The Cleveland Browns are the NFL’s “it” team this preseason. They have a dynamic young quarterback in Baker Mayfield. They have a star wide receiver in Odell Beckham Jr. They have a new coach, a new plan, and renewed hope ... and this time that hope seems warranted. So how did the Browns go from leaguewide laughingstock to potential model franchise of the future? Welcome to Trust the Browns’ Process Week, when we’ll explore how Believeland reached this point—and what comes next.
Browns GM John Dorsey has followed the playbook for Maximizing Your Quarterback’s Cheap Rookie Contract Window to a T over the past year, aggressively utilizing his stockpile of assets to build a talented offensive nucleus around Baker Mayfield. Cleveland’s blockbuster trade for wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. was nothing less than a coup—an acquisition that should elevate not only Mayfield’s game but boost the effectiveness of the entire offensive unit. But while Mayfield, Beckham, and the Browns’ ascending offense has stolen most of the spotlight in the run-up to the 2019 season, the upgrades Dorsey has made to an already-promising defensive core seem to be flying under the radar.
Thanks to a flurry of moves over the past year―from trades and free agency to the draft―the Browns defense looks poised for major improvement in 2019. The offense may grab more headlines, but this underrated Cleveland defense has talent at every level―and it could give the Browns the balance they need to conquer the AFC North.
The Pieces for a Dominant Front
Just about every great defense is built around an elite, Defensive Player of the Year–caliber playmaker, and for this Browns group, defensive end Myles Garrett is that guy. The third-year pro is already one of the most devastating edge rushers in the game, mixing prototypical size and length, an explosive first step, flexibility, and underrated power to wreak havoc on opposing lines.
In 2018, the former top overall pick beat his blocker within 2.5 seconds 30 percent of the time (seventh among defensive ends and outside linebackers). He totaled 67 pressures (also seventh), per Pro Football Focus—just behind Chicago’s Khalil Mack and tied with Minnesota’s Danielle Hunter—including 36 hurries, 16 hits, and 13.5 sacks. What’s scary about that performance, though, is that the 23-year-old is just scratching the surface of what he can do. Garrett’s played only a handful of preseason snaps this summer, but the early reports out of training camp have been, you could say, promising.
Myles Garrett has people audibly gasping with the way he’s exploding off the snap.— Zac Jackson (@AkronJackson) August 12, 2019
Crucially, the Browns went out this offseason and got Garrett some help, acquiring bookend edge rusher Olivier Vernon in a trade with the Giants. Vernon has battled multiple ankle injuries over the past two years, which have robbed him of nine games and stifled his overall stat lines, but he remains one of the most underrated pass rushers in the game. His 18.2 percent win rate ranked ninth at his position, per PFF, and in just 11 games he finished tied for 30th among edge rushers with 46 total pressures, including 25 hurries, 13 hits, and 7.0 sacks. The trade obviously comes with some risk for the Browns, who took on Vernon’s $15.25 million in base salary in 2019 and 2020, but they’re betting that the 28-year-old former Giant will stay healthy this year and get back to putting up elite numbers. In Vernon’s last full season (2016), he finished second among edge rushers with 86 pressures; playing opposite Garrett—who will attract more attention in the form of tight end and running back chip-blocks—should provide Vernon the opportunity to get his numbers back up toward the league’s leaders.
That edge-rushing duo should get a boost, too, from the team’s upgrades on the interior. On the same day that Cleveland traded for Beckham, the team also quietly signed former Vikings defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson to a three-year, $37 million deal. Richardson, a stout, powerful penetrator who ranked 14th among interior linemen last year with 47 pressures, will join up-and-coming defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi to help push the pocket, slice through the line, and force quarterbacks to retreat into Garrett or Vernon’s area. And while Richardson’s a relatively well-known name, Ogunjobi is on the brink of becoming one himself; in his second year in the league, the former third-round pick ranked 21st among all interior defenders with 36 pressures, per PFF—including 21 hurries, 8 hits, and 5.5 sacks—and showed flashes of power and quickness off the snap. If Ogunjobi can keep adding to his pass-rush arsenal, he could be in for a breakout season in 2019.
Past that potentially elite front four, Cleveland has some up-and-coming talent playing in depth roles on the line. Versatile linebacker/end hybrid Genard Avery leads that group; the 2018 fifth-rounder has been working on his pass-rush moves all offseason—boosted by a trip to Von Miller’s pass rush summit back in June—and figures to be one of the team’s top nickel package rushers on the edge. As a rookie, Avery grabbed 40 tackles, four pass deflections, and 4.5 sacks. He’s joined by defensive tackle Devaroe Lawrence, who’s been “unblockable” in training camp, according to head coach Freddie Kitchens. And second-year defensive end Chad Thomas has reportedly been another camp standout (even after being temporarily sidelined with a neck injury earlier this month). Put together, the Browns have elite talent on its starting defensive line and plenty of intriguing depth behind it.
