- After a handful of strong moves this offseason, things are trending in the right direction for the team that has one win in the last two seasons.
With the NFL season just a few weeks away, Andy Benoit is previewing every NFL team in reverse order of last season’s finish. Up first: the Cleveland Browns, who finished 0–16 in 2017.
1. It seems strange for the Browns to not name No. 1 draft pick Baker Mayfield their starting quarterback immediately, given that 17 of the last 20 first-round quarterbacks have assumed the first-string duties before the end of their rookie season. One could argue that Cleveland is just wasting valuable practice reps for the young QB by initially naming him the backup to Tyrod Taylor, whom the team acquired from the Bills for the No. 65 draft pick.
In Buffalo, Taylor was an ultra-conservative caretaker quarterback who moved the chains with his legs and on well-crafted play-action rollouts, but he also left throws on the field and struggled with precision accuracy. But Taylor’s appeal likely lies in the fact that he rarely turned the ball over, something that Browns head coach Hue Jackson witnessed all too often last year with rookie DeShone Kizer (who has since been traded to Green Bay). Jackson, with a 1–31 record and working for a new GM (John Dorsey), is coaching for his job this season, and it’s hard to fault him for going with the QB he believes offers the best chance to win right now. But it’s hard to tell whether Dorsey will realize that Mayfield is the better quarterback, and even more so had he received the majority of the snaps in training camp.
2. Cleveland’s scheme—featuring spread formations with isolated routes, forcing the QB to read easily disguised defenses and make difficult downfield throws—did nothing to help Kizer last year and led to many of his interceptions. One theory as to why Jackson, a creative offensive mind, ran an unimaginintive system is because he didn’t fully trust his receiving corps. With so little experience, the group was ill-equipped to handle more layered schematic concepts like pre-snap motion, intertwined routes and post-snap pattern adjustments. Even with Josh Gordon’s status up in the air, things should be different this season. Obtaining Jarvis Landry from the Dolphins (cost: a 2018 fourth-rounder and ’19 seventh-rounder, plus a new contract worth $47 guaranteed for Landry), gives Jackson a receiver to scheme around, including from the slot, which adds a lot of dimension.
3. Any schematic expansion must feature Landry’s underneath receiving prowess. He’s perfect for the quick, defined throws that should be implemented to help Taylor or Mayfield. The Browns also have a flexible receiving tight end in second-year pro David Njoku and a multidimensional tailback in Duke Johnson. These three weapons present a bevy of mismatch-making options, especially if they’re used within the same route combinations.
4. Carlos Hyde wasn’t a great fit in San Francisco’s scheme under Kyle Shanahan, but he’s still a terrific first- and second-down running back. Hyde runs with balance and vision between the tackles and consistently surprises with just enough juice to get outside. It’s befuddling the Browns used a second-round pick on Georgia runner Nick Chubb. Hyde on early downs and Duke Johnson on passing downs already presented a potent 1-2 punch.
5. Browns fans didn’t expect Shon Coleman to get a crack at Joe Thomas’s old left tackle position, especially not after Nevada offensive lineman Austin Corbett was drafted No. 33 overall. But Coleman has three key traits for playing left tackle: light feet, bendable knees and long arms. The mission is now to consistently put them together. If he can, Cleveland could have one of the NFL’s best offensive lines, with ex-Steeler Chris Hubbard securing the right tackle spot and premium guards Joel Bitonio and Kevin Zeitler sandwiching nimble center JC Tretter.
6. The Browns traded Kizer and flip-flopped fourth-and fifth-round picks exchange for disappointing soon-to-be 26-year-old Packers corner Damarious Randall. Cleveland is hoping a move back to the free safety position, where he played at Arizona State, can resurrect Randall’s career. If it does, this trade will upgrade both safety spots, since last year’s 25th overall pick Jabrill Peppers could then play in the box, where his dynamic skills are better suited.
7. Coordinator Gregg Williams runs the league’s most aggressive, high-volume defensive scheme—no team blitzed or disguised coverage more often than the Browns last year. But coaches like Williams walk a fine line between outsmarting opponents and outsmarting their own players, and too often last season the Browns busted their disguised coverages. This is still a relatively young D with new pieces coming together, including No. 4 draft pick Denzel Ward out of Ohio State. Williams may want to consider cutting some pages from his playbook.
8. Expect to see Randall and Peppers align 18–22 yards off the ball. Williams likes to exaggerate his safeties’ depth, because in theory, it removes the transitional movement that comes with backpedaling, allowing the safeties to play more downhill. On the flip side it can afford offenses more space to attack on digs and seam routes, which hurt the Browns in 2018.
9. In another unconventional move, Williams keeps three linebackers on the field almost the entire game. He’ll go to a 3-3-5 nickel package on passing downs and stick with a traditional 4–3 even against three-receiver sets on early downs. The extra linebacking girth is partly why the Browns allowed just 3.4 yards per rush attempt last year, second only to Denver. The drawback is that going 4–3 against three-receiver sets relegates you to zone coverage since linebackers—even fast ones like Christian Kirksey and Jamie Collins—can’t handle most receivers man-to-man.
10. Myles Garrett is special—he’s not quite as pure of an edge-bender as a Von Miller or a Joey Bosa, but he might become the league’s most explosive interior attacker. A multi-directional burst and violent hands make Garrett dominant on inside moves from defensive end or on up-the-field moves from defensive tackle.
BOTTOM LINE: The Browns should expect to win multiple games, maybe even enough to finish higher than fourth in the AFC North. But this team is still a work in progress.
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