Off-season report card: Cleveland Browns
2016: 1–15, fourth in AFC North
Significant Additions: C JC Tretter (FA), OG Kevin Zeitler (FA), DE Myles Garrett (R1), SS Jabrill Peppers (R1), TE David Njoku (R1), WR Kenny Britt (FA)
Significant Losses: QB Robert Griffin III, WR Andrew Hawkins, QB Josh McCown, DB Tramon Williams, WR Terrelle Pryor, DT Stephen Paea, S Jordan Poyer
First- and second-round picks Myles Garrett and Jabrill Peppers add some much needed oomph to a run defense which gave up 4.6 yards per carry last season, but the big improvement here is along the offensive line, which has the chance to coalesce into something special.
Coach Hue Jackson, operating under the safe assumption that a powerful running offense and elite protection will make life easier for whoever is eventually tabbed as their starting quarterback, re-stocked an offensive line that produced 4.9 yards per carry a year ago with free agent additions J.C. Tretter at center and Kevin Zeitler at guard. Tretter, 26, was playing the best football of his life in Green Bay last season before a knee injury cut his 2016 short. And Zeitler had emerged in Cincinnati as the top all-around guard in football in many eyes.
Put simply, it’s the Cowboys model; Take an outstanding offensive line, a 1,500 yard runner, and watch your rookie quarterback flourish. The Cowboys just happened to find the line, runner and QB in the span of six drafts and the Browns have been putzing around since choosing Joe Thomas to anchor the offensive line in 2007.
Obviously, Jackson would like to speed up the process, and despite a 1–15 finish, he seems to be identifying future long-term starters on both sides of the ball at a faster rate than his predecessors. Weakside linebacker Chris Kirksey and cornerback Jamar Taylor each offered promising performances for a defense that gave up the second-most yards in the NFL in 2016. Joel Bitonio, 25, was back in 2014 form until an October Lisfranc injury ended his season.
Is the quarterback of the future on the roster yet? Jackson has to hope second-round pick Deshone Kizer puts a stop to the QB carousel that has defined the Browns for the last two decades and some change, but he has his detractors, who point to his on-field decision-making, inaccuracy (Kizer tossed at least one pick in 15 of 23 starts) and decision to leave school a year early. He’s a project, and one the Browns appear comfortable resting on the bench until the offense is good and ready for a daisy-fresh rookie.
The biggest marker for success in Browns-land this season will not be Kizer’s play, but the Year Two test for 2016 rookies Emmanuel Ogbah and Corey Coleman. Understandably, the 22-year-old Coleman struggled after breaking his hand in a September practice. The fact that Cleveland had four different passers throwing the ball with regularity last season didn’t help. Ogbah, 23, turned in 5.5 sacks in 16 starts at defensive end, but really struggled against the run despite the anchoring presence of Danny Shelton on the interior line.
As much as Browns fans would like to see some adequate quarterback play for once, this season should be about finding the right solutions for longterm success on the offensive line with two new high-profile starters, and finally putting an end to a porous run defense that has made Cleveland the AFC North’s doormat long before Jackson showed up. If those units can jell early, consider the 2017 offseason a success.