We’ve reached a point in the Browns’ season where perspective takes on great significance.
Statistically, the Browns’ offense has been exceptional, ranking 4th in Football Outsiders’ Offensive DVOA (16.5%), 4th in total yards (1982), and 1st in rushing yards (962). A meltdown for the ages against the Jets, red zone futility versus Atlanta, and a missed Cade York FG on Sunday are all that separate the 2-3 Browns from standing 5-0.
For those with more patience, the return of Deshaun Watson to Berea at least reminds Browns’ fans of the organization’s long game. It’s not a stretch to suggest Watson would be an upgrade over Jacoby Brissett, particularly during late game moments in which Brissett has floundered. However, the organization is likely looking towards a future in which Watson plays his prime years in Cleveland.
Of course, the realist would counter that the Browns’ season may spiral out of control by the time Watson makes his on-field return. Also, Watson is facing the herculean task of learning a new offense, new receivers and shaking off two years of inactivity - all at an impossibly accelerated pace with likely unrealistic expectations.
The pessimist argument is an easy one. The Browns have faced the 3rd easiest schedule in the league and have lost games to Joe Flacco and Marcus Mariota. The defensive coverage breakdowns of 2021 have reappeared and the last two weeks have exposed the run defense as one of the league’s worst. The defensive liabilities have clearly affected Kevin Stefanski’s play calling, as his offensive unit simply cannot afford to make mistakes.
This last point is significant, as the Browns’ defensive woes extend further than Joe Woods or a schematic change. The Browns’ defense has been specifically built both for this moment and the immediate future. Boasting the league’s youngest roster, the defense features 6-7 Andrew Berry-drafted contributors, along with 3-4 of his free agent additions. In other words, this is Berry’s personally curated defense.
One of the costs of the Watson deal (and there are many) is losing valuable draft picks. The Browns won’t have a first round draft pick until 2025. These losses transform future 3rd and 4th round picks into premium selections. Berry has to find value with these picks, yet his three-year draft history suggests a mixed bag of results.
Specifically, Berry’s third and fourth rounds have produced the following players:
2020 - Jordan Elliott, Jacob Phillips, and Harrison Bryant
2021 - Anthony Schwartz, James Hudson and Tommy Togiai
2022 - Martin Emerson, Alex Wright, David Bell, and Perrion Winfrey
The Browns’ current defensive struggles - particularly over the past two weeks - have directly featured Elliott, Togiai and Phillips. Elliott and Togiai are the league’s worst graded defensive linemen according to Pro Football Focus, while Phillips is routinely out of position and taken out of plays. Winfrey’s few positive plays have been overshadowed by opposing linemen dominating him.
I’ll spare readers a Schwartz discussion, while admitting Bryant is a capable second tight end and Hudson could prove to be a future NFL starter. Berry’s 2021 draft appears more promising, as Emerson has played well - although he will face more challenges if Denzel Ward misses time. Both Wright and Bell appear to be solid long-term prospects.
We’re realizing the limitations of Berry’s draft philosophy, which focuses on drafting and developing young players. Certainly, one can point to coaching and schematics as a reason for the current defensive breakdowns. However, a future change in coordinators or schemes could ultimately produce similar results.
Currently, Woods is under fire for his unit’s performance. However, the finger pointing can easily shift to Berry, especially if the season unravels over the next month or so.
Dave Kolonich has written for Fox Sports Ohio, The Orange and Brown Report and created Cleveland Reboot.