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Exit Interview: Cleveland Browns

Freddie Kitchens’s squad entered 2019 with high expectations, but ended the season in chaos. Will the head coach become a one and done? And what other changes should the team make?

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It’s getting later in the season, and for many NFL teams, the playoffs are in sight. But some squads are already looking to next year. As each club is eliminated from the postseason, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Today it’s the Browns, who saw their playoff hopes extinguished with a Week 16 loss to the Ravens.


What Went Right

The Browns weren’t eliminated until Week 16, which feels like progress for a team that has been so bad for so long. But given the preseason expectations, the team finishing with at least nine losses overshadows any highlights, such as Nick Chubb leading the league in rushing. Cleveland was supposed to contend. Instead, their football team is in as much chaos as ever.

What Went Wrong

In early August, former Browns offensive line coach Bob Wylie (of Hard Knocks fame) said it was former quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese, not new head coach Freddie Kitchens, who was most responsible for Baker Mayfield’s turnaround in the second half of the 2018 season. At the time, this was easy to dismiss. Wylie hadn’t been retained as part of Kitchens’s staff and neither had Zampese, and Wylie’s remarks sounded like those of a typical disgruntled employee.

Five months later, those words can’t be so easily ignored. The Browns offense has been a disaster all year, Mayfield regressed, the defense hasn’t lived up to expectations, and the team has been shockingly undisciplined. The low point came when defensive end Myles Garrett hit Mason Rudolph with his helmet in mid-November. In the weeks since, players—including Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr.—have reportedly told opposing teams to “come get” them, Kareem Hunt questioned the team’s effort, and Damarious Randall declined to give his coach a vote of confidence. Even by Browns standards, this is a mess.

Kitchens was supposed to be Cleveland’s Sean McVayesque wunderkind. Less than a year later, he may be on his way out as the Browns’ head coach.

But while the Browns’ problems begin with Kitchens, they certainly don’t end there. The most worrisome long-term development for the Browns is the regression of the guy under center. Despite a rocky start in his rookie season, Mayfield finished last season with 3,725 yards, 27 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions, and looked like the best quarterback of his draft class.

This year, Lamar Jackson has taken the 2018 draft class QB crown, and he’s the league’s presumptive MVP while leading one of the Browns’ divisional rivals. Oh, and Mayfield has regressed. Through 16 weeks, he has 3,548 yards, 19 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions. Entering Sunday, his yards per attempt has fallen from 7.7 to 7.1, his touchdown percentage from 5.6 percent to 3.6, and his interception rate had risen from 2.9 percent to 3.6. And that’s after adding Beckham, who has yet to crack 1,000 receiving yards as a Brown and is on pace to record career worsts in virtually every statistical category. It’s not a good sign that Mayfield has received more attention this year for his facial hair decisions than his play on the field.

Mayfield is moving backward as a passer. Is that because the offense around him has failed or because he has declined? That we’re even asking the question should have Browns fans terrified.

Free Agency

The Browns are projected to have $51 million in cap space in 2020, which puts them about middle of the road leaguewide. But they also have a number of holes to fill. Left tackle Greg Robinson’s contract is up. The former no. 2 overall pick signed with Cleveland on a veteran minimum deal in 2018, then re-upped with the team for a one-year, $6.4 million contract for 2019. But the Browns may still look to upgrade. While Robinson played well enough to earn the starting job in Cleveland and shed his “bust” label, he’s graded out as just the 37th-best tackle in the league, per Pro Football Focus.

On safety, the Browns have two starters who can—and probably should—test the open market: outside linebacker Joe Schobert and free safety Damarious Randall. Schobert has been a starter for Cleveland for three seasons and earned Pro Bowl honors in 2017 (and was named an alternate this season), but the Browns have reportedly been reluctant to negotiate with him. Last week, Cleveland.com’s Mary Kay Cabot reported that Schobert has not “heard from the front office in months about an extension.”

Randall, meanwhile, has his own bone to pick with the team. Kitchens unceremoniously benched Randall earlier in December for an undisclosed violation. Randall didn’t even make the trip with the team to Pittsburgh. While Randall has played since then and later said “everything is resolved,” he also delivered what could be read as a vote of no confidence in Kitchens a few days ago:

Randall hasn’t lived up to his billing as a 2015 first-round pick, but he’s at least been a serviceable starter in Cleveland. His future may depend on his price tag as well as the status of Kitchens.

The Draft

The Browns’ first-round pick should land in the teens, and they have an extra third-rounder coming from the Texans. The most pressing need is the offensive line, and The Ringer’s latest mock draft has Alabama offensive tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. pegged to Cleveland. They could also nab Bama’s Alex Leatherwood, Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs, USC’s Austin Jackson, or a number of other blockers in that spot.

If Cleveland looks elsewhere, it could be to the secondary (LSU’s Grant Delpit is an option), especially with the uncertain future of Randall. The Browns could even look at wide receiver—while that may not seem like a need for a team with Beckham and Landry, ESPN’s Todd McShay pointed out that the team has a lack of depth at that spot in his latest mock draft.