clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Browns Mid-season report card: Our writers tell all

Was predicted in pre-season to be a Super Bowl run. How did the first half appear once the squad began to play?

NFL: AUG 29 Preseason - Browns at Falcons Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Browns were supposed to have finally turned the page. Their head coach, Kevin Stefanski, was named NFL Coach-of-the-Year last season. The club turned in an impressive 11-5-0 record and won the sixth playoff spot. They defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in their first playoff game and then had several chances to eliminate the Kansas City Chiefs, yet lost.

The defense was earmarked for a makeover after last year. Brought in were LB Anthony Walker, S John Johnson, CB Troy Hill, DT’s Malik Jackson, Sheldon Day and Malik McDowell, as well as former first-round picks Jadeveon Clowney and Takk McKinley at the defensive end position.

Next, in the draft was brought into the fold CB Greg Newsome, LB’s Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Tony Fields, DT Tommy Togiai plus fifth-round S Richard LeCounte (who at one time was projected as an early second-rounder).

When the dust cleared from the free agency period plus the NFL draft, all arrows were pointing waaaay up for Cleveland going into this season.

The offense needed minimal upgrades, and that is what this unit received. The defense was supposedly fixed with a mix of young players with veterans.

The biggest surprise this year has been on Special Teams. Kicker Chase McLaughlin has provided this offense with a viable option for points, and with range. The punt return coverage group has been excellent every game and is allowing just 8.9 yards averaged per return. Demetric Felton is 26th in the league on punt returns with an 8.4 average.

On paper, this was going to be the Browns’ year. Finally.

So, here we are at the mid-season point after nine games of this 17-game season of the 2021 version of Cleveland Browns football. Our writers debate about where the season has gone so far with players (but not the coaching staff).


Rufio



Quarterback

Biggest Contributor: Baker Mayfield

Biggest Disappointment: Baker Mayfield

Mayfield has been both the biggest contributor and the biggest disappointment, mostly because you only play one QB. Keenum is exactly at expectations: a great clipboard holder, and a guy who can come in and “not lose” a game for you. Baker started the season red-hot, made a bad tackle, and has been inconsistent at best ever since. Hopefully there is some truth to the “forcing the ball to Odell” idea and we get some addition by subtraction, his shoulder stays healthy, and we get to see a return to his early-season form.

Mayfield gets a small bonus here for the person that he is: he is exactly the guy we needed to turn this franchise around. He’s as tough as they come, physically and mentally. Browns fans, if you haven’t already, just commit. Like him or not, this is our QB. Get used to it.

Unit grade: B


Running Back/Fullback

Biggest contributor: Nick Chubb

Biggest disappointment: Andy Janovich

Chubb is the best back alive when healthy. He simply makes yards that others can’t. Kareem Hunt has been running with aggression and does his fair share of tackle-breaking as well, and DEJ finally got a chance with both of them out. Johnson is the type of runner who typically has pulg-and-play success in this system (one-cut runner, speed), and we will need all three down the stretch. This is probably our strongest unit.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cleveland Browns
Nick Chubb
Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Janovich is hurt, but also generally not very threatening. In my opinion a fullback makes sense if he can be a matchup problem for other teams, and is a threat to catch the ball. However, there is arguably only one guy alive who can be that kind of weapon at FB, the 49ers’ Kyle Juszczyk. I’d rather play more TEs most of the time than play our FBs. Still, the backs get an A because of how good our RBs are.

Unit grade: A


Wide Receiver

Biggest contributor: Jarvis Landry

Biggest disappointment: Odell Beckham Jr.

This one is easy. Landry does it all, plays tough, and almost always comes through (save the Steelers game). Odell never really played like Odell in Cleveland, and now he is gone. A huge disappointment for a guy who was explosive and has maybe the best “big catch” potential the world has ever seen.

Unit grade: C+


Tight End

Biggest contributor: David Njoku

Biggest Disappointment: Austin Hooper

Cleveland Browns v Los Angeles Chargers
David Njoku
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Hooper is underrated as a blocker, which I think most fans don’t notice. But he does not have the receiving stats to match his contract, and that is where TEs earn their deals. This is the closest Njoku has come to being a game-breaker since he was drafted, and I’d like to keep him. He has improved as a blocker significantly since the beginning of last year. Harrison Bryant offers a nice receiving threat as well, and has had a few really big catches.

