2022 NFL Previews: Cleveland Browns

Every team goes through some changes in the offseason but the Browns have gone through a complete makeover (or at least a facelift). It is a bit odd to see a team that experienced decent success as recently as 2020 change things up so drastically, but that is exactly what Cleveland has done.

Gone are some important players from the past few seasons such as quarterback Baker Mayfield, wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr and Jarvis Landry, and tight end Austin Hooper. Those departures are going to lead to a much different looking offense this year, and we will see if that ends up working for Cleveland.

The Browns are taking a huge risk moving on from Mayfield, who was solid but did not live up to the hype of being the first overall pick. But they are taking an even better risk by putting their faith in quarterback Deshaun Watson to be the face of the franchise.

While there is no question that Watson is incredible on the field, he comes with way too many off-the-field concerns. I’m not going to get into the circus of Watson’s countless civil suits that have materialized over the past year but if it leads to the NFL handing down a suspension (which they all but certainly will do) then those non-football issues will have an impact on the team and franchise.

If Watson does get a suspension it will likely be a 6-8 game sentence. That will significantly hinder the Browns’ ability to start the season strong since they would likely turn to quarterback Jacoby Brissett. It may lead to Watson being rusty when he comes back, especially because he also didn’t play all of last year.

The loss of games is also going to make it more difficult for Watson to develop chemistry with his new weapons. The most important of those new pass-catchers is wide receiver Amari Cooper.

The Browns got a great deal when they traded a fifth-round pick and a sixth-round pick swap for Cooper. The Cowboys felt they needed to move off of Cooper and shed his salary, despite him still being an effective receiver. Cooper still has the talent to be a number one receiver and will have the chance to prove that this season.

Cooper will be a great veteran presence in Cleveland’s wide receiver room, something they were going to be without before making the trade. That will allow fellow receivers Donovan Peoples-Jones and Anthony Schwartz to remain in similar roles as last year, with Cooper taking over as the number one guy.

That then creates an opportunity for rookie wide receiver David Bell to possibly push for the second wide receiver spot, or take over the third spot if one of the previously mentioned guys steps up. Bell was an electric pass-catcher at Purdue and wasn’t afraid of playing against NFL-caliber talent at schools like Ohio State. He slipped to the fourth round but could surpass a lot of the receivers taken ahead of him if he gets the chance.

The tight ends could help with some of the uncertainty out wide since there are a few capable options at the position. Tight ends David Njoku and Harrison Bryant could form a very strong duo, making Browns fans forget all about Hooper.

Njoku will likely be the starter heading into his sixth year with the team. He is a former first-round selection but hasn’t quite lived up to that hype, especially lately. But with a chance to start, Njoku can prove that he can be a reliable number one tight end in the league.

If Njoku struggles, then Bryant is certainly capable of swooping in and nabbing the starting job. He is a former award-winner in college so he definitely has the skills to succeed. Bryant struggled to produce in his first two seasons with Cleveland, but much of that can be attributed to him being third on the depth chart. Whether it is Njoku or Bryant, the Browns should have at least one tight end they can depend on in 2022.

During the inevitable Watson suspension, it would be wise for Cleveland to rely on the run game. That shouldn’t be a problem for head coach Kevin Stefanski, who clearly has an affinity for the ground game. The Browns had the ninth-most rushing attempts last year but racked up the fourth-most yards. That added up to them being the most effective rushing team in the league, leading the NFL in yards per attempt (by .004).

It helps when you have possibly the best running back tandem in the sport, which the Browns have with their duo of running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. While Hunt is a very talented back in his own right, and would probably be a starter on a handful of other teams, Chubb is the one carrying the load (quite literally).

Chubb has staked his claim as one of the top running backs in the game. He has three straight 1,000-yard seasons, and only missed that mark in his rookie year by four yards. He also has yet to have a season averaging less than five yards per carry. He is one of the few backs that can be relied on consistently throughout a season on all three downs but luckily the Browns also have Hunt to give him a break when he needs it.

