The Browns could be one of the best teams in the AFC North. Maybe. Possibly. Who really knows?
On paper. That should cover it.
The defense is really shaping up this season. That alone is cause to be content before the season even begins. That new kicker is kicking some serious butt and so far has come as advertised.
And yes, there are issues. Make that, many issues.
Beginning with our Top-5 quarterback Deshaun Watson not being able to suit up for the first 11 games. That really hurts this offense. KR Jakeem Grant going down to an ACL injury may be the next biggest bummer. So far, it is a patchwork of bodies attempting to fill in with the return game, but nobody has shined and actually gotten any big rips or any decent yardage for that matter.
Starting center Nick Harris and one of his proteges rookie Dawson Deaton both landed on IR before they even got going. Double ouchy. And what is going on with the receiver room? Will Cleveland even field many able-bodies for much of the year? Amari Cooper, Michael Woods and Anthony Schwartz have all had some type of injury. Let’s just hope that stops once the real games begin.
2021 was considered a huge bust for Cleveland (8-9-0) after so much hope and promise the season before which found them in the playoffs with a sterling 11-5-0 record plus a playoff win. A lot of media outlets had the Browns winning their division before the first snap was taken last year.
This season, Cleveland is playing a third place schedule including games against opponents which won at least nine games last year. Ouch. Plus, being in the AFC North is no cake walk as this division is considered one of the toughest in the league.
There are numerous predictions for this year. The average centers around a 7-10-0 record and a last place finish in the division.
Despite the roller coaster that was training camp, there are bright spots. In fact, there are quite a few. And as Browns fans, we should celebrate our strengths.
There are only a handful of clubs that can say they have the best offensive line in the NFL. Cleveland is one for certain.
Let’s begin with the Pro Bowlers: LG Joel Bitonio and RG Wyatt Teller.
Bits signed an extension in 2017 and promptly made his first Pro Bowl. He consistently plays at a high -level. He is one of the hardest workers and rarely does his man get credit for a sack. Bitonio is an excellent pulling guard and now has gone to four Pro Bowls.
Durability has been a concern. In his second season he had an ankle injury followed by a foot concern the following year which both landed him on IR. In 2019 he had an abdomen injury and a slight back issue in 2020.
Teller came out of nowhere and is considered one of the best offensive guards in the game. He originally was a fifth round pick of Buffalo and was traded to Cleveland for a fifth and sixth round draft pick. Drew Forbes was drafted to man the right guard spot but opted out for the 2020 pandemic year. Teller played only half a season and was named an MVP candidate by Sports Illustrated and then named Second Team All-Pro in both 2020 and 2021 plus played in his first Pro Bowl.
Teller is at home in Cleveland and likes the area especially the outdoors with fishing and hunting options. He always gives a strong performance.
Both guards were given lengthy extensions in 2021 in order to keep them in-house.
Both tackles on the other hand have been a roller coaster.
RT Jack Conklin was signed as a high-priced free agent in 2020. A very good run blocker, he was named First Team All-Pro in 2020. Everything looked rosy going forward. In 2021 Conklin dislocated his left elbow which was a pretty nasty injury. The result placed him on IR. The game that he returned he suffered a right knee injury in which he tore his patellar tendon which landed him on season-ending IR. His rehab has been slow with his ability to start remains in question.
Depends on who you talk to, Jedrick Wills is either an accomplished left tackle in the NFL, or a work in progress.
You name the accolade in college and Wills was part of it. The issue in the pro ranks is that he is a true right tackle now playing on the leftside. He has had his own injury concerns as well. In the opener last year he sprained his ankle and attempted to tough it out for weeks, essentially playing on one leg it seemed. Out of the starting five from last year, Wills had the lowest rating on Pro Football Focus at 65.9.
Being hurt and trying to keep playing is certainly a struggle. The only way he is going to get better and more consistent is to be completely healthy. He is a strong athlete and has some good speed for a big man. And going against Myles Garrett in practices should only make him better.
The center position is one of conflict already. Backup Ethan Pocic is now the starter but is not a youngster who is just getting his feet wet. He has 40 NFL starts now in his sixth season.
Pocic had some injury issues last year but did start Seattle’s final 10 games and earned the highest run blocking grade of his career (76.0) from PFF and had only one penalty all year. His pass protection grade of 43.8 wasn’t pretty and ranked him at #31 out of 33 qualified centers.
The offense will be a sight to see if all of these players can remain healthy. The problem is when even one of them goes down and the shuffling begins with sometimes multiple backups. But the starting five is something to feel good about.
Wowsers. Best cornerback room in the NFL.
Denzel Ward earned his second Pro Bowl last year. Greedy Williams improved and can now tackle someone. First round pick Greg Newsome now has a full year to gain experience. And the new kid, Martin Emerson, looks terrific. How many defensive players can say they scored a touchdown in their very first NFL game?
Being a team in the AFC North, the one thing you need is to be able to cover some exceptional receivers.
But let’s begin at the tail end of this room: A.J. Green. He is one of the few players on this roster that went undrafted, but has stuck around and earned himself a roster spot as quality depth. He possesses raw talent who has become a solid player. He is almost always in a position to make a play or provide the tackle after a reception. Last year he played 176 snaps, but more importantly was not seen as a liability when called upon.
