The Cleveland Browns are coming off a disappointing year and need to redeem themselves. They’re doing this whilst trying to implement a new defence and offense under a first-year head coach in a year impacted by COVID-19.
Kevin Stefanski walked into a good situation from a talent perspective, but he has to navigate the challenges of a shortened offseason. He’s also breaking through the Browns self-imposed struggles all while trying to prove he’s up to the job of being a head coach. The early returns have been promising in terms of the team’s plan, organization and how the rookies have performed to this point.
Still, for everything that suggests the Browns should be much better this year, they are in a division with two of the teams least impacted by turnover in a year that will reward teams for continuity in the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers.
The challenge for the Browns is getting up to speed fast enough to be able to compete right out of the gate when they face the Ravens. If not, they could round to form later in the year, becoming a dangerous team potentially in a hole trying to scratch and claw their way into the postseason.
With the additions of Jack Conklin and Austin Hooper in free agency, Andy Janovich in a trade and the selection of Jedrick Wills in the NFL Draft, the Browns are hoping their offense is essentially done for the next two seasons. They have star power in Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry at wide receiver, Hooper at tight end, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt in the backfield and Joel Bitonio and Conklin on the line.
Everything the Browns have done has been with the goal of putting Baker Mayfield in position to excel. He was one of the major selling points for Stefanski taking the job and the organization is completely invested in his success.
Stefanski is putting in a wide zone scheme that he ran as the offensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings, rooted in philosophies made famous by Mike Shanahan. The Browns hired Bill Callahan to coach the offensive line and they plan to use multiple tight end sets a significant amount of the time with Hooper and David Njoku.
The stated goal of Stefanski is to make passes look like runs and make runs look like passes to force defenses to hesitate in their reads, giving the offense an advantage. Nick Chubb was as good as any back in the league last year and should create more opportunities to excel in the passing game for Mayfield.
Beckham and Landry are healthy this season and practicing this year, which is a change from last year where they were already dealing with groin and hip issues respectively that would last through the entire season. Not only does Beckham look like himself in terms of his quickness and ability to cut, but he and Mayfield look like they have more chemistry than ever did last year. The offense has the bulk of the talent on this team and must be the driving force if the Browns are going to be successful.
The defence returns an extremely talented line that didn’t meet expectations last year while the linebackers and safety position were overhauled this offseason. Joe Woods, the team’s new defensive coordinator, is putting less emphasis on the linebacker position and increasing the team’s reliance on the secondary.
Myles Garrett was playing at a Defensive Player of the Year level before he was suspended. Olivier Vernon dealt with injuries that limited his impact after a promising start to the year. Sheldon Richardson was the last man standing and became more impactful in the second half of the year, but the three were never firing on all cylinders at the same time.
The Browns added Adrian Clayborn to improve their edge depth. They drafted Jordan Elliott to help Richardson, but Andrew Billings opted out of this season, so nose remains a question mark.
The Browns opted to release Chris Kirksey and let Joe Schobert walk in free agency, going with a far younger, more economical approach. They signed B.J. Goodson and recently brought in Malcolm Smith, but there is no bankable talent in this group that has proven themselves to this point. The defensive scheme is trying to limit their responsibility, but they still have to step up to the challenge.
Denzel Ward is a capable, proven corner. The rest of the secondary has talent but has to come together and get the job done. Greedy Williams, in no small part to a hamstring injury, struggled as a rookie. The Browns signed Kevin Johnson, who has shined in the slot but is currently recovering from a lacerated liver. They recently claimed M.J. Stewart from waivers after he was jettisoned by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to provide more depth in the slot.
At safety, the Browns cleaned house save for Sheldrick Redwine and J.T. Hassell. The Browns brought in Karl Joseph, Andrew Sendejo and rookie Grant Delpit. Woods wants to be able to utilize three safeties on the field.
Predicted Record: 9-7
There are a number of hurdles placed in front of the Browns, but they do have a much kinder schedule than last year. The Browns might scuffle early as the team takes time to gel, but the goal is for them to gain momentum as the season progresses and find a way to squeeze into the expanded playoff field. If they can get into the playoffs, this experience to prepare them for a more serious run in 2021.