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.
I hate to be that guy, but someone has to be. Browns Fever has gone full tilt this summer, and we here at The Ringer get that. We planned a whole week around it. We’ve talked about how the Browns have built around Baker Mayfield, how their quarterback-head-coach partnership is the perfect recipe for an explosive offense, and how Odell Beckham Jr. should launch this team into the stratosphere. But maybe we’ve gone too far. Maybe the Browns—despite their cavalcade of stars and well designed approach on offense—still have too many holes to be considered true Super Bowl contenders. So let me be the one to play devil’s avocado here, Larry, and take a look at what might hold this team back in 2019.
Any case against the Browns must start with the offensive line. Adding Olivier Vernon to a defensive line that already included Myles Garrett is undeniably fun, but to pry Vernon from the Giants, Cleveland had to send them guard Kevin Zeitler. Without Zeitler, the Browns are down to two reliable starters along the OL: center J.C. Tretter and Pro Bowl left guard Joel Bitonio. Elsewhere, questions abound. The hope was that 2018 second-round pick Austin Corbett would step in for Zeitler on the right side, but the word out of training camp is that Corbett is losing the fight to journeyman Eric Kush. That’s not great!
The post–Joe Thomas era at left tackle also hasn’t been kind to Cleveland. The Browns trotted out undrafted rookie Desmond Harrison for the first half of last season before replacing him with Greg Robinson—the no. 2 pick in the 2014 draft who flamed out with the Rams in 2016 and spent one injury-plagued season with the Lions before landing in Cleveland. The Browns re-signed Robinson to a one-year, $7 million contract this offseason, but only $500K of that deal is guaranteed. Cleveland could still look for help at the position via trade or last-minute addition—which would be smart, because while Thomas may look like an Instagram fitness model these days, even a 240-pound version of him might be better than the Browns’ current plan at left tackle.
Cleveland’s line actually performed fairly well in pass protection last season: The Browns allowed pressure on only 29 percent of Baker Mayfield’s dropbacks, the fifth lowest rate among 29 qualified quarterbacks. But that rate is partially a product of Mayfield’s unique style—one that resulted in the strangest release time stats of any QB in the NFL last year. Mayfield’s average time to throw was 2.57 seconds, which was tied for the 10th longest in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. But he also ranked 10th in the percentage of his throws that came in 2.5 seconds or less. Those numbers appear contradictory, but the schism shows that while Mayfield typically gets rid of the ball quickly, when he does hang onto it, he really hangs onto it.
A significant portion of the Browns’ big gains last year resulted from Mayfield’s extending plays and improvising with downfield throws. He tossed 14 touchdowns on passes that took at least 2.5 seconds, which ranked him tied for 10th among qualified QBs. One more would have put him in a five-way tie for sixth, and every other QB in that cluster had at least 62 more of those attempts. Suffice it to say the Browns feasted on extended plays last season, and while Mayfield’s pocket mobility can sometimes be a benefit for his offensive line, it also means the guys up front occasionally have to hold up a bit longer. If the results of those efforts take a turn this year and shots down the field lead to more sacks instead of big gains, it could spell trouble for the Cleveland offense.
It’s still amazing that the Browns were able to produce so many explosive plays last season with Jarvis Landry and not much else at wide receiver, which is why dropping Odell Beckham Jr. into the mix has people frothing at the mouth. But while the thought of a Mayfield-Beckham connection is definitely thrilling, let’s not let it overshadow the remaining questions about this receiving corps.
Tight end David Njoku is a former first-round pick with a tantalizing athletic profile, and the threat of him down the seam—combined with Beckham torching cornerbacks over the top and Landry working underneath—could potentially allow the Browns to attack every area of the defense. But Njoku had a maddening 2018 season. According to Pro Football Focus, his 12.5 percent drop rate ranked worst among qualified tight ends and ninth worst among all pass catchers with at least 50 targets. Tenth on that list? Browns teammate Antonio Callaway. The 2018 fourth-round pick came into training camp as Cleveland’s no. 3 receiver, but he’s been suspended for the first four games of the season after violating the league’s substance abuse policy. And it sounds like the Browns’ coaching staff is starting to lose patience with the second-year receiver. With Callaway out, 2016 fifth-round pick Rashard Higgins will step in as the Browns’ third option. Higgins is an excellent route runner who caught 238 passes in three seasons at Colorado State. But in three NFL seasons, he’s tallied only 72 receptions. The massive cap hits allotted to Beckham and Landry mean that Cleveland will spend $4.2 million more on its receivers than any other team in the league in 2019, and the group still seems thin.
Speaking of thin, let’s talk about the defense. There aren’t many holes to poke in the top spots on Cleveland’s defensive depth chart. A starting defensive line of Myles Garrett, Vernon, Larry Ogunjobi, and Sheldon Richardson is absolutely terrifying. That group is going to haunt quarterbacks this season. But much like the rest of the roster, the drop-off after the starters is worrisome. Emerging star Denzel Ward and rookie ballhawk Greedy Williams could form an excellent coverage duo in 2019, but the rest of the cornerback group is full of players like Phillip Gaines and T.J. Carrie, who’ve spent their careers bouncing around the league. The safeties’ collective ceiling is solid, if unspectacular. Linebacker Joe Schobert was excellent in coverage last season but struggled as a run defender. As a unit, Cleveland finished 25th in run defense DVOA according to Football Outsiders, and based on the personnel, there’s little reason to suspect that this group will be significantly better this year.
It’s possible, though, that a scheme change will benefit this unit overall. With Gregg Williams gone, the Browns hopefully won’t be lining up their safeties 25 yards deep on third-and-7. And first-year coordinator Steve Wilks has typically preferred to lean on his front four to get after the quarterback, unlike Williams and his blitz-happy ways. With the pass-rushing group Cleveland is set to deploy this fall, it makes plenty of sense to let Garrett and Vernon do most of the work while dropping seven defenders into coverage.
But even if Wilks can find smarter ways to use his best players, this group is still notably susceptible to injuries. That may sound like a cheap dig, considering that multiple starters missing significant time would torpedo the playoff chances for most NFL teams. But for the Browns to truly be counted among the contenders, they have to stack up against rosters like the Eagles and Patriots, which are set up to survive injuries at crucial positions in a way that the Browns aren’t. If Bitonio or Tretter go down, it could spell disaster for Cleveland’s offense. If Ward misses time, opposing quarterbacks would have a field day throwing the ball. Again, it might seem like I’m nitpicking, but when discussing how the Browns stack up to the NFL’s best, every detail matters.
Listen: I don’t like being the one to throw cold water on this party. I want to see Baker, Beckham, and friends take off as much as anyone. But it’s probably too early for the Dawg Pound to start booking their hotel rooms in Miami this February. There are plenty of reasons to think that Cleveland can emerge as a contender this fall. But here’s an important reminder: Winning the Super Bowl is hard. And it often comes down to how a team has built the margins of its roster. This team has the stars and the plan to push the best teams in the AFC now, but there’s still a chance that the Browns are a year or two away from being the powerhouse so many expect them to be.