Houston Texans at Cleveland Browns: 2020 Week 10 NFL Pick

Houston Texans (2-6) at Cleveland Browns (5-3)

The Browns are 5-3, but their 5 wins have come by a combined 42 points, while their 3 losses have come by a combined 73 points, giving them a point differential of -31 which ranks 24th in the league. In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, the Browns have been even worse, ranking 27th at -1.56%. However, there is reason to believe they can be better than that going forward. 

For one, their issues have been concentrated on the defensive side of the ball, where they rank 30th in first down rate allowed over expected at +2.96%, while their offense ranks 9th in first down rate over expected at +1.39%. Defensive performance tends to be much more inconsistent on a week-to-week basis than offensive performance and my roster rankings suggest the Browns have significantly underperformed their talent level on defense, so I would expect them to be better on that side of the ball going forward, possibly a lot better.

On offense, meanwhile, the Browns are getting significantly healthier. Wide receiver Odell Beckham isn’t coming back, but quarterback Baker Mayfield played at less than 100% for much of the first half of the season and the Browns also get a trio of starters back from absences coming out of their bye this week, with running back Nick Chubb, right guard Wyatt Teller, and tight end Austin Hooper returning from absences of 4 games, 3 games, and 2 games respectively. All three players are key players, especially Chubb and Teller, who led the way for this dominant rushing attack earlier in the season, and with them back in the lineup, the Browns figure to be even better offensively in the second half of the season.

In their first game out of the bye, the Browns will host the Texans, which should be a relatively easy matchup. The Texans have faced above average teams all of their losses, but they’ve lost by an average of 13.4 points per game, while their two wins have come by an average of 9.0 points per game, both against a Jaguars team that is one of the worst in the league. They rank 30th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -3.15% and, though they are better than that in my roster rankings, they aren’t well coached and could easily continue to underachieve. Unfortunately, we’re not getting much line value with the Browns at -4 (my calculated line is Cleveland -6), but the Browns should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes.

Cleveland Browns 30 Houston Texans 24

Pick against the spread: Cleveland -4

Confidence: Low

Las Vegas Raiders at Cleveland Browns: 2020 Week 8 NFL Pick

Las Vegas Raiders (3-3) at Cleveland Browns (5-2)

Last week when looking at the early lines for week 8, I had the Raiders +3.5 at Cleveland circled. The Raiders are just 3-3, but they have had probably the toughest schedule in the league thus far. The easiest opponents they’ve faced are the Panthers and Patriots, which were both road games, and they’ve pulled out upset victories over the Saints and Chiefs. The Browns, who rank 24th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -1.20% and 14th in my roster rankings, aren’t much better than the easiest teams the Raiders have faced, so the Raiders had a good chance to come in and pull the straight up upset, especially if they were to get back left guard Richie Incognito and right tackle Trent Brown, who have been limited to 74 snaps and 73 snaps respectively this season.

Unfortunately, a couple things have changed in the past week to make the Raiders a less favorable bet. For one, Incognito remains out and Brown is apparently truly questionable for this game, so the Raiders still aren’t going to be full strength upfront. On top of that, this line has shifted from 3.5 to 2.5, a big swing, considering 1 in 6 games are decided by exactly a field goal. That happened despite the Raiders losing by 25 points at home, though I don’t really hold that against the Raiders either, against a Buccaneers team that is arguably the best in the league.

The line movement in the Raiders’ favor isn’t warranted though and is almost definitely due to the Browns losing wide receiver Odell Beckham to injury, which I don’t think will be as big of a deal as most think. Wide receiver isn’t as important of a position as the general public thinks and Beckham has been more of a 1b than a true #1 since arriving in Cleveland. In fact, Baker Mayfield’s stats in his career with and without Beckham suggests he’s been a better quarterback without Beckham in the lineup. 

I don’t necessarily buy that the Browns are better without Beckham, but it’s worth noting that Baker has thrown about 20% of his passes to Beckham over the past two seasons and 28% of his interceptions, likely due to his tendency to force the ball into coverage for his star wide receiver. I don’t think Beckham will be missed much. Given that this line is 2.5 now, I actually like the Browns this week, although only slightly and if Brown is able to play for the Raiders, I would probably flip this pick to the Raiders. That’s how close it is.

