Heading into the 2019 season, the Cleveland Browns were the oft discussed flavor of the month, if you will, throughout the entire NFL. With the return of second year quarterback Baker Mayfield and a monumental trade for star receiver Odell Beckham Jr., many throughout the league expected the Browns to finally reign over the rest of the NFL peasants.
Week one was just the start of greatness for the 2019 Browns...until it wasn't. The Browns took a 30-point home defeat squarely on the chin and it didn't get much better the rest of the season. Mayfield didn't make the progress that many expected. Star defensive end Myles Garrett was suspended for the entire season after a melee against Pittsburgh. First year head coach Freddie Kitchens was head coach for just that one season. It was a hype-fueled mess in Cleveland that cost the Browns a GM and a head coach for the fifth time since owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam purchased the team in 2012.
So, the Browns went back to the drawing board. They started with head coach Kevin Stefanski. They added bright, young GM Andrew Berry. Those two went out and signed stud right tackle Jack Conklin to protect Mayfield and Pro Bowl pass catching tight end Austin Hooper. They drafted a future star on the offensive line Jedrick Wills in the first round and star safety Grant Delpit in the second round. Then, just a few weeks ago, they extended star pass rusher Garrett, who will return from said suspension in 2020.
The Berry-Stefanski duo made the most of the aforementioned drawing board, considering they already had a fairly talented group in the building. This offseason? No hype about the Browns. None. In comparison, it's as if the Browns aren't even in the league compared to last season and, if I'm being honest, that scares me. Why? Keep reading.
Let's get to Know the Texans week nine foe - the talented, mercurial Cleveland Browns.
2019 Schedule - Record 6-10, 3rd in the AFC North
L, Tennessee Titans 43-13
W, @ New York Jets 23-3
L, Los Angeles Rams 20-13
W, @ Baltimore Ravens 40-25
L, @ San Francisco 49ers 31-3
L, Seattle Seahawks 32-28
L, @ New England Patriots 27-13
L, @ Denver Broncos 24-19
W, Buffalo Bills 19-16
W, Pittsburgh Steelers 21-7
W, Miami Dolphins 41-24
L, @ Pittsburgh Steelers 20-13
W, Cincinnati Bengals 27-19
L, @ Arizona Cardinals 38-24
L, Baltimore Ravens 31-15
L, @ Cincinnati Bengals 33-23
Browns OFFENSE (in 2019 regular season)
Rushing Yards Per game - 118.8 ypg (12th in the NFL)
Passing Yards Per game - 222.1 ypg (22nd)
Total offense per game - 340.9 ypg (22nd)
Turnovers lost - 28 (21 INT, 7 Fumbles lost)
Projected Browns starting offense in 2020
QB - Baker Mayfield
RB - Nick Chubb
WR - Jarvis Landry
WR - Odell Beckham Jr.
WR - David Njoku (for now)
TE - AUSTIN HOOPER
LT - JEDRICK WILLS JR.
LG - Joel Bitonio
C - J.C Tretter
RG - Wyatt Teller
RT - Jack Conklin
Other Key Offensive pieces
RB - Kareem Hunt
TE - HARRISON BRYANT
WR - Rashard Higgins
FB - ANDY JANOVICH
OT - Chris Hubbard
Bold - Rookie
ALL CAPS - New to team in 2020
The Browns offense went as its polarizing quarterback went in 2019. After a rookie campaign that had him feeling dangerous, Baker Mayfield threw five fewer touchdowns and seven more interceptions in two more games. The Browns struggled to score touchdowns deep in the red zone and that cost them in one score games, especially in the half of the season. There were holes in key spots for this offense and Berry/Stefanski seem to have plugged them all, at least on paper. But, it comes down to Mayfield and his proficiency and efficiency that will drive this offense in 2020.
Mayfield started all 16 games in 2019 and threw for 3,827 yards and just 22 touchdowns. He nearly had a 1:1 TD to INT ratio as he threw 21 interceptions as well. It felt like Monday Morning Quarterbacks struggled placing blame on Mayfield or deposed head coach/play caller Freddie Kitchens. There will be no question this year if Mayfield struggles; however, I don't think that he will. He finally has an offensive line to protect him with the addition of Conklin and Wills at each tackle position. He has a 1-2 POWERFUL punch in the backfield to tote the rock. He has pass catchers galore on the roster. Stefanski graduated, so to speak, from Shanahan/Kubiak/Shanahan University, so Mayfield will get a PhD in offense this season. Will he capitalize? If he does, this is a playoff team. If not, year four could be VERY interesting for Mayfield in 2021.
There may not be a better 1-2 duo in the league than Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. These two can put on a hurting on defenses, led by Chubb who was second in the league in rushing in 2019 (finished 46 yards behind Derrick Henry). Hunt, in his first year in Cleveland, finished with just 179 yards on the ground, but he played just eight games after a half year suspension. With Hunt now available for a full season and the addition of Conklin and Wills, this run game could be superb. Chubb and Hunt fit the Stefanski zone dominant scheme extremely well and it could be a MAJOR problem for defenses on the Browns' schedule.
