Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2017 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.
One move from this offseason showed the Cleveland Browns might finally get it. Or, more accurately, it was a move they didn’t make.
Most bad teams panic when it comes to quarterback. They sign Brock Osweiler for $72 million. They give up way too much draft capital to move up and hope they’re drafting the right guy. There’s no consideration to being patient; front offices are run by human beings who want to keep their jobs as long as they can, so they make desperate decisions to save those jobs.
The Browns didn’t do that. They didn’t give up too much for New England Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in a trade. They didn’t pass Myles Garrett with the first pick of the draft for a quarterback prospect who wasn’t a sure thing. And when a team gave up too much to take Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, the Browns were on the right side of that transaction.
The Browns – who shrewdly took on Osweiler and his contract from the Houston Texans and gained a second-round pick for it – traded the 12th pick to the Texans for No. 25 overall and a first-round pick next year. They clearly won that trade using any value chart you can find. Maybe down the line they’ll regret passing on Watson – like they should regret trading the 2016 No. 2 overall pick that became Carson Wentz – but it was a confident, prudent move. When you draft a quarterback too high just because you’re panicking about not having a quarterback, you end up with Christian Ponder or EJ Manuel.
The moment they passed on Watson and traded the pick for a remarkable return, it was clear the Browns want to do this the right way. They’re not trying to win three or four more games in 2017 and buy more time. They’re thinking about winning big in 2019 or 2020. Finally, there’s a plan.
Of course, the plan can be undone after another bad season. Since 2008, no coach has made it to a third season with the Browns. Jimmy Haslam bought the team in 2012, and in his first five seasons as owner there were four coaches. Haslam, to this point, has been a terrible owner. The Browns did really well to land Hue Jackson last offseason, and the smart thing would be to commit to four or five years with him no matter the early results. Everyone knew 2016 was Jackson’s “Year Zero,” and everyone should have been aware it would take at least a few years to show any true progress.
But just to make sure Haslam doesn’t make a U-turn, Jackson might want to win a few more games this season. That’s possible, because the Browns are better this year.
The Browns’ defense has some intriguing pieces and a potential star in Garrett. Offensively, the Browns should have an identity. The offensive line is very good after they spent big on guard Kevin Zeitler and center J.C. Tretter in free agency. Running back Isaiah Crowell should be able to have a nice season behind that line. The Browns won’t have a great passing game, but can keep games close with the running game and defense. If you keep enough games close, you should stumble into a few wins.
Cleveland isn’t going to blow anyone away this season. Even a five-win improvement still leaves them with double-digit losses. If they lose to the New York Jets on Oct. 8, they have a good shot at getting the No. 1 overall pick again (which wouldn’t be the worst thing). But there should be progress, even if it doesn’t result in a great record. There should be hope for the future, too. The Browns shouldn’t have to endure another 1-15 season, and what’s on the horizon is exciting. The Browns are building slowly and if they can find that franchise quarterback in next year’s draft – or if rookie second-round pick DeShone Kizer, who has gotten nice reviews so far, becomes one – then they have a legitimate chance of being in the playoffs in a couple years.
For the first time in a long time, there’s reason to believe there are better days ahead for the Browns. If you look closely enough, you should be able to see some of those positive steps on the field this season.
You could argue Cincinnati Bengals guard Kevin Zeitler was the best free agent available this offseason, and the Browns landed him for $60 million over five years. That’s expensive for a guard, but the Browns had the cap space for it. Letting Terrelle Pryor leave after his breakout season (the Browns had more than enough cap room to use the franchise tag) and replacing him with Kenny Britt at four years and $32.5 million was curious. In seven of Britt’s eight seasons, he hasn’t passed 775 yards receiving. The low-cost addition of safety and former first-round pick Calvin Pryor could pay off, and as could singing former Tennessee Titans cornerback Jason McCourty. But the most important piece of the Browns’ offseason was the draft, and it was a good one. Garrett, Peppers and tight end David Njoku were all chosen in the first round, and the Browns didn’t sacrifice future drafts to get them all. The Browns still have two first-round and three second-round picks in the 2018 draft. Stockpiling picks only works if you pick the right players, but you have to assume some of these picks develop. GRADE: A-
The defense has some intriguing pieces. Myles Garrett is a phenomenal prospect at a key spot. Trading for linebacker Jamie Collins and then signing him to a big extension before he could hit the market is the kind of creative move the Browns aren’t known for. Safety Jabrill Peppers, who the Browns got with the 25th overall pick obtained in the Deshaun Watson trade, was a great college player. Other young defenders like linebacker Christian Kirksey, nose tackle Danny Shelton and cornerback Jamar Taylor have shown they can be solid contributors. New coordinator Gregg Williams has a complex, pressure-based scheme and has some interesting pieces to work with. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the defense take a big leap this season.