Cleveland Browns 34 Las Vegas Raiders 31

Pick against the spread: Cleveland -2.5

Confidence: None

Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals: 2020 Week 7 NFL Pick

Cleveland Browns (4-2) at Cincinnati Bengals (1-4-1)

I expected the Bengals to be a competitive team this season. Though they went just 2-14 last season, they lost 8 of those games by one score or less and finished 24th in first down rate differential at -3.47%, primarily due to a capable defense that ranked 18th in first down rate allowed. This season, they looked likely to be improved on offense, with the addition of quarterback Joe Burrow and the return of left tackle Jonah Williams and wide receiver AJ Green from injuries that cost them all of 2019. 

Based on box scores, the Bengals seem like a competitive team, losing just once by more than one score, but they’ve been worse than that suggests, ranking 27th in first down rate differential at -4.23% and 29th in first down rate differential at -4.78% when you factor in the Bengals’ relatively easy schedule. The Bengals’ close games with the Colts and the Browns came in games in which the Bengals lost the first down rate battle by 10.78% and 10.75% respectively. They lost to the Colts despite winning the turnover battle and they needed to go 5 for 5 on 4th down and get a last second garbage time touchdown to cut it to a single score against the Browns, while their one win came by 8 points against a terrible Jaguars team. 

The Bengals’ offense has been marginally better, but AJ Green has not returned to form and this week they’ll be without lead running back Joe Mixon, while their defense has played worse this season than last season, in large part due to injuries. The Bengals’ injury situation on defense has changed since their last matchup with the Browns, but it hasn’t necessarily gotten better. The Bengals will have defensive tackles Geno Atkins and Mike Daniels this time around, but they won’t have fellow defensive tackle DJ Reader, defensive end Sam Hubbard, or top cornerback William Jackson. On top of that, Atkins and defensive end Carlos Dunlap, who led this defense last season, are both over 30 and have taken a significant step back in 2020.

However, the Browns haven’t been that much better statistically than the Bengals this season and they have their own injury concerns on offense, missing right guard Wyatt Teller, running back Nick Chubb, and tight end Austin Hooper, while Baker Mayfield is dealing with a rib issue that seemed to limit him significantly against the Steelers last week. That 38-7 loss in Pittsburgh last week and their 38-6 loss in Baltimore week 1 are the reason why the Browns rank 24th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -2.07%, despite winning and playing pretty well in their other four games. 

It’s possible the Browns would have been much more competitive if Mayfield was healthy, but it’s also possible Mayfield is still not healthy, in which case the Bengals would have a decent chance to pull the home upset this week. There’s too much uncertainty with Mayfield for either side to be worth betting and my calculated line, factoring in Mayfield being less than 100%, is Cleveland -3 anyway, so we’re not getting any line value in either direction. I’m taking the Bengals for pick ‘em purposes, but this is essentially a coin flip and a push is very likely.

Update: The Bengals seem to have internal issues going on with their defense and the defensive coordinator. I still don’t have a strong lean on this game, but that’s enough for me to flip this to Cleveland.

Cleveland Browns 30 Cincinnati Bengals 27

Pick against the spread: Cleveland -3

Confidence: None

Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers: 2020 Week 6 NFL Pick

Cleveland Browns (4-1) at Pittsburgh Steelers (4-0)

The Steelers are undefeated, but I haven’t been that impressed by them. They rank just 13th in first down rate differential at +1.39% and all of their games have been competitive, even though they’ve played probably the easiest schedule in the league, with their opponents combining for a record of just 3-15-1. The Steelers are better on paper than they’ve looked so far this season, but their schedule gets much tougher this week, with the Cleveland Browns coming to town, fresh off an impressive win over the Colts that pushed their record to 4-1.

