The 2021 season was a disappointment. We all know this. The Browns didn’t get to their first Super Bowl. They didn’t win the division. The franchise was omitted from the post-season altogether.
And now, the dirty work begins. Players who didn’t meet expectations this past season - or a culmination of seasons - will be evaluated and then addressed as far as keeping them, offering them the chance to remain on the roster on a restructured contract for less, traded, or simply let go.
We have isolated five veteran players that we are projecting will not suit up for the Browns next year. And then not to just say we feel this way, but explain why.
For some it is because their contracts are expiring. For others, it is simply time to move on as production and/or expectations just didn’t meet the front office’s standards.
Whatever the reasons, here is five we project won’t return in 2022.
DBN Staff Writer
DT Malik Jackson
The Browns were in need of a veteran presence at defensive tackle in the spring of 2021.
Cleveland’s rebuilt defensive tackle room was extremely light on experience at the time with rookies Tommy Togiai and Marvin Wilson; Malik McDowell, who was essentially a rookie; Jordan Elliott, who was entering his second year; and Andrew Billings and Sheldon Day, who had some experience but did not carry the kind of veteran weight to make a difference.
Enter Malik Jackson, who took over the “veteran leadership role” from Sheldon Richardson, who saw his contract terminated a few weeks after Jackson signed with the club.
Jackson had not been a full-time starter the prior two seasons (although one of those years was lost to injury), but after nine years in the league, a Pro Bowl appearance and being part of a Super Bowl team with the Philadelphia Eagles, Jackson had the résumé to be another coach to the group and, hopefully, have enough left to help out on the field.
While Jackson likely provided value during the week in practice and the meeting room, his on-field impact was limited. He did make 16 starts before missing the season finale after landing on the Reserve/COVID-19 list, but finished the year with just 25 tackles, including two tackles for loss, and a half-sack.
Perhaps more importantly, after playing more than 70 percent of the defensive snaps in five of Cleveland’s first six games, Jackson saw his playing time decrease to an average of just 54 percent of the defensive plays over the final 10 games where he was on the field.
That might be the biggest indication that Jackson will be one-and-down with the Browns as general manager Andrew Berry embarks on another offseason attempt to fix what is arguably the weakest position group on the defense.
Jackson: Not coming back.
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OT Chris Hubbard
My Take: Allow me to state the bottom line at the top. A liability is not an asset. The most basic definition of each informs that a liability provides a future obligation, while an asset provides a future economic benefit. As an eight-year league veteran and currently injured offensive lineman, Chris Hubbard is a liability for two reasons specifically, his diminishing skills and history of injuries.
1. Diminishing Skills: When evaluating Hubbard some would argue that his greatest strength is his versatility, which is an accurate assessment. Without question he has demonstrated skillful ability of various degrees playing both right and left tackle, right and left guard, center, even tight end and special teams. These slot-filling players hold appeal for coaches due to them being able to float positionally and quickly fill holes in the roster, mainly in cases of injury.
However, within his strength of versatility Hubbard still has a glaring weakness. Since being signed in 2018 by the Browns as an unrestricted free agent he has not proven himself to have mastered any OL position via the skills to dominate or hold starter status. The time-old adage “Jack of All Trades and Master of None” is not a recipe for job security in the NFL. On a weekly basis players face the most skillfully elite football athletes in the world with a steady stream of new, hungry talent. Hubbard’s skills have not distinguished him among his contemporaries. This was best revealed in March 2020 when the Browns signed former Titans OL Jack Conklin. Hubbard immediately lost his RT starting job and was reduced to a back-up who acknowledged being outclassed via agreement to a huge pay cut and contract overhaul. His new status as a backup eventually revealed further cracks in his skills due to my second reason for considering him a liability, which is history of serious injuries.
2. History of Injuries: In the 2020 season Hubbard suffered a terrible season ending injury that required surgery to repair a dislocated kneecap and torn ligaments. He was replacing an injured Wyatt Teller. As a result, Hubbard was unavailable for the first Browns playoff appearance since 2002.
Less than 11 months later in Week 1 during the 2021 season opener he suffered another terrible season ending injury that will require surgery to repair his triceps. He was replacing an injured Jedrick Wills, Jr. Although before his injury in 2020, Hubbard demonstrated degrees of productivity as a backup, the sad truth is when he was needed the most in 2021, Hubbard became injured himself filling Wills’ spot. Later in the season Hubbard’s presence was also desperately needed to protect a badly injured Baker Mayfield, as well as blocking for Nick Chubb, who carried the much-needed run game on his shoulders. Yet, Hubbard was out. The backup couldn’t provide backup support at a most pivotal time when each win held a coveted chance for a playoff entrance.