Added Depth in the Linebacker Corps
The Browns head into 2019 without the services of former All-Pro Jamie Collins (who was released in March), but that loss could end up being a net gain as the team turns to a potentially deeper and more reliable group this year. Joe Schobert—a fourth-year ’backer who went to the Pro Bowl in 2017—remains the anchor in the middle of the field, where he’ll have a chance to post 100-plus tackles for the third straight season. And he’ll be bolstered by the return of rangy sidekick Christian Kirksey, who missed the final seven games last year.
Behind that duo, the Browns can tinker with subpackage roles for Avery and rookies Mack Wilson and Sione Takitaki. Wilson, the former Crimson Tide star who Cleveland grabbed in the fifth round, has already shown signs of being a major steal: He grabbed two interceptions in the team’s first preseason game, including this one, which he returned for a score:
Wilson was voted the most outstanding rookie in Browns camp and is versatile enough to play multiple linebacker spots, showing flashes of ability against both the run and pass. He has a chance to earn major playing time in year one.
An Ascending Secondary Got Another Boost
The Browns raised more than a few eyebrows last spring when they took cornerback Denzel Ward with the fourth pick, eschewing the chance to grab NC State pass rusher Bradley Chubb. But the former Ohio State standout showed glimpses of superstar potential as a rookie. Ward boasts elite athleticism and natural ball-hawking instincts; he finished with three picks and 11 passes defensed, surrendering a paltry 70.7 passer rating against in coverage—good for 12th among all corners, per PFF. Ward proved sticky in coverage, showed instincts in zone and frequently reading opposing quarterbacks’ eyes to get a jump on passes to pick them off.
Ward, who is still just 22, joins Garrett to form a pair of cornerstone defensive pieces for the Browns. Crucially, he gives Cleveland the ability to match up with opposing teams’ no. 1 receivers; after finishing 29th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA against those pass catchers in 2017, the Browns jumped all the way up to 12th last year.
Opposite Ward, the team returns veteran corner Terrance Mitchell, who will battle it out with rookie Greedy Williams for the starting job. Williams—my second-ranked corner prior to the draft—reportedly fell into the second round due to concerns over his ability to take on the run. But, as Dorsey said after the draft, “corners are paid to cover,” and Williams is a top-flight cover man with length, instincts, and ball skills. If he can win the job, Williams brings potential to form, with Ward, one of the strongest cornerback duos in the league. Add in veteran slot corner T.J. Carrie, whom Dorsey signed in March, and the Browns’ cornerback coverage group is strong across the board: Per the Football Outsiders Almanac, only the Bears defended inside receivers better than Cleveland last year, in large part due to Carrie’s excellent play. The 29-year-old finished with eight passes defensed and a pick.
The Browns’ decision to trade for Packers defensive back Damarious Randall last March turned out to be prescient one. Cleveland moved Randall back to his more natural free safety position, where he thrived. In new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks’s scheme, Randall should have no trouble playing either deep middle or split-safety looks alongside some combination of Morgan Burnett, Eric Murray, Jermaine Whitehead, and rookie Sheldrick Redwine. Perhaps most important, none of the team’s safeties will have to play 20 yards off the line of scrimmage.
Shoot Gregg Williams to the moon pic.twitter.com/iqP7PJGJiE— Justis Mosqueda (@JuMosq) December 11, 2017
A New Coordinator Pulling the Strings
The Browns should benefit from the rule of addition by subtraction in going from Gregg Williams to Wilks. Williams’s penchant for playing his safeties far too deep wasn’t the only thing holding Cleveland’s defense back. The Browns finished second in the league in base-defense snaps (90) against 11 personnel last year, per Football Outsiders, a strategy Wilks is almost sure to abandon. Wilks favors nickel looks, often utilizing 4-2-5 schemes with two linebackers and three versatile safeties on the field. This should give Cleveland a better chance to match up with some of the league’s more dynamic pass offenses while still giving the team some size to stop the run.
The Browns are likely to blitz far less this season as well. Per the Football Outsiders Almanac, Cleveland ranked first in the league in six-plus-man blitzes, and rushed with just four less than any other team. With the upgrades to the defensive line, Wilks won’t have to send the house on every other play, allowing him to drop more defenders back and mix up coverage schemes.
Wilks will have an older, savvier group to work with as well. The offseason acquisitions of Vernon, Richardson, and Burnett—together with the returns of Kirksey and Mitchell from season-ending injuries—should help turn what was the second-youngest defensive group last season (by snap-weighted age) into a more experienced and disciplined one. Cleveland, which finished second in the NFL in takeaways last year (31), must weather what’s bound to be an inevitable turnover regression, but the Mayfield-led offense isn’t the only reason Cleveland’s favored to win their division for the first time since 1989. The team’s infusion of talent—along with the potential performance leaps from Garrett, Ward, and Ogunjobi—gives this Browns defense a chance to dominate in 2019.