The Departed: Joe Thomas (Retirement), Jason McCourty (Trade with Patriots), Isaiah Crowell (Jets), Danny Shelton (Trade with Patriots), Deshone Kizer (Trade with Packers), Cody Kessler (Jaguars)
New Faces/Retained: Tyrod Taylor (Trade with Bills), Jarvis Landry (Trade with Dolphins), Carlos Hyde, Chris Hubbard, EJ Gaines, Damarious Randle (Trade with Packers), TJ Carrie, Terrence Mitchell, Donald Stephenson, Chris Smith, Donald Fells, Drew Stanton
The Browns have won one game over the past two years. Yet, they are possibly the most interesting team in the entire league. Say what you want about the Sashi Brown experiment and there is a strong argument to be made that he didn’t draft the correct players. But nonetheless, Brown set the Browns up with an insane amount of draft and salary cap capital as well as with some young pieces to build around.
As you can see above, since taking over for Brown, John Dorsey has been busy to add to Cleveland’s roster. Watching how this team changes on the field from 2017 to 2018 will be very intriguing, but what can’t be qualified and has obviously plagued this team pretty much since rejoining the league is how do you change the culture into a winning one?
Even if Dorsey gets it right with these moves and in the upcoming draft where Cleveland has the first and fourth overall picks, is Hue Jackson the right guy to change the culture in Cleveland? There isn’t much to inspire the answer to that question to be “Yes” as we stand watching from afar, but one thing is certain: For the Browns to become competitive on the field, the turnover situation has to change dramatically.
In 2017, the Broncos turned the ball over 17 more times than they took it away over their 16 games. That was 31st in the NFL. Cleveland’s turnover differential was -28. The Browns gave the ball away 1.75 times on average per game more than their opponent last year! They were last in the league in takeaways (just one fewer than the Bengals and Raiders), but had seven more giveaways and six more interceptions than any team in the NFL.
That of course leads us to Cleveland’s quarterback situation. Surely you have seen the Browns’ jersey with far too many names to list of players that have lined up behind center since Cleveland re-joined the NFL. It is one of the most insane runs of futility in sports.
Last year, DeShone Kizer attempted 476 passes, Kevin Hogan 75 and Cody Kessler threw the ball 23 times. Kessler didn’t throw an interception, but Hogan threw one to the other team four times and Kizer had 11 interceptions, quite a ew of which came deep in enemy territory.
Jackson is the one that is most to blame for this. First off, Kizer wasn’t ready to be a NFL starter. This is a player that needed time to develop. That was very obvious. But of course he was rushed into the action and asked to save the team. But what did Jackson do? He publicly didn’t support Kizer, pulled him in and out of games for Hogan and Kessler and making matters worse, schematically did very little to help his young quarterback.
The Browns receiver situation didn’t help things, especially before Josh Gordon really emerged late in the year. This unit couldn’t execute a schemed up passing game. So, what happened? Kizer was asked to sit in the pocket while long developing isolation routes were needed to be won by sub par receivers. Unlike what we saw in say Los Angeles with Jared Goff, the scheme and situation couldn’t have helped the Browns young quarterback any less. And oh by the way, the winless Browns were almost always down on the scoreboard late in games. Do you think NFL defensive coordinators then took it easy on Kizer out of the kindness of their hearts? Now that isn’t to say Kizer doesn’t deserve blame for poor play. But what was asked of him was a nearly impossible task and reflects very poorly on management.
Well, Kizer is gone and the Browns surely will use the first pick in the draft on a quarterback, presumably Sam Darnold. For the sake of this article/analysis, we are going to take a leap of faith and assume that Dorsey will draft a quarterback first overall. But in the meantime, Tyrod Taylor has been added.
Taylor, as much as any quarterback in the NFL, does not turn the ball over. You can read more about that here (Please insert link). His athletic ability, especially as a runner, is well known and having such a weapon as a ball carrier should enhance any offense Taylor is running. Taylor is also an exceptional deep passer and new offensive coordinator, Todd Haley, and Jackson would be crazy not to stretch the field with some regularity while also relying on Cleveland’s ground game to stay ahead of the down and distance situations. Taylor doesn’t always let the ball fly when he should and that makes coaches bonkers, but there is no doubt that Cleveland’s ridiculous turnover numbers will decrease as long as Taylor stays on the field.
The thing is, chances are Darnold (or whomever) will play in 2018. Patrick Mahomes played the Week 17 meaningless finale, but pretty much every other highly drafted quarterback in recent memory has been thrusted into a starting role during his rookie season…for better or worse. But Browns fans, just know that is most likely coming at some point.
On paper, the players around Taylor and the highly touted rookie look quite strong with one notable exception that will be very difficult to fix in the draft. Of course that hole right now is left tackle, where the perennially fantastic Joe Thomas has hung up his cleats. Thomas’ next stop is right down the road in Canton, Ohio.
At this time one year ago, many of us thought that Cleveland might boast one of the NFL’s best offensive lines after signing JC Tretter and Kevin Zeitler. Overall, this was probably a middle of the pack line in 2017 and their run blocking was much better than most realize. But game script didn’t always lend itself to sticking with the running game late in contests. When Thomas was injured the offensive tackles subsequently become liabilities in protection.
Chris Hubbard filled in quite ably at right tackle for Pittsburgh last year and is ready for a full time role. But replacing Thomas will come from the combination of Shon Coleman, Spencer Drango, Donald Stephenson and you would think a second day draft pick should also be in that mix. So at least there are several options that could end up working out. None will be Thomas.
From right to left on the interior, Zeitler, Tretter and Joel Bitonio all played over 1,000 snaps in 2017. There is no reason to believe this won’t be one of the better interior offensive lines in the NFL this year.