Hubbard’s past injuries have hurt the Browns at the very core of his position, which is depth. If the depth player has been repeatedly, severely injured, which Hubbard has, then his future value at depth is seriously questionable.
After his knee injury Coach Stefanski acknowledged that Hubbard gave great reps and was an outstanding teammate, yet Hubbard’s inability to continue to produce those reps based on having major injuries in less than a year’s span supports his status as a liability. No matter how well you fill your position, if you are perpetually injured you can’t do your job and the team is operating at a deficit.
Another factor to consider is that the injuries that Hubbard sustained can be significant in terms of recovery and pre vs. post injury performance. He needs to plant on that knee for every snap. This presents a potential for re-injury every single time on a knee that has already been reconstructed. Complete healing after surgery is not guaranteed either but depends on the severity of the injury. Consider how many times starting players returned to pre-injury form in the NFL, then consider the same regarding a backup in terms of value.
Hubbard’s triceps surgery will require a lengthy period of recovery and rehab which may span weeks to months. Further unknowns include return of full range of motion, strength, probability of re-injury and/or increased potential for related injuries. With severe injuries to his arms and legs and the former still requiring surgery, the Browns must consider if further financial investment is wise.
Conclusion: In terms of skills, Hubbard is nearly 31 years old. He has already been in the NFL for eight years and has started 34 games in four seasons with the Browns. With the average career of an NFL lineman being around three and a half years, we are far past expectations for Hubbard to peak in terms of skills. He has been a solid player, although not dominant, yet his injuries have significantly impacted his ability to perform what the Browns need, when they need it. With severe former injury to his legs and now severe injury to his arms accompanied with uncertainty about the recovery of the latter, the Browns must determine if crucial finances are well spent on Hubbard. I love all my Dawgs forever and appreciate Hubbard’s contributions, but this is business and we need assets - not liabilities.
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WR Rashard Higgins
When it comes to Browns free agents who probably won’t be back in 2022, the enigma that is Rashard Higgins seems like a perfect candidate. We all know the team struggled mightily with the passing game in 2021, netting 3,320 total yards (putting the Browns down at 27th in the league), but Rashard Higgins only contributed 24 receptions on 47 targets for 275 yards and one touchdown across 15 games. For a team that desperately needs a boost to the passing game, those kinds of numbers won’t get the job done.
For much of his six-year career, Higgins has been the subject of much speculation regarding his lack of playing time. And his low level of snap counts spanned four different head coaches. In his 2016 rookie season with Hue Jackson, Higgins played just 18% of the snaps, which is understandable for a fifth-round rookie. In 2017 he jumped up to 66% of the snaps. His snap count dropped to 55% in 2018 when Hue Jackson’s firing led to Gregg Williams stepping in as interim head coach. When Freddie Kitchens took over in 2019, Higgins dropped way down to 26% of the snaps. That number jumped back to 60% with Kevin Stefanski in 2020, and then dropped to 52% this season in 2021.
Now those numbers might seem on par with any other team’s third or fourth best receiver, but Higgins was arguably the Browns number two receiver many of those seasons with the lack of wide receiver talent on the team. His career high was 599 yards in 2020, and he’s never caught more than four touchdowns in a season.
With all that being said, the Browns have two young receivers now on rookie deals with Donovan Peoples-Jones and Anthony Schwartz. Of the two, DPJ has shown he can be a legitimate receiving threat, leading the team in yards in just his second season. Schwartz had a disappointing rookie season for a third-round selection, but again, there wasn’t much passing production to go around. The Browns clearly need massive upgrades in the passing game, and with young players like DPJ and Schwartz available to play that third or fourth receiver role, there’s no need to pay a veteran contract for that type of production.
For reference, a guy like DPJ occupies 0.39% of the cap ($826,652). Rashard Higgins isn’t much higher at 0.53% of the cap ($1.13 million). But the cash payout in the contracts is where the major difference lies. DPJ’s cash payout is only $780,000 (0.36% of spending), while Higgins’ cash payout is $2.4 million (1.1% of spending). The Browns are in a window where they can’t afford to pay multiple players to have wide receiver three or four production. Higgins’ cap space will be better utilized toward bringing in a player who can be the top dawg in the passing game.
