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Exit Interview: Cleveland Browns

Baker Mayfield and Co. have made this one of the most exciting Browns seasons in years, but the franchise faces tricky questions in the offseason.

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It’s that time of season when some NFL teams have started looking toward next year. As each is officially eliminated, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Today it’s the Browns, who were eliminated from playoff contention when Tennessee beat Washington on Saturday night.

What Went Right

Not only did the Browns win a game, they’ve won six games—and there is still two weeks left to add to that total. This marks the most wins the Browns have recorded in a season since 2014, when they went 7-9, but this year feels far more promising than than that one, when Brian Hoyer was the quarterback and the team lost five games in a row to close out the season. In fact, 2018 may mark the highest point of optimism for Browns fans since the franchise was resurrected in 1999. After all, Cleveland seems to have finally found their QB of the future in Baker Mayfield.

Unless you make the argument that Nick Mullens should count as a rookie, Mayfield is having the best season of any first-year passer by far. He has 21 touchdowns to 11 interceptions and his adjusted net yards per attempt (6.52) ranks 15th in the league, and he’s looked particularly good since Freddie Kitchens took over as offensive coordinator. The Browns have started so many quarterbacks over the past two decades, but none of them have held the promise that Mayfield does right now.

But it’s more than just Mayfield—this team has an impressive young group of playmakers to build around. On offense, Mayfield is joined by rookie running back Nick Chubb, who has been sensational since the Browns traded away Carlos Hyde after Week 6. Chubb is tied for seventh in the league in scrimmage yards since Week 7, and on the year he is averaging 5.2 yards per carry, including a full 4.4 yards after contact, the highest mark of any running back in the league by far, per Pro Football Focus. He’s been phenomenal.

It’s no wonder the Browns were comfortable offloading Hyde and moving on with Chubb as the starter.

On defense, 2017 first-round pick Myles Garrett has been electric, with 12.5 sacks on the season. He’s pressured the quarterback 60 times this year, per PFF, which is ninth most in the league. Garrett has paired nicely with rookie defensive back Denzel Ward, who has grabbed three interceptions and defended 11 passes this season.

The Browns still need to bolster this roster with more talent, but they already have future stars on both sides of the ball. This team could be a playoff contender next season.

What Went Wrong

So I guess giving the least successful head coach in modern NFL history a third season didn’t exactly work out, huh? The team has been energized since Hue Jackson was fired, going 4-2 without him when they previously had gone 3-35-1 under Jackson. Browns fans should feel great about the direction of the franchise, but it’s obvious that the team left wins on the table by keeping Jackson around for as long as they did.

The franchise is now looking for its next head coach. This will be a tricky situation for the franchise—while the team has thrived under interim coach Gregg Williams, he was the architect of the bountygate scandal in New Orleans. Meanwhile, there are already rumors that Kitchens could want the job, but while he’s been successful this season he is incredibly inexperienced, as this was his first stint as an offensive coordinator.

The most important thing for the Browns is to make sure Mayfield’s development continues apace. They can’t screw this hire up.

Free Agency

The Browns are projected to have $84.9 million in effective cap space in 2019, 4th-most in the league. That gives them the ability to go after just about anyone they want. The team could use a star pass-catcher on offense, and while there isn’t a top-tier guy set to hit free agency, a Golden Tate or a Randall Cobb could be in play. The Browns could also be looking for offensive line help and to add a cornerback.

The Draft

Except for a seventh rounder, the Browns have all their picks in the upcoming draft. They also have a third-rounder from the Pats for the Danny Shelton trade, a fifth-round pick from the Jaguars for the Carlos Hyde trade, another fifth rounder from the Pats from the Josh Gordon trade, and a seventh rounder from the Jags for the Cody Kessler trade. So they have some ammo with which to improve their team.

Cleveland currently sits at 15th in the draft order, so they won’t have their pick of the litter as they have in the past few drafts. But there is still plenty of talent they could grab with their first pick. Arizona State wide receiver N’Keal Harry is considered the no. 1 wideout in the draft, and he could be available in the teens for the Browns. If he isn’t there, they also could grab Stanford’s JJ Arcega-Whiteside or Ole Miss’s A.J. Brown. They could also take one of the big defensive tackles in this draft, like Clemson’s Dexter Lawrence or Auburn’s Derrick Brown, or go for a corner like LSU’s Greedy Williams.