While it’s great to sit in a meeting room and plan out a patient long-term building plan, losing wears on players. When you’ve been a punch line for so long, it’s hard to break the stigma and culture of losing. Maybe having such a young team grow up and develop together will help that. But this is still a team that was desperately trying to avoid an 0-16 season when it won a dramatic game against the San Diego Chargers in Week 16. It’s still a team that was outscored by 188 points last season. The Browns could improve tremendously this season and still have one of the worst records in football. It’s hard to create a winning attitude when all the franchise knows is losing.
The Brock Osweiler trade seemed like a simple cash-for-pick move. Then Osweiler actually did pretty well through OTAs and seemed to work his way into the competition to start. He is, after all, a player who the Houston Texans gave a four-year, $72 million deal to about 15 months ago (if he somehow succeeds with the Browns, how bad will that look on Texans coach Bill O’Brien?). It still seems like Cody Kessler’s job to lose. He did OK as a rookie third-round pick last season. DeShone Kizer was considered a possible first-round pick for a while, so it seemed like a decent gamble for the Browns in the second round. He has plenty of raw ability, reportedly did well in early OTAs and there’s probably an outside shot of him winning the starting job for Week 1. And, unless the Browns take a huge leap this season, they should have a high pick with a very good quarterback draft class coming in next spring. Whoever plays quarterback this season probably isn’t going to be great, but the Browns have some paths to finally solving their quarterback problem.
You can’t overstate how important Myles Garrett is to this franchise. The Browns’ draft history since returning to the NFL in 1999 is awful. Even though Garrett would have been the first pick by just about any team, he went to Cleveland and that means some people assume he’ll just be the next Courtney Brown. But if Garrett becomes a Khalil Mack-type difference maker, all of a sudden the Browns will have a cornerstone to their rebuild. Cleveland needs a break like that.
From Yahoo’s Liz Loza: “The surest fantasy find in Cuyahoga County has got to be Isaiah Crowell. After flashing in 2015, the Crow was free to fly in 2016, unshackled from the plodding Terrance West and emboldened by new coach Hue Jackson. Closing out the year with RB2 fantasy numbers, Crowell (with the help of a much improved run blocking unit) is likely to top his last season stats. Managers should expect the 24-year-old bruiser to flirt with low-end RB1 numbers.” [Check out Yahoo’s Pressing Questions for more on the Browns’ fantasy outlook.]
According to Jeff Sagarin’s ratings at USA Today, 11 of the Browns’ 16 games last season were against top-16 NFL teams. The Browns, of course, went 0-11. Not only was Cleveland a terrible team, it had a brutal schedule too. Football Outsiders rated Cleveland’s schedule the toughest in the NFL last season, and by a significant margin. Cleveland was more competitive early last season than you probably recall – they led the Baltimore Ravens 20-0 in Week 2, should have beat the Miami Dolphins in Week 3 before losing in overtime, and led the Washington Redskins in the fourth quarter of Week 4 – but they couldn’t get a win and the schedule beat them down after that. Cleveland’s schedule is a lot easier this season, and maybe that will be reflected in their record.
IS THERE SOME UNDERRATED TALENT IN THE BROWNS’ SKILL-POSITION GROUP?
There might not be an Odell Beckham or Le’Veon Bell picking up yards for the Browns, but they’re quietly building. Isaiah Crowell rushed for 4.8 yards per carry last season. Corey Coleman, a first-round pick last season, had a 104-yard, two-touchdown game in Week 2, then he was set back by a broken hand. He could be a very nice target. I don’t get the Kenny Britt signing, but he did have 1,002 yards last season on an awful Los Angeles Rams offense. David Njoku is an exciting tight end prospect. Duke Johnson will probably never live up to his third-round draft status, but he’s a good receiver out of the backfield. There are some intriguing options for whoever is the Browns’ quarterback of the future.
If you’re a Browns fan, you’d like to see the young players make some strides, the team be a little more competitive so ownership stays patient … and still get the first pick of the 2018 draft. The Browns won’t chase a playoff spot this season, but they should be better. But being a little too good and knocking themselves out of the mix for one of next year’s top quarterbacks in the draft would be a setback.
The Browns have made a lot of picks lately, but we’re still waiting to see significant progress from many of them. If some of the younger players fail to impress, this year’s draft class doesn’t get off to a good start and the team is in one-win range again? It wouldn’t surprise anyone if the Browns hit the reset button. Again. And the wheel-spinning would continue.
The Browns won’t be 1-15 again. They’re better than last season and the schedule is easier. That improvement, combined with the Jets’ decision to tank could cost Cleveland the very valuable first pick of next year’s draft. However, a jolt of optimism after such a rough 2016 will be nice.
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