2020 Cleveland Browns: Perfectly Mediocre
The GZL's Cleveland Browns appeared to be on a nice upward trajectory after Paul Willis arrived to his hometown team. While they did have a rocky finish as Willis transitioned midseason in 2018, 2019's team was one of the surprises of the league. Going 11-5, claiming their first ever AFC North championship and nearly defeating the Titans in the divisional playoffs had the front office thinking aggressively. They mortgaged the future in order to grab playmakers in HB Le'Veon Bell and WR Ulysses Moore from Miami in an unprecedented deal that saw the Browns give up basically every early pick they owned in the 2020 and 2021 drafts. On top of that, Willis doled out big money to veteran WR Demariyus Thomas and QB Howard Christensen in hopes of making a run through the playoffs en route to that elusive Super Bowl victory. Unfortunately things did not turn out as planned and the team got off to another terrible start. Unlike 2020, the furious finish to the season was not enough to send the Browns to the playoffs and Paul Willis finished his season as the "first team out" for the FOURTH time in his frustrating GZL career.
Howard Christensen surprised many by beating out Boston Mallett as the opening day starter despite a poor showing in the preseason. In week one against the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers, Christensen seemed to justify that decision by throwing for a GZL record 601 yards. Four receivers topped 100 yards for the Browns on the game, but in what would become a trend on the season, they were not able to seal the deal and lost 36-35 on a last second field goal. Christensen went cold over the next 3 games and the Browns went from a hot Super Bowl pick to 0-4 just like that. Boston Mallett would regain his starting gig in week 5 and lead the Browns to a 2-1 record before getting pulled again in favor of Christensen due to an inability to take care of the football. Aside from an awful performance against the lowly Colts, Christensen was able to perform the game manager role up to the team's expectations on his second go round as starter and the team finished the season 7-2.
The inexplicable loss versus the Colts was frustrating, but the game that ultimately took the Browns out of the playoffs was a 38-34 defeat in Pittsburgh that saw the not so special teams unit give up two kickoff returns for touchdowns to Kenjon Barner. If either of these had been stopped, Cleveland likely would have taken the game and improved their final record to 10-6, which would have been good enough for the 6th seed and a second straight playoff appearance with the team playing as well as anyone in the league at the time. As it was, the team ended the season by winning 4 straight and 6 of their last 7.
Offensively, the quarterbacks were the problem yet again in Cleveland. Christensen finished the season with respectable numbers (52% completion, 7.93 YPA, 24 touchdowns) but his 17 interceptions typically came at the worst possible time, specifically early in the season. His counterpart Boston Mallett only started 3 games and won 2 of them. However, those who watched the games could easily tell you that Cleveland won in spite of Mallett, who finished the season with a 48% completion percentage and a paltry 5.48 yards per attempt. As of the time of this writing, Christensen has become a cap casualty despite the Browns' preference for him. Boston Mallett's contract is a handcuff the team has been eager to break since Willis arrived, but the team has at least one more season to invest in the giant with the big arm.
The Browns thought they had a new set of triplets when they acquired HB Le'Veon Bell and WR's Demariyus Thomas and Ulysses Moore. Bell struggled early while the team decided to let Howard Christensen try to throw for 600 yards every week unsuccessfully but eventually broke in to a rhythm and finished the season with 1649 yards at a 4.58 yard per carry clip. This was good enough to finish 6th in the league in yards but just 16th per attempt. While the offensive line is substandard, Cleveland was hoping that Bell would be able to elevate the play in the backfield despite not having the best 5 in the league in front of him like Trent Richardson had for Willis in Houston. Thomas and Moore both finished with over 1000 yards on the season and had 76 catches a piece. Unfortunately, they did not provide the explosiveness the team was hoping for and combined for 23 drops(15% of catchable targets were dropped). Thomas has lost a step but is still a viable starter in the league and the team expects a step up from Moore in 2021.