The Colts were without a key player in linebacker Darius Leonard last week and the Browns will be without a key player in right guard Wyatt Teller this week, but the Steelers will also be without a talented right guard in David DeCastro, whose absence will be bigger for a couple reasons. For one, DeCastro is a more proven player, with Teller playing at a high level to start this season, but almost entirely having no track record of being a high level player before this season. On top of that, the Browns have a more proven backup for Teller than the Browns have for DeCastro, with veteran Chris Hubbard set to step in, and the Steelers are already in trouble on the right side of their offensive line with week 1 starting right tackle Zack Banner also out.

This line, favoring the Steelers by 3.5 at home, suggests the Steelers are about 1.5 points better than the Browns, but I actually have the Browns slightly higher than the Steelers right now. The Browns have a good chance to pull the straight up upset and, even if they don’t, 1 in 4 games are decided by 3 points or less, so there’s a good chance the Browns cover anyway. The most likely results of this game are either team winning by a field goal, both results that would cover this spread. I wouldn’t make this a big play, but the Browns are worth a bet this week in what should be a close game either way.

Pittsburgh Steelers 24 Cleveland Browns 23

Pick against the spread: Cleveland +3.5

Confidence: Medium

Indianapolis Colts at Cleveland Browns: 2020 Week 5 NFL Pick

Indianapolis Colts (3-1) at Cleveland Browns (3-1)

Coming into the season, I expected the Colts to be one of the best teams in the league and, even with a disappointing performance week 1 in Jacksonville, the Colts still rank 3rd in the NFL in first down rate differential at +6.71%. They haven’t faced the toughest schedule, but none of their wins have been that closely fought, including a game last week in Chicago against the previously 3-0 Bears in which the Bears trailed 19-3 before a garbage time touchdown made the final score look closer than the game was.

Going into this week, I was expecting to be betting the Colts again, as small road favorites in Cleveland, but the Colts are starting to get hit by injuries, something that hasn’t affected them in a significant way yet this season. This week, they’ll be without left tackle Anthony Castonzo and linebacker Darius Leonard. Castonzo’s absence isn’t as big as it might seem because the Colts have a capable backup and a strong overall offensive line at the other four positions, but Leonard’s absence is huge because he’s not only one of the best linebackers in the league and arguably the best defensive player on one of the best defenses in the league, but the Colts also don’t have anyone close to filling in what he does on this defense, as their linebacker depth is very suspect. Leonard’s absence should move this line 2-3 points by itself.

This line has moved down to even from 1.5 earlier this week, but that’s a pretty insignificant shift, so we’re not getting real line value with the Colts. The Browns have a high level player missing as well in running back Nick Chubb, but the Browns have a proven feature back behind him on the depth chart in Kareem Hunt, who should be more than capable of carrying the load for a few weeks, and they have arguably the best run blocking offensive line in football. I’m still taking the Colts for pick ‘em purposes, but I have no confidence in that pick.

Indianapolis Colts 24 Cleveland Browns 23

Pick against the spread: Indianapolis PK

Confidence: None

Cleveland Browns at Dallas Cowboys: 2020 Week 4 NFL Pick

Cleveland Browns (2-1) at Dallas Cowboys (1-2)

Coming into the year, I liked the Cowboys’ chances of being a contender, after tough luck in close games in 2019 (0-5 in games decided by 7 points or fewer after going 8-2 in those type of games with roughly the same team in 2018) led to the Cowboys missing the playoffs at 8-8, despite finishing 6th in the league in point differential at +113 and 4th in first down rate differential at +4.28%.

The Cowboys are just 1-2, but they’ve played better than that suggests, with their two losses coming on the road in close games against tough opponents in the Seahawks and Rams. Their one win was an improbable comeback over the Falcons, in which they needed to recover an onside kick to win, but there were some fluky things that led to the Cowboys needing to come back in the first place, like the Cowboys losing a trio of fumbles early. The Cowboys won the first down rate battle in that game by 10.80% and overall rank 7th in the league on the season at +4.38%, very much in line with how they played last season. That’s a good sign for their chances going forward.

