The Cleveland Browns enter the 2021 season with one of the most talented rosters in the NFL with aspirations to contend for the Super Bowl. Not since the late 1980s has a Browns team had this much promise entering a season with playoff experience bolstering their confidence and whetting their appetite for more.
Despite going 11-5 last season, the Browns finished third in the AFC North, so they get the schedule that goes along with it. Although they open the season with a formidable Kansas City Chiefs team on the road at Arrowhead Stadium, their schedule gets quite a bit easier and they could be favored in every other game they play this year.
The keys for the Browns will be building on the offensive success they had last year and adding far more consistency on the defensive side of the ball, as well as significant improvement on special teams.
Andrew Berry, the team's general manager, spent the offseason acquiring talent on defense, including safety John Johnson III, corner Troy Hill, defensive ends Jadeveon Clowney and Takkarist McKinley, linebacker Anthony Walker and then using their top two draft picks on corner Greg Newsome and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.
The Browns bring back the entire offense from last year, including a number of key role players. One of the best offensive lines in the league will continue to open holes for running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt while quarterback Baker Mayfield looks to build on his impressive 12-game stretch to finish out last year.
Missing on last year's offense was consistent speed and vertical plays in the passing game. In addition to getting Odell Beckham Jr. back from an ACL tear, the Browns have seen significant development from last year's sixth-round pick, Donovan Peoples-Jones, and hope that tight end David Njoku can become the franchise tight end they've always envisioned.
The Browns also added Anthony Schwartz in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft. With near Olympic sprinter speed, Schwartz could stretch the field and operate as the Browns' jet player to enhance what was an effective unit last year.
Kevin Stefanski, the team's head coach, will look to expand on what he did last year, continuing to add offensive wrinkles and concepts he simply could not install last year due to a lack of time with an abridged offseason and some personnel limitations.
Dating back to last season, Mayfield was one of the best passers in the league down the stretch for the final 10 games of the regular season as well as both postseason games he played. It was in the playoffs where it truly went from being Chubb's offense to Mayfield's.
Coming back in the second year of a system, the first time Mayfield's been able to do that in his NFL career, his confidence is high. With a healthy Beckham and more spacing on the field, the sky is the limit for what Mayfield and this offense can achieve this season.
This is the relative unknown for the Cleveland Browns entering the 2021 season. Unquestionably, the Browns have more talent, but they now have to make it work. It's a process that could take weeks or potentially months until it's firing on all cylinders.
Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward are tremendous football players. Ronnie Harrison could be poised for a monster year at strong safety. Other than that, the rest of the defense will be unrecognizable from last year.
Jadeveon Clowney replaces Olivier Vernon, who suffered a ruptured Achilles' at the end of last year. The Browns have just one defensive tackle who played last season returning in Jordan Elliott, entering his second season. Sheldon Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi have been replaced by Malik Jackson and one of the more interesting stories on the team in Malik McDowell, as well as Andrew Billings returning after opting out last season due to COVID-19 concerns.
Likewise, the secondary has been a significant focus this past offseason. Greg Newsome has impressed as a rookie and looks like he will start across from Denzel Ward with Greedy Williams as excellent depth.
John Johnson III was the biggest signing for the Browns in free agency as he completely changes the defense. The team is still waiting on Grant Delpit, last year's second-round pick to fully recuperate from the Achilles' injury he suffered last year which has had some complications. A duo of Johnson and Harrison as the starting safeties is an impressive group, but if and when Delpit is ready to contribute, the Browns plan to utilize all three in their dime package.
Anthony Walker is going to call the defense at middle linebacker, but the most anticipated addition to that group is rookie Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. Explosive, he flashed his potential fit immediately in his first snap of preseason action blitzing for a sack.
Not only do the Browns look improved from last year's team that went 11-5, but they only face a third-place schedule and they play against lean divisions in the NFC North and AFC West. Their most difficult game of the season could very well be the opener against the Kansas City Chiefs, but the rest of the schedule is extremely winnable.
Final record: 13-4
Expected Depth Chart
QB: Baker Mayfield, Case Keenum
RB: Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, D'Ernest Johnson, Demetric Felton
FB: Andy Janovich
WR: Odell Beckham, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Anthony Schwartz
WR: Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins, Demetric Felton
TE: Austin Hooper, Harrison Bryant
TE: David Njoku
LT: Jedrick Wills, Chris Hubbard, James Hudson III
LG: Joel Bitonio, Michael Dunn
C: J.C. Tretter, Nick Harris
RG: Wyatt Teller, Blake Hance
RT: Jack Conklin, Chris Hubbard
DE: Myles Garrett, Takkarist McKinley
DE: Jadeveon Clowney, Joe Jackson
NT: Andrew Billings, Malik McDowell, Tommy Togiai
DT: Malik Jackson, Jordan Elliott
WILL: Malcolm Smith, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Mack Wilson
MIKE: Anthony Walker, Tony Fields II
SAM: Sione Takitaki
CB: Denzel Ward, Greedy Williams
CB: Greg Newsome, A.J. Green
SCB: Troy Hill, M.J. Stewart
SS: Ronnie Harrison, Grant Delpit
FS: John Johnson III, Richard LeCounte III
K: Chase McLaughlin
P: Jamie Gillan
LS: Charley Hughlett