Unit grade: B


Offensive Line

Biggest contributor: J.C. Tretter

Biggest disappointment: Jack Conklin

Tretter does a lot for us, making line calls in addition to actually blocking. He is a leader with the NFLPA off the field as well. This line has largely been excellent, and the reason I am listing Conklin as the disappointment here is simply due to health. Big Jed should get a nod for contribution here, because when he is not in the lineup our OL is night and day – but he has also missed time. I think he is the one irreplaceable guy up front. The injury to Chris Hubbard really hurt our depth because of his ability to swing between any of the G/T spots as a backup. I think Nick Harris is going to be really good if/when he gets an opportunity, but as a center only. Hudson has a lot of upside but will not be ready this year, he needs a “redshirt” to get ready. When we are healthy, we are dominant.

Unit grade: A-


Defensive Line

Biggest Contributor: Myles Garrett

Biggest Disappointment: Andrew Billings

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cleveland Browns
Myles Garrett
Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images

We could use a giant, strong, explosive NT type player on this defense. Billings has had a chance to play that role, but after waiting more than a year to see him he’s been merely ok. With that said, my expectations for Billings weren’t very high to begin with. This has simply been a great unit for the Browns. Jadeveon Clowney has been as advertised: great against the run, good against the pass, and not always healthy. The Malik’s at DT have been better than expected, and I expected good things from Malik Jackson. Myles is one of the best football players on the planet.

Unit grade: A-


Linebacker

Biggest Contributor: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah

Biggest Disappointment: Mack Wilson

When we drafted Wilson in the fifth round, I thought we got a steal. He’s still been a decent late pick, but I have not seen his knack for coverage translate from college to the NFL. Malcolm Smith has been disappointing at times, but then seems to reset my expectations by playing well in the very next game. I can’t figure him out. JOK has been clearly fast, and one of the LBs that we have who can actually make plays. His biggest hurdle has been staying healthy and disciplined. Anthony Walker has been pretty good, but like JOK has not been healthy.

Unit grade: C


Cornerback

Biggest contributor: Greedy Williams

Biggest disappointment: Troy Hill

I almost went with Denzel Ward as my biggest contributor because he’s been the most consistently healthy CB, which has been an issue for Greg Newsome and Ward so far...but then Williams seemed to re-aggravate his shoulder injury in the Bengals game. Each of the three CBs have been good when they are on the field. Williams had me worried with a weak preseason showing, but has seemed to knock off the rust lately. Ward gets the nod because his peak is the highest of the three.

Arizona Cardinals v Cleveland Browns
Greedy Williams
Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Hill was a guy I was excited about, but he always seems a step or two behind his mark this year. Hopefully he can regain his form from last season in the second half of this one. He had a few nice plays coming forward on blitzes against the Bengals with those three sacks. A.J. Green has been a nice rotational player and injury replacement. Overall, CB is extremely hard to play in today’s NFL. Fans may complain about ours but I think this is a “grass is always greener” position.

Unit Grade: B


Safety

Biggest Contributor: John Johnson

Biggest Disappointment: Ronnie Harrison

Johnson has been a bit jumpy at times, but he is a clear upgrade to what we had last year, and has the athleticism and ball skills to make an impact. He’s had a few big plays called back due to questionable penalties, and he should continue to make plays–with hopefully fewer missteps–as he settles in.

Harrison has drawn some dumb penalties and been ejected this season. He has played well against the run as a box safety, but I’d like more from a coverage perspective, and for him to stop the self-inflicted wounds.

Delpit hasn’t been able to displace either starter, and while I think he offers a lot of athleticism his tackling has been suspect at times. Richard LeCounte has yet to see much significant playing time.

Unit grade: C


Special Teams

Biggest Contributor: Chase McLaughlin

Biggest Disappointment: Jamie Gillan

We might have finally found a replacement to Phil Dawson. McLaughlin has been significantly better than expected, and is 11 of 12 as of this writing, including nailing a 57-yarder (kiss of death alert: he missed another FG against the Bengals, but his 86.7% is still better than Dawson’s career 83.8% and 84% in a Browns uniform). McLaughlin hasn’t missed an extra point as a Brown, and is 49 of 50 in his career.

Gillan has already arguably lost us a game by dropping a snap and then trying to run on a fourthth and long instead of punting the ball away. His punts haven’t been spectacular, either. His net average punt is good for 20th in the league, with eight inside the 20-yard line (21st in the NFL). He’s a punter, so I don’t care too much, but he hasn’t been very good.