What’s even more impressive is that the Cowboys have done this while not being close to full strength, missing their dominant offensive tackle duo of Tyron Smith and La’El Collins, pass catching tight end Blake Jarwin, every down linebacker Leighton Vander Esch and his potential replacement Sean Lee, and starting cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Anthony Brown. They’re not the only team in the league to have significant injuries right now, but they’ve played well in spite of them, primarily due to quarterback Dak Prescott seemingly being on his way to his best season yet. If they can get healthy soon, they could easily be a dangerous team.

The Cowboys do get one key player back from injury this week in left tackle Tyron Smith, who is set to return from a 2-game absence. Unfortunately, the Cowboys have a tough matchup for Smith’s first game back, as even with Smith in the lineup, I have the Browns slightly higher in my roster rankings. The Browns’ season has started with a blowout loss to a dominant Ravens team and easy wins against the Bengals and Redskins (The Bengals needed to go 5 for 5 on 4th down just to cut the lead to 5 points at the last second). They haven’t been overly impressive, but they’re getting healthier and have been particularly impressive on the offensive line, where all five starters have played at a high level, a great sign, given that their offensive line was the primary reason for their disappointing 2019 season.

The Browns enter this game 10th in my roster rankings, a couple spots ahead of the Cowboys, who don’t have full homefield advantage either, so this 4.5-point line is too high. I wouldn’t go crazy betting on the Browns because I still like the Cowboys’ chances long-term if they can get healthier, but this should be a close game, with the most likely results being either team winning by exactly a field goal, two outcomes that would both result in a Browns cover.

Dallas Cowboys 30 Cleveland Browns 27

Pick against the spread: Cleveland +4.5

Confidence: Medium

Washington Mascots at Cleveland Browns: 2020 Week 3 NFL Pick

Washington Mascots (1-1) at Cleveland Browns (1-1)

The Browns got blown out in week 1 in Baltimore, losing 38-7 in a game in which they lost the first down rate differential by 17.39%, but the Ravens are on a dominant regular season run dating back to last season, and the Browns bounced back in week 2. They only beat the Bengals by 5, but the Browns actually won the first down rate by 10.78%, with the Bengals only able to keep it close because they went 5 for 5 on 4th down and got a late meaningless touchdown. 

The Browns have some injuries, missing defensive end Olivier Vernon and probably top cornerback Denzel Ward, but they’re hardly the only banged up team right now and they still rank 15th in my roster rankings. Their opponents this week, in addition not having a team name, are missing one of their few top level players, Brandon Scherff, without whom they have one of the worst offensive lines in the league. They pulled off the upset week 1 against a banged up Eagles team that looked bad again in week 2 even when they were healthier, but they’re still one of the least talented teams in the league, about 8 points behind the Browns in my roster rankings. That suggests a line favoring the Browns by about 10, so we’re getting good line value with this number at 7. This isn’t a big play, but the Browns are worth a bet this week.

Update: Denzel Ward is a surprise active for the Browns, and Adrian Clayborn, a valuable situational rusher who was questionable, will play as well. Strangely, this line has stayed put at a touchdown. I like the Browns enough for this to be a bigger play. They should win this one fairly easily.

Cleveland Browns 24 Washington Mascots 12

Pick against the spread: Cleveland -7

Confidence: High

Cincinnati Bengals at Cleveland Browns: 2020 Week 2 NFL Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (0-1) at Cleveland Browns (0-1)

Both of these teams lost their season opener. For the Bengals, it was their 22nd loss in their last 25 games, dating back to their week 9 bye in the middle of the 2018 season, including a league worst 2-14 in 2019. The Bengals were better than last season’s record suggests though. Of their 14 losses, 8 were decided by 8 points or fewer, while both of their wins came by 10 points or more, even though they had the 3rd worst turnover margin in the league at -14.

Turnover margins and close game records tend to be unpredictable on a year-to-year basis and, in terms of first down rate differential, the Bengals ranked 24th at -3.47%, certainly not good, but not at the worst in the league either. They also should have better quarterback play with rookie #1 overall pick Joe Burrow coming in and they should have better health in the receiving corps and on the offensive line, particularly with top receiver AJ Green and left tackle Jonah Williams returning after missing all of 2019.

