This Sunday, the Cleveland Browns take on the Carolina Panthers in Week 1. Below, we analyze a few advantages, disadvantages, or general thoughts about the two teams before getting to our predictions for the game.
What Will the Browns’ Offense Bring?
- For now, we’re focused on the fact that Jacoby Brissett is the Browns’ starting quarterback. Most of the offseason, my brain was telling me that his starting season with the Colts wasn’t that long ago, until I looked it up and remembered that it was back in 2019. Brissett started 15 of 16 games, throwing 18 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. He started the year much hotter from a statistical standpoint; in his first 6 games, he had 14 touchdown passes to 3 interceptions. He doesn’t run a ton, but can break down a defense or get in near the goal line.
- In Kevin Stefanski’s early days, I felt like the Browns were a high-powered offense. Heading into last season, I thought we had a team that could score on any given series. The creativity on offense was inspiring. But when things go bad, they go bad. You start to question the run game distribution. You look at the team’s wide receivers and wonder how the collective unit will get enough separation to allow an offense to succeed. How many times did the first half seem to fly by with relatively no offensive production?
- The first two bullet points are talking about the past, but we’re supposed to be talking about the present: Week 1 against the Carolina Panthers. The truth is that I really have no damn clue what to expect from this club. You really don’t get to see a starting unit in the preseason. We didn’t see Amari Cooper, Nick Chubb, or Kareem Hunt suit up. Jacoby Brissett played a half, but the most I remember of it was Anthony Schwartz struggling to catch anything. The offensive line features a new center (Ethan Pocic), and uncertainty at right tackle. Will this offense click? Who knows. But here are a few things I’m encouraged about:
- Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are fresh and healthy, which we didn’t get the luxury of seeing for much of last year.
- Amari Cooper is a really good route runner and receiver in general, but the team will need someone else to step up. I am fine with Anthony Schwartz getting some reps, but his reps should be structured as go routes down the sideline, down the middle of the field, or end arounds. Use him to stretch the field. Besides Donovan Peoples-Jones, I think we’ll see David Bell get quite a bit of work in Week 1.
- David Njoku is the guy at tight end with Austin Hooper out of the mix. Njoku is ready to be a workhorse, and I hope Brissett takes advantage of him. Just in the one preseason game, we saw how Brissett feels comfortable firing the ball to a player who can stick it like Njoku.
Stopping the Carolina Panthers
- We all know how Baker Mayfield struggled with batted passes, so all of the Browns’ linemen should be ready to stick their hands in the air. Jadeveon Clowney did it to death with our quarterbacks in training camp this year. I’m not looking to trash talk Mayfield; I’m a fan of the guy, and I hope he succeeds in Carolina. I am not looking at this match-up and thinking, “Yes! We’re facing [Sam Darnold],” or some other quarterback who I would be licking my chops to face.
- Mayfield also has a great running back in Christian McCaffrey. Now, it’s been a couple of seasons since McCaffrey has made it through a full season, but for now, he’s healthy. A big concern when I look at Cleveland’s defense is the defensive tackle depth (Taven Bryan and Jordan Elliott starting). The linebacker crew is the same, but underwhelming overall (aside from Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah’s potential). I’m worried about Carolina’s ability to run the ball against Cleveland more than their ability to pass against the defense.
- The Browns are listing Grant Delpit as the starting strong safety this year, but it was made clear that Ronnie Harrison and Jacob Phillips are both viewed as basically being starters, since they will consistently be part of the rotation at safety and linebacker, respectively.
- Baker Mayfield isn’t the only former Browns player facing his former team. Rashard Higgins is on the Panthers as well, behind starters D.J. Moore and Robbie Anderson. On the offensive line, Austin Corbett comes over from the Rams to start at right guard, while Cameron Erving is a backup.