Unit grade: C

(A+ at kicker and longsnapper, D at punter)


Barry Shuck



Quarterback

Biggest Contributor: Baker Mayfield

Biggest Disappointment: Baker Mayfield

Denver Broncos v Cleveland Browns
Case Keenum
Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

Casey Keenum would not start for 31 clubs but was under center for the Browns and won his lone start so you have to give him credit. In that game, he managed the game well, did not turn the ball over and handed the ball off and let the running game do its job. This Good Baker - Bad Baker has been a roller coaster. Yes, he has an injury. But if he continues to play then he must be expected to still play at a superior level otherwise get him out of there. Sterling against the Bengals without any turnovers, but other games he has been horrible. If you play fantasy football, look to see where he is in your league: Not starting, maybe on somebody’s bench or most likely the waiver wire? Has a 66.7% completion ratio which any quarterback will take. Love the guy, but his lack of consistency has been the issues for me.

Unit grade: B-


Running Back/Fullback

Biggest contributor: Nick Chubb

Biggest disappointment: Andy Janovich

The injury bug has raised its ugly head again for the this unit. Once again, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt have missed time. Now, Andy Janovich has been absent. The emergence of FB Johnny Stanton and RB D’Ernest Johnson lasted all of one game each which is a shame because both proved that they could play and produce. Chubb, when healthy, is one of the league’s beasts. The Browns are built to run and are near or at the top of the league’s top rushing units.

Unit grade: A-


Wide Receiver

Biggest contributor: Donovan Peoples-Jones

Biggest disappointment: Rashard Higgins

Before the season began, this group appeared to be the offensive’s best units. Now? It is in shambles and continues to be a mess. Rashard Higgins supposedly had this huge connectedness with Mayfield yet so far has been MIA. Jarvis Landry has been hurt, but has been inconsistent when healthy while against Pittsburgh had a horrid game in which his fumble and dropped passes became the game’s demise.

New York Giants v Cleveland Browns
Donovan Peoples-Jones
Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Rookie Anthony Schwartz was supposed to be this speed demon but concentrates more on not getting hit. OBJ was a disaster (again) with DPJ having the year’s only decent single-game performances against the Cardinals and Bengals.

Unit grade: C-


Tight End

Biggest contributor: David Njoku

Biggest disappointment: Austin Hooper

Hooper is a very good blocker, but was signed as a two-time Pro Bowler who had terrific reception numbers. That has never materialized. He is essentially a highly-overpaid blocker. Njoku is the most consistent and last year found his blocking skills. Harrison Bryant will shine then drop passes in critical situations. What happened to this group?

Unit grade: C


Offensive Line

Biggest contributor: Wyatt Teller

Biggest disappointment: Chris Hubbard

This unit is one of the best in the league - everyone knows that. But they are built to run and every single player was selected for this. The pass blocking aspects have been suspect at times, especially when five or more defenders are sent. C J.C. Tretter and Teller are having Pro Bowl years. G Joel Bitonio has issues with larger DT’s on passing downs but consistently gets the job done on running plays. RT Jack Conklin has been repeatedly hurt which his replacement was supposed to be veteran Hubbard who once again is out for the year. Hub was this unit’s insurance policy.

Blake Hance is a very good blocker in running downs and porous in passing situations. Jedrick Wills, Jr. dominates in the rushing department, but has trouble with a speedy pass rusher with that first step. Rookie James Hudson isn’t ready to be a starter, or maybe even play at this point. Michael Dunn has been inconsistent when inserted. Nick Harris and Drew Forbes have been on IR for most of the year.

Love the fact the GM Andrew Berry values the offensive line by giving extensions to both guards: Teller and Bitonio.

Unit grade: B+


Defensive Line

Biggest Contributor: Myles Garrett

Biggest Disappointment: Jordan Elliott

The Malik’s are the best storyline for this group. Malik McDowell is playing on a Pro Bowl level and is a valid run stuffer. Malik Jackson still has the legs to chase down a flushed QB and is difficult to move. Teams cannot run against the Browns and is because of these two. Andrew Billings has had some good moments and then is overmatched in others. Rookie Tommy Togiai has been a non-factor. It was expected the Elliott would become the starter but has been very inconsistent and is regularly moved out of the play. Garrett is having another Pro Bowl year and is no doubt one of the league’s best. He was a beast against Cincinnati. Jadeveon Clowney is a very good run stopper and has had his time in the opponent’s backfield but can be outmatched. Takk McKinley needs to be more consistent on pass rushing situations. Joe Jackson is a decent fill-in.