DBN Staff Writer
TE Austin Hooper
I think the Browns are going to have a pretty good overhaul on offense this year and I don’t think it includes QB. I think the Browns WILL look at upgrades but none will be found.
That can’t be said for other positions on the offensive side. I think the easiest one that jumps out is TE Austin Hooper. The first signing of Andrew Berry has been so-so at best. He was signed to be the security blanket for Baker Mayfield and early on he was, but he has fallen off and to be quite honest has been passed at the top TE on the team by David Njoku, who is a free agent.
The Browns should let Hooper, and his weekly scheduled drops, go and use that money to re-sign Njoku. Njoku is a better blocker and a better threat in the passing game. Only four tight ends were paid more in the entire NFL last season and let’s be honest I’m not sure Hooper was one of the top 20 TE’s. Production is not meeting pay.
The issue this creates is that this offense HAS to have TE’s so cutting Hooper and re-signing Njoku is not an endgame. The Browns need to look in free agency or web better, in the draft.
DBN Staff Writer
RT Jack Conklin
Yeh, I know. On the surface this is one of those “no way” situations or perhaps “clickbait.” But this is my guy and here are my reasons.
The Browns offensive line is one of the league’s premier units. That is, when they all play. When one or two are gone from the starting lineup, then it is up in the air as to what type of game Cleveland will have regardless of running the ball or through the air. The starting five are really great players as evidenced that two made the Pro Bowl this year. And all five starters were signed or drafted for one reason: they are excellent run blockers.
Conklin is as well. When he plays.
He was drafted in the first-round by the Tennessee Titans in 2016 to play right tackle. In 2019 he played out the final year of his four-year rookie deal. The Titans then allowed him to test the free agent market but still wanted him to return. The problem was that Tennessee was in cap Hell and were forced to make some very difficult decisions at numerous positions. Conklin was one of those affected.
Conklin signed a three-year $42-million deal in 2020 with Cleveland. That year he was named to the 2020 All-Pro Team despite not being selected to play in the Pro Bowl.
So why Conklin? Let’s dig deeper.
Ask yourself this: Conklin was a first-round draft pick which means he inked a four-deal with a fifth year option. Yet, the Titans did not exercise their fifth year option rights on him. Why?
In 2017 during the first half a divisional loss to the New England Patriots, Conklin tore his ACL in the first half. That injury required surgery but did not heal quickly enough and so he missed the first three games of 2018. The end result was that his quick first step was lost.
Pro Football Focus rates all offensive linemen. In his rookie campaign his grades was 80.6. Before the injury that dropped to 71.9. After the injury that dropped even more to 66.8. What is worse, in 2018 he suffered yet another knee injury that did not require surgery plus suffered a concussion which eliminated him playing in Week 10.
Those injuries of the past two seasons in Tennessee was the reason why the Titans passed on his fifth year option and allowed him to move on.
On to the Browns. Last year the only game he missed was being added to the COVID list for one game. This year, however, is a different animal. He missed 10 games. In early November he landed on IR with an elbow injury. He was activated on November 27 just in time for the first game against the Baltimore Ravens. In the first quarter of that game, he tore the patellar tendon in his right knee and again landed on IR for the remainder of the season.
The loss of Conklin made shock waves along the offensive line. Each week, players were shuffled in and out such as Michael Dunn, James Hudson, Chris Hubbard, Blake Hance and Nick Harris. LG Joel Bitonio was moved to play left tackle for two games. Other starters were hurt as well or landed on the COVID list, but the right tackle position never became solved. Hance and Hudson played the majority of the snaps and neither played well and in fact, the right tackle position was a sieve for opposing defenses.
Now, there is a second part to this saga. Conklin is the fourth-highest paid player on the roster making $12 million a year with a cap hit of $15 million. That is a lot of capital being paid to a player who continually gets hurt.
In this year’s NFL draft, the Browns could use their 13th pick on LT Trevor Penning out of Northern Iowa. He is 6’, 7” and weighs 321 pounds and is an absolute road grader in the run game. He allowed just 13 pressures this past season.
The great part of this acquisition is that the Browns will improve two positions along the offensive line. How you ask? Since Penning is a left tackle, that will allow Cleveland to switch Jedrick Wills, Jr. to right tackle where he shined all four years while playing at Alabama. It is no secret that Wills has all the tools and at times flounders on the left side. This would place the universe back on its axis and right the ship along the offensive front.
And by letting Conklin play elsewhere, that needed cash could be used to keep other veterans in-house.