Wide receivers/Tight ends
The Browns have Jarvis Landry - Pro Bowler. They have Odell Beckham Jr. - Pro Bowler. They signed tight end Austin Hooper - Pro Bowler. They have uber-athletic tight end David Njoku. What's missing from this studly group of pass catchers? Nothing, really and that's hella-scary. The two star receivers combined for 157 catches and each hit the 1k mark in receiving yards. But, no other receiver/tight end added much to the passing game. Njoku played only four games all season long, so signing Hooper was high on the to-do list this offseason. Hunt and Chubb are tremendous receivers, combining for 73 catches, but expect a decent majority of those targets/receptions to be spread amongst the aforementioned top four pass catchers in 2020.
Watching the Browns last season, I really felt for Mayfield. He was sacked 41 times, but it felt like 61. He took hits all season long and, in my opinion, that pounding impacted his timing in the pocket and pocket mechanics throughout his second season. This year, though, there will be no excuses, honestly. Jack Conklin arrives to take over at right tackle. Jedrick Wills Jr. will need to get up to speed quickly, but he's as talented as anyone the Browns have had at left tackle since Joe Thomas. If he turns into Joe Thomas, whoa, look out. In year one, though, he just has to be good enough to keep Mayfield upright. The interior is solid, led by guard Joel Bitonio, now in his seventh year as a starter. This group should take a monumental leap forward due to improved personnel and a new scheme.
Browns DEFENSE (in 2019 regular season)
Rushing Yards Allowed Per game - 144.7 ypg (30th in the NFL)
Passing Yards Allowed Per game - 216.9 ypg (7th)
Total offense Allowed per game - 361.6 ypg (22nd)
Turnovers generated - 20 (14 INT, 6 Fumble recoveries - Browns were -8 in TO margin)
Projected Browns starting defense in 2020
DE - Myles Garrett
DT - Larry Ogunjobi
DT - Sheldon Richardson
DE - Olivier Vernon
OLB - JACOB PHILLIPS
ILB - Sione Takitaki
OLB - Mack Wilson
CB - Denzel Ward
S - KARL JOSEPH
S - GRANT DELPIT
CB - Greedy Williams
Other Key Defensive pieces
DT - JORDAN ELLIOTT
DE - ADRIAN CLAYBORN
CB - Terrance Mitchell
LB - B.J. GOODSON
Bold - Rookie
ALL CAPS - New starter in 2020
Defensive coordinator Joe Woods has been around the block, if you will, and he's now charged with turning this group of athletes into a disruptive, cohesive defense that dominates games. To do just that, Woods will need to shore up a shoddy run defense in a division that features Lamar Jackson, James Conner, Joe Mixon and others. In 2019, the run defense was abysmal, yet there was more than enough talent on hand to be much more effective against the run. This overall defense is incredibly gifted, yet has to take the next step. If it can in 2020, this Browns squad is going to make it to the playoffs, at a minimum.
Defensive line/Edge rushers
In 2019, the Browns beat the Steelers on a Thursday night and it appeared as if the Browns had an outside shot at potentially making a run for a wild card. But, that night, the unthinkable happened late in the game and it cost typically cool-as-a-cucumber star edge rusher Myles Garrett the rest of the season and a major hit to his reputation. It didn't impact his wallet, though, that's for sure. The Browns locked up the former Texas A&M uber-athlete with one of the richest contract extensions in the history of the game. Now, he's more than worth it and he's one of the most athletically gifted players this league has seen. The sad part about his suspension was that he was really just coming into his own. He had ten sacks in ten games before he was suspended for the season. The interior star is Larry Ogunjobi who had 5.5 sacks in his second year as a full-time starter. The Browns drafted Missouri star (Westside HS alum) Jordan Elliott to add some twitch and disruption as well.
If there's a spot where the Browns might be most vulnerable on either side of the ball, it's here. Former Pro Bowler Joe Schobert took the money and ran to Jacksonville. Christian Kirksey ran out of time in Cleveland. So, it's Mack Wilson and a bunch of question marks. Rookie Jacob Phillips could play a significant role, but relying on a rookie in this division at linebacker could be difficult. Sione Takitaki is penciled in as the starter at middle linebacker, but the Browns signed B.J. Goodson to compete for that spot as well.
The Browns have used a ton of money and draft resources to build this secondary. They have two former first round picks and two former second round picks in the starting four. What they don't have is a ton of depth beyond the top four of Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams at corner and Karl Joseph and rookie Grant Delpit at safety. In fact, those two safeties will create a new safety tandem as neither player has played a down for Cleveland. Talented group? Oh yes. Long way to go? Absolutely.