Cleveland also has a stellar offensive line, which completes their dominant run game. They are returning four starters from that unit: tackles Jedrick Wills and Jack Conklin, and guards Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller. The only starter not coming back is J.C. Tretter, who is currently a free agent, but Cleveland has either Nick Harris or Ethan Pocic who can man the center spot. There really isn’t concern over this part of the team as it should once again be the strongest unit on the roster.

While the Cleveland offense has gone through a bit of a shakeup during the offseason, the defense has largely remained intact.

The headliner of the Browns’ defense is still defensive end Myles Garrett. He is one of the best edge rushers in the league and also making a claim as one of the top defenders overall. He has frequently been a preseason favorite for Defensive Player of the Year and this year is no different. It is going to be worth watching if this is the year he can finally stake his claim as the most dominant defender in football.

It would help Garrett quite a bit if fellow defensive end Jadeveon Clowney could repeat his admirable performance from last year. Playing with a player as talented as Garrett clearly benefitted Clowney, as he posted his highest sack total in a season since 2018. Clowney and Garrett are great bookends for a defensive line that has plenty of potential this year with young talent on the interior.

The Browns’ defense last year wasn’t horrible, but it was certainly closer to being bad than great. They finished near the middle of the pack in most categories and a lot of that blame can be placed on the linebackers as it is the weakest aspect of the unit.

The Browns are going to need big seasons from linebackers Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Sione Takitaki. Linebacker Anthony Walker has earned his spot as the leader of the defense, finishing 2021 with a team-high 113 tackles, but he is going to need some help.

Takitaki is the more experienced player, heading into his fourth season with the Browns, but may not be as talented as the younger Owusu-Koramoah. JOK was a second-round draft selection last year but was largely regarded as a first-round talent. He played well in ten starts last year, finishing second on the team in tackles. If those two players can take steps forward this year, the linebacking group would be a huge upgrade over last year.

The Cleveland secondary is a tough unit to judge because their 2021 season was such a mixed bag. They allowed the fifth-fewest passing yards in the league but at the same time allowed the ninth-most touchdowns. It means the group is having some success, just not in the red zone where it matters most.

The talent is certainly there in the secondary, so success should be coming soon. The cornerback group features Denzel Ward, one of the best young corners in the game, along with Greg Newsome and Greedy Williams, who were taken in rounds one and two, respectively, in their drafts. When those three are all on the field together, it makes it tough on opposing quarterbacks.

The safety group is also incredibly talented, having one of the best collections of safeties in the league. Safety John Johnson is the leader of that group both on and off the field and he has earned it. He is going into his sixth season in the NFL and second with Cleveland. His presence over the top should give the rest of the players on the field confidence that they won’t get beat deep.

The rest of the safety room is filled out by Grant Delpit, Ronnie Harrison, and Richard LeCounte, all of whom were fantastic players in college. Delpit and Harrison both made plays last year, finishing third and fifth, respectively, on the team in tackles while each grabbing an interception. The Browns are not afraid to experiment with three safety looks, which will be increasingly helpful if the linebackers struggle.

If the defense improves enough to carry the team, then I could see the Browns pushing for a winning record but since I don’t see that happening just yet, I think Cleveland ends up at 7-10.

It might be disappointing for Browns fans to hear that but I would consider that a pretty decent season given the uncertainty of Watson and the quarterback position. With games against the Steelers, Chargers, Patriots, Ravens, and Bengals all falling in Watson’s potential suspension window, I think they will be in far too big of a hole to dig themselves out of.

There is definitely enough star power on the team to weather the storm when Watson is out but I don’t foresee Garrett, Chubb, and Cooper doing enough to beat some of those legitimately good teams. The Browns are very unlikely to push for a playoff spot and probably will end up in the cellar of the AFC North but if they end the season strong it could give them good momentum for 2023.