Unit grade: A


Linebacker

Biggest Contributor: Anthony Walker

Biggest Disappointment: Sione Takitaki

Walker is the definite leader of this unit. He began to flourish around the Cardinals game and has been consistent ever since including 13 tackles against the Bengals. Rookie JOK has been lights out before he became injured and is certain to be one of this unit’s best players. Mack Wilson has been inconsistent then is the best player on the field at times. He needs to play at a high level for all four quarters, though.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Kansas City Chiefs
Anthony Walker
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Malcolm Smith is the willy veteran but has been a disappointment in certain games and a world-beater in others. Takitaki just hasn’t been the same guy this year and lacks intensity. Rookie Tony Fields is a decent ST player so far.

Unit grade: C-


Cornerback

Biggest contributor: Greedy Williams

Biggest disappointment: Denzel Ward

It is good to see Williams start to blossom but is injury-prone. He is an amazing tackler which was his greatest determent before. His cover skills have always been an asset and now he is finally starter material. Troy Hill has had him moments including his best game against Cincinnati and then at times appears lost. Greg Newsome has played like a rookie and if someone would show the rook how to turn his head while the ball is in flight he would have more picks than yellow flags. Ward has been hurt and largely a huge disappointment but finally found his rhythm against the Bengals. The Browns need him to remain healthy for any success defensively. A.J. Green is a good tackler but lacks cover corner skills. The biggest question for this group was there were only five turnovers going into the Cincinnati game in which they had three. Hopefully that is a new trend.

Unit Grade: C-


Safety

Biggest Contributor: John Johnson

Biggest Disappointment: Grant Delpit

There are good moments and scratch your head times for Johnson. In the Cardinals game he failed to pick up DeAndre Hopkins and when he scored, appeared perplexed as to why he was so wide open. He is a good player though and has the veteran leadership needed. Rookie Richard LeCounte has had him moments and could develop into a decent option. Ronnie Harrison has been up-and-down. His man scored the crucial touchdown in the Steelers game that ended up winning the game. Grant Delpit is a horrible tackler in the mindset of Sheldrick Redwine. Yes, he is that bad. In consecutive games he whiffed on tackles inside the five-yard line that proved to be game winners. If you set up a four-cone drill with Delpit and a RB one-on-one, any head bob, shoulder juke, or hip twitch sends him in that direction every single time.

Unit grade: D+


Special Teams

Biggest Contributor: Chase McLaughlin

Biggest Disappointment: Jamie Gillan

The Browns finally have a kicker as McLaughlin has been sterling. This has given Stefanski a viable option when a drive has stalled near midfield to go for the three points on longer kicks. So far he has only had one true miss and one blocked kick. Charley Hughlett annually is one of the NFL’s best at longsnapper. We are lucky to have him. Gillan has been a major disappointment and might find a new home before this season is over.

NFL: Houston Texans at Cleveland Browns
Chase McLaughlin
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The Hammer just hasn’t given the Browns opponents that deep starting position, although he routinely does a decent job at placing the ball inside the 20. The punt coverage group is excellent with Elijah Lee, Sione Takitaki, Hughlett, LeCounte, Grant Delpit, A.J. Green, Demetric Felton and Jovante Moffatt all making contributions and keeping the other team in bad field position. Felton has had his moments as a punt returner and seems ready to break one.

Unit grade: A-


Matt Wood



Syndication: The Enquirer
Baker Mayfield
Kareem Elgazzar / USA TODAY NETWORK

Quarterback

Biggest Surprise: Baker Mayfield protecting the ball

Biggest Disappointment: Lack of big plays

Well are we going to pre-Odell or post-Odell? All joking aside, Baker has shown some really good, and really bad, signs so far this season. The win over the Bengals may have been the biggest win for a multitude of reasons. The locker room, the media, everything. Baker is set up for a big run this second half of the season.

Unit grade: C


Running Back/Fullback

Biggest Contributor: Nick Chubb

Biggest Disappointment: Is there one?