As many opportunities as the offense left on the field, they did still finish the season 3rd in total yardage and 7th in points scored. The defense was the unit that took a big step backwards in 2020. The D finished 14th in total defense and 18th in points allowed but perhaps the biggest disappointment was the inability to get to the quarterback and create turnovers. The surprise 2019 Browns made the playoffs in large part to a defense that led the league in sacks and turnovers. In 2020 the Browns finished 20th in sacks and 9th in turnovers. The unit did solidify in the back half of the season which was a huge reason for the 7-2 finish, at one point the Browns were last in the league in both sacks and turnovers. So what happened? The most obvious point was the drop off in production by defensive tackles Eddie Goldman and Malcom Brown, who combined for 18 sacks a season before but finished with just 7 in 2021. Cameron Jordan was an effective run stuffer at right end but fell short of his typical 7-8 sack performance and the linebacking corps completely vanished from the stat sheet with just 4 sacks as a unit (Ross Homan collected all four while subbing for the injured Zaviar Gooden). The good news is that Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2019 CB Emerson Dupree proved that he's not just a one year wonder by pulling down 5 interceptions. While it's not the 7 he had as a rookie and he gave up way too many catches, he still appears to be on track to be a mainstay for years and justify his draft position. Veteran safety Steve Griffin spent much of the season on the injured list and was only mediocre when he was in and will be allowed to walk in free agency.
Restricted Free Agency: No Point
Restriced free agency has always been a favorite of GM Paul Willis but this season was a definite exception. Previous Browns GM's left Willis with absolutely no one he felt was deserving of a tender on the current roster. The rest of the league had some intriguing players, but there were none with cheap tenders worth going after like in previous seasons.
Free Agency: I'm Broke
After going crazy a few seasons ago in free agency, Willis put himself in a position where free agency essentially had to be a hands off approach. With only 15 million or so earmarked after draft signings and the crazy amount of money getting thrown around, there was no way Cleveland could afford to take part in this exercise. The good news is the Browns felt pretty good about most of the team. They certainly would have liked to upgrade the offensive line, but ready made starters at those positions in particular were the ones receiving the most egregious deals this year. The Browns signed not a single player prior to the college entry draft.
Pre-Draft Trades: Pulled the Trigger
Well, it's almost like Cleveland took the offseason off, huh? Well after blowing their wad of cash in 2019 and blowing their wad of picks in 2020 there really wasn't much action to be had here. Aside from a very short conversation with Dallas revolving around a quarterback the Browns couldn't afford, the phones were extremely quiet all offseason long. Big contracts are keeping the team in check for the moment. Two of those, inherited from previous regimes, are particularly frustrating for Cleveland. QB Boston Mallett is as good of a quarterback prospect as you could ever ask for but for some reason he and Willis just cannot make the thing work. As much as Willis and Mallett would love to move on from each other, the once promising gunslinger would cost the team over 12 million in future cap penalties to move. Similarly, DE Cameron Jordan has been a mainstay in Cleveland for nearly the entire GZL era. He also has a giant contract and is over 10 YP so no one in the league is willing to pay anywhere near the value the club would need in order to eat his cap penalty. The final huge chunk of cash is self inflicted in the form of WR Demariyus Thomas, who regressed this offseason but still provides the team with a wily vet with the potential to put up Pro Bowl numbers. As it stands now, those 3 contracts make any significant moves very difficult.
The Draft: Searching for Gems
2.20 -- WR Josh Doctson - TCU -- After once again finishing the season in position to have the 20th pick in each round and having traded away their first to Miami a year before, the Browns felt lucky to find TCU's Josh Doctson available so late in the day. While he certainly isn't a ready made prospect, Doctson has good size and hands and with the right amount of attention he should be able to take over for Demariyus Thomas alongside Ulysses Moore next season if the Browns don't find a better option in the meantime. The team should have plenty of opportunities to devote training to him as the roster is nearly empty of any young talents that would normally take their attention away from an unfinished prospect like the former Horned Frog.
3.20 -- SS Sam Barbartsky - Rice -- There is nothing that stands out about Sam Barbartsky. He's got good speed, good hands, good agility, good acceleration and good awareness for a rookie safety. The Browns needed someone to take over for Steve Griffin and after passing on a safety in the second round in favor of Josh Doctson, were pleasantly surprised with Barbartsky as an option one round later. He will almost certainly start immediately for the safety needy Browns and, like Doctson, will benefit from the team's lack of progressable young players as competition. Eventually he could not only become a starter for the short term but a player who continues on in Cleveland for a decade.
4.20 -- QB Jacoby Brissett - North Carolina State -- Word is that the Browns were hopeful that Dak Prescott would be available at this selection. Unfortunately, despite the amount of talented signal callers in the GZL, there is still a market for a quarterback with potential in the draft and Prescott went much earlier than anticipated at 2.24. This didn't stop the Browns from taking one though. Brissett is a classic pocket passer which the Browns love, and while he doesn't have a cannon for an arm, he does have excellent starting accuracy and enough awareness to potentially start one day. It will take a Terence Bennett level investment, but the Browns may decide to begin grooming Brissett as the QB of the future now as they count down the clock on the Boston Mallett era.
