while totaling 51.5 sacks, 50 hits, and a 12.8% pressure rate in 57 games, despite frequent double teams.
That includes a career best 2021 season in which he had 16 sacks, 17 hits, and a 14.4% pressure rate, despite still being frequently double teamed, even with Clowney opposite him. Garrett was the single biggest reason why the Browns’ defense was so effective in 2021. As tough as it is to have that kind of season two seasons in a row, Garrett has a good chance to and, barring a fluke injury, I see no reason to expect him to be anything less than one of the best few edge defenders in the league in 2022. He and Clowney make a very talented starting duo, but their lack of depth at this position hurts their overall grade a little.
Another key player the Browns retained this off-season is linebacker Anthony Walker, who finished 19th among off ball linebackers on PFF across 701 snaps in 13 games last season. Walker was relatively inexpensive to bring back, re-signed to a 1-year, 4.25 million dollar deal in free agency, but he isn’t a guarantee to have the same kind of season in 2022, never earning more than a middling grade from PFF in his first three seasons in the league as a starter from 2018-2020, including a 74th ranked finish out of 99 eligible off ball linebackers across 697 snaps in his final season with the Colts in 2020. It’s possible he has permanently turned a corner and will remain an above average every down linebacker going forward, still only in his age 27 season, but the former 5th round pick could also prove to be a one-year wonder and it’s understandable why he didn’t have a huge market in free agency this off-season.
Fortunately, the Browns have another promising every down linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, a 2nd round pick in 2021 who showed a lot of potential as a rookie, finishing as PFF’s 10th ranked off ball linebacker, earning above average grades in coverage and against the run. He only played 597 snaps, but that was in part due to missing three games with injury and in part due to not seeing significant playing time early in the season. From week 12 on, he averaged 55.0 snaps per game and ranked 17th among off ball linebackers on PFF. He’s earned an every down role in 2022 and has the upside to break out as one of the top players in the league at his position someday. Even if that doesn’t happen this season, he should remain an above average player and the Browns should benefit from having him healthier and playing a consistent every down role.
There isn’t much playing time available for other linebackers when Walker and Owusu-Koramoah are healthy, but the Browns do have good depth options as well, which could be especially important if Walker regresses significantly. Sione Takitaki was a 3rd round pick in 2019 and, while he hasn’t gotten to play much thus far in his career, playing 825 snaps total in his career and 285 snaps last season, he has shown a lot of promise in that limiting playing time and, still only in his age 27 season, probably wouldn’t be a bad option if he had to start, even if he would be a projection to a larger role.
The Browns also have Jacob Phillips, a 3rd round pick in 2020, and, while he has played just 292 defensive snaps in 13 career games, in large part due to injury, he did show some promise last season as well, albeit after a disappointing rookie season. Phillips and Takitaki are both unproven in a larger role, but they’re not bad depth options behind a talented starting duo of Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Anthony Walker. This is a talented position group overall.
Not much changed in the Browns’ secondary this off-season, with their only notable loss being slot cornerback Troy Hill. Hill was signed to a 2-year, 9 million dollar deal last off-season, but was underwhelming on 533 snaps in 12 games in his lone season in Cleveland and the Browns did well to not only get out of paying him 4.5 million in 2022, but to also get a 5th round pick in 2023 from the Rams. Hill became expendable when the Browns selected Martin Emerson in the 3rd round of this year’s draft, leading to Hill being moved in a draft day trade shortly after, and, while the Browns committed more draft capital to Emerson than they got for Hill, Emerson is under contract for 4 years for much less total than they would have had to pay Hill for just one year.
Emerson is more of an outside cornerback than a slot cornerback like Hill was, but the Browns want to give 2021 1st round pick Greg Newsome an opportunity to play regularly on the slot. Newsome only played on the slot 14.8% of the time as a rookie, but he was PFF’s 35th ranked cornerback as a rookie and didn’t see his performance drop off when he moved to the slot. It is a risk moving his primary coverage position inside, but it could be a risk that pays off and he definitely has the upside to take a step forward in his second season in the league. The Browns also should get more action out of him this season, after he missed five games last season and was limited to just 691 snaps played as a result.
In base packages, Newsome will start outside with another former first round pick Denzel Ward, with Newsome then moving to the slot in sub packages when a third cornerback comes in and plays outside. Ward was selected 4th overall in 2018 and, while he was a surprise pick, he wasn’t a bad choice, finishing 15th, 38th, 21st, and 15th among cornerbacks on PFF in his first four seasons in the league respectively, developing into one of the better cornerbacks in the league already, even only heading into his age 25 season, with potential further upside to grow.
Durability has been a concern, as he hasn’t played more than 855 snaps or missed fewer than two games in a season, but he also hasn’t played fewer than 748 snaps or missed more than four games in a season and the Browns don’t seem concerned with the time he’s missed, making him the 2nd highest paid cornerback in the league this off-season, extending him on a 5-year, 100.5 million dollar deal, ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal in 2022. He should remain one of the better cornerbacks in the league for years to come, just entering his prime.