Top to bottom, maybe the strongest positional group in the NFL. If the Browns can get Hunt back with a healthy Chubb, they should be able to get back to their punishing ways. But how many teams can lose their top two RB’s and then have a guy come in and go for 140-yards in a win? I full on believe that D’Earnest Johnson is a starting RB in this league and he is the Browns third RB? That doesn’t even include Felton who could be a fun tool here in the second half.

Unit grade: A+


Wide Receiver

Biggest Contributor: Donovan Peoples-Jones

Biggest Disappointment: OBJ

Enough ink has been spilled over OBJ. Breaks my heart it didn’t work, but let’s be honest: the divorce needed to happen. And the biggest beneficiary will be DPJ. Insanely talented, was the talk of camp and now has the PT to make a difference. I fully believe that he can be the best WR on the Browns. A lot of different weapons for Baker but no one has stepped up yet this season.

Unit grade: D


Tight End

Biggest Contributor: David Njoku

Biggest Disappointment: Austin Hooper

It’s hard to call Hooper a disappointment, he just isn’t a major gamechanger. And the Browns are paying him to be a game changer. Ironically, the guy who is shaping up to be a game changer is the guy they signed Hooper to take PT from, Njoku. He is the best blocker. He is the best after the catch. He is the Browns’ best TE. It will be very interesting to see what the Browns do this offseason at the TE position.

Unit grade: B


NFL: Cleveland Browns at Arizona Cardinals
Joel Bitonio
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Offensive Line

Biggest Contributor: Joel Bitonio

Biggest Disappointment: Injuries

Browns thought they had depth and talent - so much for that depth. Injuries everywhere you look up front. Hell, even the swing tackle got hurt. But somehow the Browns have continued to put together the league’s best run game and have for the most part still protected the QB. This is another position that could look different next season but I really want Teller back. Just a monster in the middle.

Unit grade: B+


Defensive Line

Biggest Contributor: Myles Garrett

Biggest Disappointment: Andrew Billings

We agree on the major questions above, but can we take a quick moment to realize how freaking awesome Malik McDowell has been this season? Yes, Myles Garrett is the best player on the Browns, but what McDowell has brought has changed that front. Also, Clowney is playing like the guy that was drafted #1 overall. I really think the Browns have to keep him around somehow next season, but for right now, I love what he is doing. Easily the strength of the defense.

Unit grade: A


Linebacker

Biggest Contributor: JOK

Biggest Disappointment: Everyone else

This position group is... yikes. JOK was a demon. That kid was all over the field, blowing up run plays, playing the pass like a CB, then the injury came. I hope they are able to get him back on the field sooner rather than later. Other than him? The Browns are searching for guys to be able to stay on the field. Walker seems to get overpowered against the run, Mack Wilson is almost always doing something funky, etc. Get healthy soon JOK. We need you.

Unit grade: C-


Syndication: The Enquirer
Greg Newsome
Kareem Elgazza / USA TODAY NETWORK

Cornerback/Safety

Biggest Contributor: Greg Newsome

Biggest Disappointment: John Johnson

You would be hard pressed to find a group with higher hopes this season than the Browns backend. Ward has been good when he has been healthy. Greedy has been good when he has been healthy. Stewart has been okay when he has been healthy. See a pattern? Hell even Newsome missed time. But Newsome has been REALLY good right away. As for JJ, I don’t know how much he is to blame for his slow start. Seems like the Browns were using him in a really different way than when he was in LA. He has looked better as of late. As a whole, if the group can get the blown coverages to stop and get healthy, who knows how good they can be?

Unit grade: B-


Special Teams

Biggest Contributor: Chase McLaughlin

Biggest Disappointment: Jamie Gillian

Do the Browns have a kicker? Chase has been really good even in bad conditions at times. On the flip side, the punting game has stunk at times. Demetric Felton was good early on in returns but it seems as if that has slowed in the last few weeks.

Unit grade: B

Poll

Which position group has been the biggest disappointment in your eyes?

This poll is closed

  • 7%
    Quarterback
    (41 votes)
  • 0%
    Running Back/Fullback
    (0 votes)
  • 36%
    Wide Receiver
    (209 votes)
  • 2%
    Tight End
    (12 votes)
  • 0%
    Offensive Line
    (1 vote)
  • 1%
    Defensive Line
    (8 votes)
  • 16%
    Linebacker
    (96 votes)
  • 5%
    Cornerback
    (34 votes)
  • 28%
    Safety
    (165 votes)
  • 0%
    Special Teams
    (5 votes)
571 votes total Vote Now