- The MMQB’s Andy Benoit ranks every NFL team based on roster talent and gives 10 thoughts on each club throughout training camp. The No. 31 Cleveland Browns will be better than last year’s 1-15 record, but they’ll still face an uphill battle because of their limited passing game
1. I watched every Browns game on film last season and not once did I feel that this team was a joke. It was simply a rebuilding club that lacked talent in too many areas. Under Hue Jackson, the Browns had an identity and their game plans had cohesion and purpose. They played hard and made opponents earn their wins. Unfortunately, those opponents happened to earn a lot of wins. But this team was better than 1-15 suggests. It was certainly respectable.
2. This year’s Browns team is better than last year’s, but we may not see much improvement in the passing game. In today’s NFL, a deficient aerial attack will keep you in the gutter. A lot comes down to whether second-round rookie QB DeShone Kizer can emerge as the starter. If he can’t, the Browns must rely on Cody Kessler or Brock Osweiler, who have flaws (with Kessler, it’s arm strength; with Osweiler, pocket movement and decision-making). The problem is there are no proven weapons to throw to. Coming out of Baylor, where wide receivers don’t develop in an unconventional spread offense, Corey Coleman had to basically learn the position from the ground up. That doesn’t happen over the course of one year. Starting opposite Coleman will be Kenny Britt, whose consistency is compromised by route running glitches and drops. At tight end, the Browns will lean heavily on first-round rookie David Njoku. Besides adjusting to the faster NFL, Njoku must learn a variety of complex rules, as Jackson’s system is demanding of tight ends.
3. In some respects, Cleveland’s best passing game weapon is backup running back Duke Johnson. He had some highlight-reel blitz pickups last season, and as a pass catcher he’s dangerous out of the backfield or on short-area routes from the slot or out wide. That’s why he’s the only running back in the NFL to have more than 500 yards receiving in each of the last two seasons. The Browns are experimenting with him as their fulltime slot receiver.
4. Something Hue Jackson will do to help his quarterbacks and his young skill players is use “closed formations.” In other words, he’ll put all the wide receivers to one side of the field and a line-of-scrimmage-tight end alone on the other side. This forces the defense to unbalance, which limits its ability to disguise its intentions.
6. Even if 32 years of age is catching up to Thomas, he has the fundamentals to keep going. What’s always made him great is his footwork, particularly in pass blocking. When an offensive tackle drop-kicks against pass rushers, it’s important he keep his feet low to the ground. When your feet leave the ground, you’re vulnerable to bull rushes and redirection moves. You want your foot to skim the grass, like a lawn mower. Thomas has been great here.
8. Cleveland’s second biggest problem on D was missed tackles and poor run fits from the safeties. The issue was especially bad out of split safety looks (such as Cover 2), where the safeties were back deep. And so it was no surprise that with the 25th overall pick in the draft, the Browns took Michigan hybrid thumper Jabrill Peppers. And a few months later, they traded declining linebacker Demario Davis for Jets former first-round safety Calvin Pryor. The more that new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams trusts his safeties, the more aggressive and creative his play-calling becomes.
9. What also contributes to a defensive coordinator’s aggression is how much he likes his cornerbacks. If guys can cover one-on-one, you gain freedom with your linebackers and safeties. A lot this year will come down to Joe Haden. He looked like his old superstar self in the first few weeks of last season, but then injuries set in and his play deteriorated. Haden is only 28; if he’s healthy, he can shadow No. 1 receivers. The corners around Haden could be hit or miss—in a good way. It took former Dolphins second-round pick Jamar Taylor three years plus the first half of last season to get all the mistakes out of his system. Once he did, he emerged as a solid slot corner. Solid enough, in fact, that the Browns signed him to a three-year, $15 million extension in December. Joining Taylor in nickel will either be ex-Titan Jason McCourty or second-year man Briean Boddy-Calhoun. On the surface, it probably seems like this is McCourty’s job to lose. He was a starter in Tennessee, from 2011 to ’16. But don’t sleep on Boddy-Calhoun. He became pretty adept against vertical routes along the boundary last season.
10. If Gregg Williams feels his corners can match up, expect the Browns to blitz aggressively and often. With dynamic athletes such as Peppers and ex-Patriot Jamie Collins in the middle of the field, plus a dearth of pure pass rushers outside of Garrett, it just makes too much sense. Williams’s instinct has always been to bring pressure, especially early in games.
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