The rookie Martin Emerson could be the third cornerback who plays opposite Ward when Newsome moves inside in sub packages, but he’ll face competition from another recent high draft pick, Greedy Williams. Williams was selected in the 2nd round in 2019, but his career got off to a disappointing start, as he struggled on 680 rookie year snaps and then missed all of 2020 with injury, after also missing four games as a rookie.
Williams returned in 2021 and wasn’t bad, opening the season as the #4 cornerback, but seeing 591 snaps primarily as an injury replacement and earning an average grade from PFF, while only missing one game of his own. That gives him something to build on going into 2022, still only his age 25 season, but he also could easily regress or get injured again. Williams would probably be a better option than Emerson, who is raw and would likely struggle as a rookie, and Williams is likely the favorite for the #3 cornerback job, but it’s good they have Emerson as an insurance policy.
The Browns also have AJ Green, a 2020 undrafted free agent who has only played 177 career snaps, but he started the final two games of last season and showed a lot of promise, allowing just one catch for two yards on 10 targets, with two pass breakups and an interception, ranking as PFF’s #2 ranked cornerback across those two games. Obviously it’s a small sample size and he’s unlikely to open the season in a significant role, but he should have an inside track to a roster spot as a promising development prospect and it’s possible he could find himself in the starting lineup again at some point depending on injuries ahead of him on the depth chart. He’s another good insurance policy to have, given the promise he showed last season.
At safety, John Johnson is locked into one starting job, going into the second year of the 3-year, 33.75 million dollar deal the Browns signed him to last off-season. Johnson was PFF’s 36th ranked safety in his first season in Cleveland, but that was actually the 2nd worst finish of the 2017 3rd round pick’s career and the worst aside from a 2019 season in which he played just 395 snaps in 6 games due to injury, the only season of his career in which he played fewer than 15 games. In 2017, 2018, and 2020 respectively, he ranked 11th, 8th, and 3rd respectively among safeties on PFF and, still only in his age 28 season, he has the upside to bounce back to that level in 2022. Even if he doesn’t, he should remain an above average starter like he was last season.
At the other safety spot, Grant Delpit and Ronnie Harrison will compete for the starting role. Both have the potential to be starting caliber players and whoever loses the battle for the starting job will be a good backup and insurance policy, but it’s also a good thing the Browns have both because both have significant durability concerns and would likely not last the whole season as the starter if they were the only option. Harrison began last season as the starter and played 584 snaps in 12 games, but went down for the year in week 12, at which point Delpit took over.
Delpit was a 2nd round pick in 2020, but missed his whole rookie season with a torn achilles and had to work his way back into action last season, spending most of the year as the backup. He still got to make 7 starts because Harrison and Johnson missed time and he earned an average grade from PFF across 599 snaps, but he missed another two games and is still a projection to a season long starting role, even if he has the upside to develop into an above average starter, still only in his age 24 season, now another year removed from the injury.
Harrison, meanwhile, has missed 13 games in 4 seasons in the league, while never playing more than 14 games in a season. He was a third round pick back in 2018 and flashed a lot of potential in 2020, finishing as PFF’s 14th ranked safety, but that came on just 325 snaps and he has otherwise been middling at best in his career. He’s only going into his age 25 season and still has the upside to develop into a solid starter at least, but the Browns didn’t pay much to keep him as a free agent this off-season, bringing him back on a just 1-year, 1.235 million dollar deal when his market didn’t develop, and Delpit seems like the more likely option to start, now in his third year in the league. This is a pretty deep secondary, although that depth could easily be tested given how many injury prone players they have in this group.
The Browns’ special teams struggled last season, finishing 25th in special teams DVOA, but they added likely upgrades at kicker and punter, with incumbent kicker Chase McLaughlin being replaced by 4th round rookie Cade York and punters Dustin Colquitt and Jamie Gillan, who both saw action last season, being replaced by solid veteran Corey Bojorquez. They also added Jakeem Grant to upgrade their return game, but he tore his achilles in training camp and will miss the whole season, likely leaving their return game to be a weakness again. They also lost one of their two best core special teamers, MJ Stewart, which will hurt, but they still have Sione Takitaki, who was a top-50 special teamer on PFF last season. They’ll probably still be below average, but this should be an improved group.
Deshaun Watson is undoubtedly an upgrade for the Browns at quarterback over Baker Mayfield, but the Browns paid a steep price and took on significant controversy in acquiring him, and they won’t even have him for most of his first season with the team, with backup Jacoby Brissett expected to start at least the first eleven games. The Browns still have one of the best rosters around the quarterback in the league, even after some off-season losses, and will be a tough team to beat with Watson, but it’s going to be tough for them to qualify for the post-season in the loaded AFC without Brissett as their starter for most of the season. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.
Final Prediction: The Browns would be Super Bowl contenders if they had Deshaun Watson available for the whole season and they have one of the best rosters in the NFL around the quarterback, but with Jacoby Brissett starting for most of the season, they will likely finish just outside of the post-season in the loaded AFC.
Prediction: 9-8, 3rd in AFC North