- Pro Football Focus is watching the battle between Panthers left tackle Ikem Ekwonu, the 6th overall pick of the 2022 NFL Draft, and Browns defensive end Myles Garrett:
Baker Mayfield facing his old team is the obvious headline event in this game, but how his rookie left tackle holds up against Myles Garrett could be the biggest determining factor in how Mayfield actually fares. Garrett recorded the third-best pass-rush win rate (25.7%) in the league last season and trailed only Aaron Donald in PFF pass-rushing grade. Ekwonu coughed up three pressures across 45 pass-blocking snaps in the preseason, and his best pass-blocking grade in college was a good but not spectacular 78.3.
- PFF questions where the Panthers will get their pass rush from:
The Panthers lost Haason Reddick and his 44 quarterback pressures from 2021 in free agency without making a big splash on the edge to replace him. That puts more pressure on third-year edge rusher Yetur Gross-Matos to pick up some of the slack after playing fewer than 400 defensive snaps in each of his first two seasons. Gross-Matos looks the part of an impact player at the position, but the high-end production has never been there. He has just one season with a PFF pass-rushing grade above 70.0 at the NFL or college level (his final season at Penn State in 2019).
- Don’t forget the special teams element. Head coach Kevin Stefanski said that having K Cade York will change his mentality throughout the game as far as considering field goals. Special teams coach Mike Priefer talked about how they rested his leg for 10 days to make sure he’s fresh for the regular season:
“He did not kick for 10 days, and yesterday, he came out and was 16 of 18 on the side, and he was mad that he did not make all 18. I said, ‘Look, you have not kicked in 10 days,’ and he went out and did a great job for us. We are resting up that leg, and now he is refreshed and he is ready to roll.”
P Corey Bojorquez, coming over from the Bills, hopes to improve Cleveland’s performance at the position this year with his directional kicking ability:
“Yes, he is a better directional punter. That is what we are looking for. I think he has become more consistent. He has shortened down his jab step, which is going to help him with his directional kicks. I am excited about his future because he has a big-time leg, and that is exactly what we need in our stadium – I think you guys know that. If we can become a more consistent directional team, I think that is going to help us.”
Priefer also said that Demetric Felton will return kicks and punts, and that CB Michael Emerson and DE Alex Wright will be among the players in on special teams groups.
- According to DraftKings Sportsbook, the Browns/Panthers are a pick’em against the Panthers.
Here are predictions from multiple staff members at DBN.
Chris Pokorny: “My goodness, we haven’t won a Week 1 game since 2004. Even if you’re a bottom-five team in the league each year, there’s no way a team should be winless in openers for that long. This year is the Baker Mayfield revenge game, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to have a cakewalk. Cleveland features a good secondary and two scary edge rushers. If Cleveland can remind everyone just how good of a run-dominant team they can be, then I think the Browns still have the more talented roster.” Browns 23, Panthers 17
Thomas Moore: “By now, just about everyone with a pulse knows that 2004 was the last time the Browns emerged from Week 1 with a victory. If you want to go back even further, the last time they won on the road in Week 1 was in 1994. Both of those streaks finally come to a merciful end this Sunday against the Carolina Panthers. Quarterback Jacoby Brissett avoids turning over the ball, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt do their thing, and Cleveland’s defense actually shows up at the start of the season to make life miserable for their former teammate, Baker Mayfield, leaving just the ever-present chip on his shoulder lying at midfield following the game.” Browns 17, Panthers 10
Barry Shuck: “The Browns are built to run the ball all the way across the offensive line plus the mobile style quarterbacks they now employ. Sad to play Baker right out of the gate, but it is what it is. The chip he will be wearing on top of each side of his shoulder pads will eclipse those he had while staring down Hue Jackson. I am certain there will be several “camera moments” in this game as Baker knows all eyes will be on him. Plus, some sort of gesture towards the Browns bench will only amp up his “new homies.” Oh yeh, and there is a game that will be going on as well.