5.20 -- LE Adam Kelly - Iowa -- The Browns needed a defensive end for depth and there's no cheaper way to do that than by drafting a guy late. Kelly has a good SPD/STR combo and if that was all that mattered he might see playing time one day. Unfortunately his acceleration is the poops and if he ever sets foot on the field Cleveland will be in trouble.
6.20 -- SS Marion Fournier - BYU -- Fournier is actually a pretty intriguing prospect this deep in the draft. Just an inch shorter than Barbartsky and certainly faster. The reason Fournier will not start is because his first step is so slow and he is a year or two behind with his hands and football IQ.
7.20 -- FS Russell Charboneau - Oregon -- Cleveland was still hoping to hit a homerun with a late round pick but Charboneau will only provide depth. Like Fournier he has a fancy sounding name and decent measurables, but also like Fournier, he has an extremely slow first step to the football and will not see the field very often barring injury.
7.27 -- DT Cepheus King - Miami -- The Browns had need of a defensive tackle to fill their roster. Defensive tackles are expensive to sign in free agency. Cepheus King's contract is not expensive. Now you know the reason Cepheus King is on the Browns roster.
Post Draft UFA: Bargain Bin
There really was only one goal in free agency this year: get a team on the field that would meet GZL's roster requirements. Out of this necessity Cleveland signed six players who they have no intention of ever seeing in uniform on an offensive or defensive snap. However, after all the mandatory signings were done the team was still left with a handful of cash to spend on someone who might prove useful. No starters were still around to be hired and none were really thought of as needed although the team did toy with the idea of making room to sign QB Howard Christensen for another season although that idea was quickly abandoned after looking back over his 2020 season stats.
TE Jordan Cameron is a player Willis has long admired from afar during his time with the Miami Dolphins. While the Browns are set with Lance Hendricks as their stud receiving tight end, they had absolutely nothing behind him worth mentioning. Cameron, although heavily regressed from his prime, is still a savvy vet with more athleticism than most who can also be a viable blocker in two tight end sets. Kendricks is no stranger to injury so this move could pay dividends not only in substitutions but if a more disastrous situation develops.
CB Leonard Johnson was a first round pick once upon a time by the Atlanta Falcons. While time has not been kind to that selection (most would call it a bust in production terms), that can't really be blamed on Johnson. He was as dumb as a box of rocks coming out of Iowa State and while he is still not ever going to be considered a field general, he has developed enough of a feel for the game to be a high quality backup. The Browns only had 4 cornerbacks on the roster prior to this pickup, so while not technically a requirement, it was considered a necessity by the front office.
Training Camp: Observations
Offensive linemen Burl Ragsdale and Octavius Warren have been challenging each other in the weight room. Both are converted college tight ends with tremendous athleticism but underwhelming power and technique. If one or both can develop a full game to go along with their outstanding quickness it would go a long way towards improving an already effective, if inconsistent offense.
Rookie CB Emerson DuPree is on a mission to become a better player than Buford McKay. While that is a tall order for the Oregon alum, he does seem a step quicker than he was in college, which was already very fast. He has taken his new partner in the secondary, Sam Barbartsky under his wing in an effort to get the third rounder ready to start alongside him on opening day.
WR Josh Doctson has a chip on his shoulder after being passed on until the second round of the draft. The 6'3" Doctson spent the summer at the home of fellow wideout Oliver Coleman and attended a speed camp with Ryan Swope.
Le'Veon Bell made it through the season but reports are that he was banged up nearly the entire campaign and pushed his way through it. He began an extensive routine with former injury prone halfback Fred Taylor during the offseason in an effort to mimic Taylor's transformation from an oft-injured talent in to one of the best backs in the late 90's/early 2000's.
Training Camp Battles: Fight For Your Right
Quarterback -- Jacoby Brissett vs. Cameron Green vs. Tony Bohannon
While Boston Mallett is still the defacto starting quarterback, the battle for the backup spot is up for grabs. Tony Bohannon was looked as a guy with some potential at the time of his drafting but has developed in to a wasted pick as he was released just prior to this posting. Jacoby Brissett is not game ready as of now, but could beat out Green based on his potential as the team sees him as a future starter if he gets opportunities. Knowing the Browns offensive line and Mallett's refusal to throw the god damn ball, it is likely whoever wins this battle will see plenty of time on the field in 2021.