The Browns now have quite the assembly of skill position players around their new quarterbacks. We all know about Gordon’s off the field issues, but he showed once again that he is a very special player when he is in the mix. Gordon should be even better in 2018 and it isn’t far fetched to suggest that he could quickly find himself in that Antonio Brown/Julio Jones/Odell Beckham stratosphere of NFL wide outs. Gordon is that gifted.
Jarvis Landry provides reliability and toughness. A short to intermediate chain-mover, Landry will be leaned on heavily for consistent production by whoever is throwing him the ball. Kizer would have loved to have someone like this! The Browns receivers dropped an awful lot of passes in 2017 as well.
The book shouldn’t yet be written on Corey Coleman, Cleveland’s first round pick in 2016. You do get the feeling that this is an absolutely crucial season in his development and career though and this regime has no loyalties to Coleman. However, his style of play, particularly outside the numbers, could really complement Gordon and Landry extremely well as well as providing Taylor a deep threat.
Another first round pick, David Njoku, really began to establish himself as his rookie season went along despite playing in some very difficult circumstances in which to succeed. His receiving talent is obvious to even an untrained eye.
Last year, Duke Johnson was as much wide receiver as he was running back, often acting as Cleveland’s slot receiver. Johnson is an excellent player and with the new wealth of skill position talent around him, he might find a lot more one-on-one linebacker matchups in the passing game while still helping out as a ball carrier.
Unless Cleveland adds an early round draft pick at running back, Carlos Hyde will carry the load here. Staying healthy has plagued Hyde throughout his career and many don’t see him as a contributor in the passing game. But Hyde is a competent receiver and showed that last year in Kyle Shanahan’s system, although his protection skills leave something to be desires. Hyde returns to Ohio to carry the load for his new team and has the skillset to excel if this offense gels like it is clearly capable.
The defensive side of the ball is also very intriguing. And, on paper at least, looks to be very much trending upward.
The straw that will stir the drink on this side of the ball is the first overall pick from a year ago, Myles Garrett. Garrett only played a little over 500 snaps as a rookie in 11 game appearances. But there is no reason that he can’t be a Defensive Player of the Year level performer for years to come.
Right now, Cleveland could use another threat off the edge opposite Garrett. That isn’t a knock on Emmanuel Ogbah and Cleveland also added Chris Smith from the Bengals. Ogbah and Smith might be best used on the interior on throwing downs and the Browns currently are missing a true speedball to complement Garrett. Carl Nassib and Nate Orchard also will contribute, but are not difference makers and don’t fit this description. Bradley Chubb isn’t a real speedball, but he would look awfully nice opposite Garrett if Cleveland grabbed him with the fourth overall pick. The biggest weakness of Cleveland’s defense last year was their pass-rush. More snaps from Garrett will help, but more is needed to correct the issue.
The interior is now missing Danny Shelton, but this scheme is looking for more upfield penetration from their defensive tackles, which isn’t really Shelton’s game. This is a position that needs more depth. But last year’s third round pick, Larry Ogunjobi, is one of the best players at his position that few have heard of. Ogunjobi can become a star, especially as he improves his hands usage. Caleb Brantley, Trevon Coley and Jamie Meder round out the Browns big men on defense. This position certainly could be addressed with one of Cleveland’s very early second round picks, preferably with a prospect that can affect the quarterback from the interior.
One area of the team where Dorsey has done little to address is at linebacker. Jamie Collins and Christian Kirksey could be the every down players on the second level, although it should be noted that Joe Schobert played over 1,000 snaps a year ago and played them very well. Collins is the most recognizable name and certainly the most talented. He is capable of great individual plays, but also lacks consistency. Kirksey is the opposite, but his range and speed shouldn’t be overlooked. Schobert plays with a physical edge and plays the run well. He proved to be very difficult to get off the field last year and might bump Collins to the bench in certain situations. The combination of Kirksey and Schobert is much better in all facets than many probably realize.
Last year, the Browns used yet another first round pick, Jabrill Peppers, as an extremely deep midfield player on a very high number of snaps. Peppers was more or less a linebacker in college and needs to be aligned closer to the formation to best utilize his wide array of abilities.
Trading for Damarious Randle, another former first rounder, theoretically could make that possible for Peppers. The Browns are wisely moving Randle back to his natural free safety position. He played cornerback in Green Bay. Acquiring Randle shouldn’t preclude the Browns from drafting a free safety however, but Derek Kindred also played quite well last year. Kindred is an athletic strong safety type that can be disruptive near the line of scrimmage. Maybe we see more three safety personnel groupings, which could also lighten the load on Cleveland’s linebackers.
Cleveland also could draft a cornerback rather high and they have handled this position very peculiarly. Shipping Jason McCourty out for basically nothing made little sense. It was a different front office, but Cleveland basically did the same thing a year ago with Joe Haden. They have added CJ Gaines, TJ Carrie and Terrence Mitchell, who Dorsey is very familiar with from the Chiefs.
Gaines is an excellent player and that addition could pay off tremendously. Gaines and Jamar Taylor should be the starters as of right now with Carrie coming in to play the slot. If Mitchell is just in the mix for depth, that makes sense, but Cleveland gave him a lot of money for such a role. Taylor was a pleasant surprise and Carrie did play well for the Raiders last year. A wild card here is Brien Boddy-Calhoun, who has shown to be a strong man coverage player, but he and Taylor were misused last year with far too much off coverage. The way these coverage schemes were constructed, it was though all the Browns cared about on the backend was not allowing huge completions deep downfield.
As usual, there is an awful lot of change going on with the Browns right now. Could it finally pay off? Maybe. Clearly this roster is far more talented than one of a zero win team. But that was also the case in 2017.