Since there aren’t any stats from this year yet to gauge, let’s begin with last year’s numbers. The Panthers were 18th against the run overall but were ninth in rushing average allowed. Plus, the front seven of Carolina is not the same this year with improvements installed. For starters, the massive rookie DT Derrick Brown will be the anchor in the middle along with new DT 330-pound Bravvion Roy. Brown tips the scale at 320, so that’s 650 pounds of meat that our Pro Bowl guards have to handle plus a new center who still is a question mark. Two of the three linebackers are also new and are good run stoppers.
The short passing game will need to be employed in this one as well with a huge day from David Njoku or Harrison Bryant. Carolina’s defense was Top-10 last year and only got better this year up front. This one really could go either way and is on the road. And can Cleveland’s offense rack up any yards? Can they sustain long drives? Haven’t seen anything yet to say “yes” to those two. Will Hubbard start instead of Conklin? How will Pocic perform in a full game? Thank goodness for new kicker Cade York and his strong leg because this offense may be one who can get close but not always in.” Browns 20, Panthers 17
rufio: “I’m taking the Panthers in this one. Baker knows us well, and he is motivated to shred us. Myles might feast against a relatively raw rookie in Ikem Ekwonu, but I do not expect a lot out of the Browns’ defensive tackles. And Christian McCaffery against any Browns linebacker not named Jeremiah is a horrifying matchup.
On the other side of the ball, points might be hard to come by. Jack Conklin is coming off of a string of injuries and you have to wonder if he can still keep up with speed off the edge. Our guards might be the best in the league, but the center has to link everything together and be the brains of the operation up front. With JC Tretter cut/retired and Nick Harris suffering a potentially season-ending injury, will Ethan Pocic be up to the task in week 1 against big bad Derrick Brown? If I am the Panthers, I am locking Jaycee Horn up on Amari Cooper, selling out against the run, and trying to confuse the left vs. right sides of the Browns OL. Nick Chubb will do Nick Chubb things, but there are only so many tackles he can break in the backfield. At some point Jacoby Brissett is going to have to make a play, and I don’t think he will.” Panthers 27, Browns 13
Matt Wood: “Browns are kind of lurking below the radar here. Honestly if you switched QB’s, would the Browns be favored? I don’t think Stefanski will allow Jacoby to have that much of a say on the outcome. I think the Browns pound the ground and wait for the Panthers to make some mistakes and capitalize. Think of an Eric Mangini team, sorry if you just had a stroke reading that. The Browns have too much talent on defense and too much firepower on the ground. Game stays close but Myles makes the rookie Tackle pay with a strip sack that rattles Baker and turns the game.” Browns 30, Panthers 17
Ezweav: “Now is the summer of our discontent. The Browns have gone from lovable losers to scrappy upstarts to hated villains all within the scope of about 5 years.
And it’s that hatred - justified or not - that I believe has clouded some people’s assessment of Baker Mayfield as a pro QB. As in, we’re mad at the Browns, so we’re pretending that Baker wasn’t on the trading block for free for about 3 months and we couldn’t move him until we essentially paid for Carolina to take him off our hands. THAT is who we’re supposed to be fearing week 1, and I’m just not feeling it.
This is a very, very bad matchup for him, so much so that Carolina people who’ve been talking themselves into him these last few weeks may need to suppress the urge to knee-jerk react to him looking stone cold terrible on Sunday, because he’s probably not as bad as the Browns’ defense is about to make him look.
People talk about this and have actually used the words “revenge game” for Baker. I don’t buy that he has anything to rightfully seek revenge for, but whatever the guy wants to do. Our defense, on the other hand, is probably pretty salty still about the half-dozen or so great performances they put up last year which were squandered due to lousy QB play. So if anyone is getting payback, it’s not likely to be the guy that demanded to be traded and then had to sit through the ignominy of everyone seeing that nobody wanted him.
I get that a lot of people are nervous about The Chip On Baker Mayfield’s Shoulder™ but color me unfazed.
That said, we’ll still find a way to screw this thing up.” Panthers 12, Browns 11
Who do you think will win, Browns fans? Let us know in the comments section below.