The roster is impressive, so it’s all about Deshaun Watson. If he plays like he did with the Texans, this is going to be a playoff team.
On the hot seat: Coach Kevin Stefanski
Stefanski won NFL Coach of the Year honors as a rookie head coach in 2020. But since then, the Browns have struggled through back-to-back losing seasons — although quarterback uncertainty has been the biggest culprit. Still, the pressure is firmly on Stefanski this season to finally produce a winning record again while proving he’s the coach and playcaller who can help QB Deshaun Watson lead the offense. Given the $230 million investment in Watson, anything short of a return to the postseason and Cleveland will likely be on the hunt for yet another coach next offseason.
The Browns initially were my summer crush, the team I thought had the best chance to be this year’s 2022 Vikings. But as the days wore on, with kicking issues and injuries darkening my thoughts, my eyes started to wander. Deshaun Watson almost certainly will be better than the version we saw on the field last season. But by how much? The division has a razor-thin margin, and the Browns lost six one-score games a year ago. They can’t afford further kicking woes and disappointing QB play.
The Browns don’t seem inspiring offensively beyond Nick Chubb’s running with Deshaun Watson’s shaky passing not inspiring much confidence. The defense can carry it well, but it still seems Cleveland is headed to being a good last-place team.
It would be strange for a quarterback as good as Deshaun Watson was with Houston to simply fall off. But Watson has had a strange path the past two seasons, mostly of his own doing. The reports that Watson didn’t look great in camp make the Browns a total wild card heading into the season. If Watson is right, the Browns can win the division. If he never regains his old form, Cleveland is stuck with a $230 million lemon.
There are certain annual rites of passage in the NFL: The Thursday night opener, the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys playing on Thanksgiving, and at least one national media member talking up the Cleveland Browns as a contender coming off yet another miserable season. This year, it’s Kyle Brandt of Good Morning Football, who said recently that the Browns shouldn’t be overlooked in the AFC North (h/t George M. Thomas of the Akron Beacon Journal):
“And that AFC and specifically the AFC North is going to cannibalize itself one way or another. If the Browns can tread water, win, win, win and the Deshaun (Watson) thing takes off and he resembles who he looked like three years ago, he’s not an old man, not coming off an injury. He’s fresh, rested, studied, ready. He could be fantastic.”
The Browns aren’t without impact players. The team has, arguably, the league’s best running back in Nick Chubb, the AFC’s best offensive line and one of the NFL’s best edge-rushers in Myles Garrett. However, Davenport isn’t pulling another Charlie Brown and buying into the Browns again.
“Do the Browns have the potential to be a good team? Sure,” he said. “Cleveland completely overhauled the defensive line around Garrett and added Elijah Moore to compliment Amari Cooper at wide receiver.
“But there’s no guarantee whatsoever that Watson will ever be the quarterback he was in 2020 again. Granted, if he is, the Browns will be a tough out. But if Watson’s the erratic, rusty mess we saw last season again in 2023, then Cleveland is a last-place team—and the five-year, $230 million fully guaranteed deal the Browns gave him will go down as the single worst contract in the history of the NFL.”
The pressure will be on QB Deshaun Watson and HC Kevin Stefanski this season … though new coordinator Jim Schwartz and his defense have the potential to alleviate it significantly.
Listed below is a summary table of where teams in the AFC North are ranked this week.
Let us know in the comments whether you think the Browns received a fair ranking. Personally, I think Cleveland’s ranking is fair, but Pittsburgh is overrated with their quarterback situation.