Emerson is seen as one of many of this year’s draft class that will contribute greatly to the team. He is a very physical player with a long reach that measures almost three feet in length. All throughout preseason he continued to impress. And with some injuries in the cornerback room during training camp, he was able to get more reps than in normal circumstances. He is known as being aggressive as evidenced by his takeaway pass for a pick six in the Jacksonville game that went viral.
The rest of this group already have the credentials as exceptional corners. Maybe this is the year that Cleveland has a pair of Pro Bowlers from this group.
Running back room
Nick Chubb gets injured, Kareem Hunt comes in. Hunt goes on COVID protocol and D’Ernest Johnson is an AFC Offensive Player of the Week candidate. Rookie Jerome Ford rips a 40-yarder.
Good problems to have is everyone’s guess.
Maybe this is the year that Chubb is the league’s rushing champion having flirted with this three different years. There is no doubt that if he didn’t have to share carries he could be. He is blessed with exceptional hands and is an important aspect of the short passing game.
Hunt is a different style runner than anyone else in this group. He is more of a cutback runner who will run laterally and then choose his gaps. But he also has very good hands and is a great receiver who can do damage lined up in the slot or snagging passes in the flats as an outlet receiver. This is an NFL starting caliber running back who gets nominal playing time.
D’Ernest Johnson needs a team to call his own so that he can shine on his own merits. He can be a 25-30 carry a game back and produce well. Jerome Ford runs a lot like Chubb in that he isn’t that concerned if defenders are in front of him. Sometimes the shortest distance is straight through an opponent and Ford can lay it. Can you imagine a game in which Ford and Chubb share the same backfield?
The Brown are built to run. And to run, you have to have the horses. Cleveland has a stable full of terrific runners ready for the challenge.
Only nine running backs in the NFL averaged at least 2.4 yards after contact per attempt in 2021 (minimum 75 rushing attempts). Three played for the Browns.
Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney reunion
Admit it. This is a really, really great feeling knowing there is constant pressure coming from both ends of the defensive line. C’mon, you can say it.
Garrett should become a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year and you can bet he has his sights on that distinction. How could he not? 16 sacks last year with 58.5 career to his credit. The sack totals go along with his 33 QB hits, 52 pressures, 17 each hurries, tackles for loss and knockdowns, one forced fumble, one recovered fumble plus three batted passes.
All of these stats placed him at or near the top of the league: pressures (1st), knockdowns (2nd), sacks (3rd), QB hits (3rd), hurries (5th) and tackles for loss (6th).
The vast array of being in the top tier of almost every defensive category reflects the plays he makes that tend to affect a game the most. Garrett is no doubt one of the NFL’s best edge-rushing talents.
With Clowney manning the other side, this gives Cleveland a one-two punch with the pass rush. Last year, Clowney had a very good year on his own. He netted nine sacks, which tied for his second most in a single season. Other impressive stats include 32 pressures, 19 QB hits, 12 hurries and 11 tackles for loss.
Pairing Clowney with Garrett again just made sense for the Browns from a team perspective. What is the bonus in this situation is that both are well-known for their pass rushing abilities, but are each very good against the run – especially Clowney.
Having this duo on the field is a special combination.
Finally, a franchise kicker
Out of every position on the field, the kicker, punter and long snapper receive the less love. Why is that?
Admittedly, long snapper is a skate job. Trot out there 4-5 times a game, hike the ball, then run down and try to make a tackle. Except, have you ever tried to hike a ball 15-yards? In a spiral? Upside down? Where the punter wants the ball laid? Yeh, try it and get back.
There is a sign that says, “Kickers are people, too.” Which is very odd. The game of American Football is governed by which team scores the most points at the end of each contest. Kickers, score points. And sometimes lots of points. And even more sometimes provide the final points which win the game.
Since Phil Dawson was not offered another contract and allowed to leave, the Browns have had issues with the kicker position. For 2022, the problem area seems to be filled just fine with rookie Cade York out of LSU.
This kid has leg to spare. Have you seen the pre-game warmups where he nails a 70-yarder? The huge benefit with going for a field goal on a fourth-and-whatever near midfield instead of going for it is that with York there is the probability of receiving three points out of the deal. Last year, the Browns were one of the worst teams converting fourth down plays. Now, they can cash in.
York was drafted in Round 4 which made a lot of folks go “Whhaaattt?” regarding taking a kicker that high. But York is different. He is a franchise kicker.
All during training camp and in preseason he wowed Cleveland fans. He hit a 59-yarder in high school by the way so it’s not like he just woke up and could boom field goals. He hit kicks of 46 and 57 against Chicago in the final preseason game and just missed one from 58-yards.
This kid is one to watch this year and feel really good about when he trots out onto the field. He has confidence in himself but realizes he needs to improve. The winds in FirstEnergy Stadium are going to change his thinking somewhat, but he will figure things out.
A great kick can make all the difference for this offense when points are added instead of turning the ball over to their opponent. And a last second kick for the win is gold.
What is your prediction for the total wins this year?
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12 or more wins
11 or 10 wins
9 or 8 wins
7 or fewer wins