Wide Receiver -- Ryan Swope vs. Oliver Coleman vs. Josh Doctson
Demariyus Thomas and Ulysses Moore have the top two starting slots locked up. WR3, which is traditionally a deep threat in Willis offenses, is up for grabs between two veteran speedsters and the young talent Doctson. Coleman is younger than Swope, but Swope is taller. Coleman is faster, Swope is stronger. Swope has better football instincts, but Coleman has better hands. Throw all that out the window because Doctson is taller and is the one who needs the reps the most? It's a very close race right now and most likely won't be settled until after the preseason. Look for each to get opportunities with the starting squad during the preseason.
2019 Cleveland Browns: New Era Truly Begins
There have been some questions this offseason about how much dedication Paul Willis has left to his "dream job". There were even rumblings earlier this season that he might head back to Houston when that opportunity arose. It just seems that for whatever reason, the passion to build a winner has gone out of the organization. That said, the team has 2 winning seasons in Willis' first 2 full campaigns in orange and brown so there should be reason for optimism despite Boston Mallett backing in to the starting quarterback role again. The positive outlook is that without Christensen looming the Browns will tailor an offense to suit Mallet's skills. He only had 3 games to figure out a rhythm with Demariyus Thomas and Ulysses Moore, and the offensive line should do a better job protecting him and opening holes for Le'Veon Bell.
Bell will be counted on again to be the focus for the offense whether or not Mallett gets his act together. If he can keep the momentum of a strong second half of the season rolling and produce a 5+ yard per carry total as the team envisions, it will be hard to fail. Even if he can come close, the team will feed him the ball enough to contend for a rushing title.
On the outside, one or both of Demariyus Thomas and Ulysses Moore must produce more. While both were solid a season ago, they didn't provide the fireworks that were expected and too often dropped big passes in crucial moments. With Josh Doctson joining to add more size in the depth and Oliver Coleman and Ryan Swope returning to reprise their roles as speedy deep threats and special teams aces, this group should be in good shape.
The offensive line is the biggest question mark outside of Mallett. Can the undersized but athletically gifted group create enough holes to propel Lev Bell to an MVP candidate while also keeping Boston Mallett protected long enough to have a halfway decent season? It may be a lot to ask as they are still very raw but it is certainly a possibility.
The defensive line returns in tact and should bounce back after the disappointment that was 2020. Free agent Cornelius Washington picked up his game late and finished with 11 sacks but he needs to be a more consistent force if he can be the Mario Williams mark II that he was imagined to be coming out of college. Aging vet Cameron Jordan is still a perfect fit at right end in this defensive system but he needs to produce more pressure on the quarterback. He was solid last season with double digit tackles for loss but his 4 sacks left something to be desired. The biggest piece of the puzzle is in the middle, where Eddie Goldman and Malcom Brown must prove that 2020 was a sophomore slump and not a sign of things to come. With the immense talent that both possess it is hard to imagine they finish 2021 as poorly as they did 2020.
The linebacking corps must stay healthy as there is basically no depth. Last season Zaviar Gooden's injury was softened by the presence of Ross Homan on the team. This year there is no one at that level who is ready to step in and take meaningful snaps. Shea McClellin had a career year a season ago and must prove capable of repeating that performance. His confidence should be at an all time high. On the outsides, Zaviar Gooden and Byron Pharr simply must produce more pressure from a 46 look. They combined for zero sacks in 2020, which hindered the defense's ability to get off the field too often, specifically late in games.
The secondary progressed well over the 2020 campaign but still needs to step to the next level to become elite. Emerson Dupree was a disappointment on draft day but he has been a sensation on the field. Another step up for him, along with a return to form for Pete Nickerson would go a long way towards a return to glory for this unit. Anthony Harris mans the free safety spot and is a cagey young veteran at this point in his career. He will be joined by rookie Sam Barbartsky, who will make mistakes early on but has the athleticism and hands to surprise with big plays.
The Browns are out of the conversation of playoff teams (once again left off the "Who's Next" list on the front page at GZL-Football.com) but the team knows they won the AFC North just two seasons ago and were merely a game away from returning to the playoffs a season ago. As always, the Browns will need to take care of business in the division first. If they can do that, the rest of the goal becomes much easier to define and tackle. It will all hinge on Boston Mallett returning to form so the Browns could finish anywhere from 3-13 to 13-3 in my opinion. Odds are, 8-8 and another disappointment.
(by P_Willis on 07/21/2016)
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