The Bengals’ opener was more of the same though, losing the turnover battle by two and the game by three, despite winning the first down rate battle by 1.68%. That doesn’t necessarily mean that will continue though. Case in point, the Bengals’ week 1 opponents, the Chargers, had a 2-9 record in games decided by 8 points or fewer and a league worst -17 turnover margin in 2019, leading to them going just 5-11 despite ranking 7th in first down rate differential, but in week one they managed to win a close game and win the turnover battle. 

This week the Bengals go to Cleveland and are 6-point underdogs even though it’s a short trip and the Browns will be limited to 6,000 fans in the stadium. That suggests the Bengals are a little underrated because of all of their recent close losses. The Bengals are missing key defensive tackle Geno Atkins with injury and fellow starter Mike Daniels as well, but the Browns, while they aren’t missing anyone of Atkins’ caliber, are very thin at cornerback and linebacker, where they are missing multiple expected contributors at each position. I have this line calculated at Cleveland -4.5, so we’re not getting a ton of line value, but the Bengals should be the choice for pick ‘em purposes. They might not win, but they should at least keep it competitive like they have most of their recent games. 

Update: The Browns will be without defensive end Olivier Vernon as well, while right tackle Jack Conklin is reportedly only going to be available in emergency situations. Both got limited practice in this week, but it wasn’t enough for them to be cleared to start on a short week. Those are two significant absences, but this line hasn’t moved in most places. If you can still get +6, this is worth a bet. The Browns are very banged up and the Bengals have enough talent to be at least competitive in most of their games.

Cleveland Browns 26 Cincinnati Bengals 23

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +6

Confidence: Medium

Cleveland Browns at Baltimore Ravens: 2020 Week 1 NFL Pick

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

The Ravens finished last season as far and away the top team in the league in first down rate differential at +8.87%, a significant edge over the 2nd ranked 49ers at 5.29%. They were even better after making some defensive additions, including cornerback Marcus Peters, with a 13.32% first down rate differential from week 7 (their first week with Peters) to week 16 (their last meaningful regular season game). 

That all fell apart in their first playoff game, when they lost 28-12 at home to the Titans, but that game was a lot closer than the final score suggested, with the game swinging on a -3 turnover margin and an 0 for 4 on 4th downs by the Ravens, two things that were both very uncharacteristic for the Ravens and that are highly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. The Ravens only lost the first down rate differential by 3.24% in that game and they were facing a Titans team that was playing at a high level at the time, so I don’t really hold that against them much.

The oddsmakers don’t seem to hold that against them much either, as the Ravens enter the season with the 2nd best odds to win the Super Bowl at +650 according to SBD, right behind the defending champion Chiefs who are at +600. I would like the Ravens’ chances better if they didn’t have to cut Earl Thomas for disciplinary reasons, but on paper the Ravens are clearly one of the top few teams in the league and I have them representing the AFC in the Super Bowl in my season preview

That being said, I do think the Ravens are a little overvalued in this one as 7.5-point home favorites over the Browns, without any fans in the stadium. I have the Browns as a top-15 team going into the season and about 5 points behind the Ravens in my rankings, as they should benefit from improved offensive line play and coaching. I have this line calculated at around 6, so we’re getting some line value with the Browns, though I wouldn’t be eager to bet on them in this one because of how the Ravens ended last year’s regular season.

Baltimore Ravens 30 Cleveland Browns 24

Pick against the spread: Cleveland +7.5

Confidence: Low

Cleveland Browns 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Offensive Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Running Backs

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

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

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

Grade: A

Edge Defenders

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

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

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

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

Grade: B

Linebackers

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

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

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

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

Grade: C-

Secondary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Conclusion

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

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

Final Update: The Browns have been hit with some pre-season injuries, most notably a season ender for safety Grant Delpit, but they could still sneak into the last wild card spot.

Projection: 9-7 (3rd in AFC North)