OFFSEASON REVIEW: Cleveland Browns

By Mark Ross

As one season ends and another one begins, 32 NFL franchises put 2020 firmly in the rear view mirror and gear up for another tilt at the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The hard work starts here, and for many has already begun; general managers and head coaches are finalising their staff and looking ahead to turning their rosters into potential challengers.

In this series we identify the key components that go into building a winning team, and what each franchise needs to do to be in the mix come the playoffs next January. We continue our team by team offseason review with a look at the Cleveland Browns:

2020 Recap

Cleveland Browns
Credit: Ron Schwane (Associated Press)

After spending years as the laughing stock of the NFL, the Cleveland Browns have slowly been building a franchise capable of dominating. Heading into the 2020 season the Browns had transformed their hopes and were one of the hot favorites to make the playoffs in the newly expanded system. With Kevin Stefanski installed at the helm and a focus on the offensive line and the running game, the Browns were able to pummel opponents into submission by running Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt right at them.

After bringing in multiple tight ends to help the run game, the Browns running backs combined for 18 touchdowns and almost 2000 yards. Even when star receiver Odell Beckham Jnr went out with a torn ACL other receivers stepped up. Rashard Higgins and Donovan Peoples-Jones went on to have steady but promising years.

In the end, the Browns offense led them all the way to the playoffs on the back of an 11-5 record. After Pittsburgh’s collapse at the end of the season, the Browns were within touching distance of an AFC North title. In the end, the Browns beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the opening round of the playoffs before traveling to Arrowhead to take on the Kansas City Chiefs. Cleveland was one gutsy call from Andy Reid away from getting a shot at going down the field and marching into the AFC Championship Game. 

Cleveland had a strong 2020 season that ended at the hands of the eventual Super Bowl runners-up. Despite the defeat, the Browns look poised to be a contender in the AFC for years to come.

Staff Changes

Cleveland Browns
Credit: Terrance Williams (Associated Press)

Importantly for the Browns in the 2021 offseason, the biggest impact of staff changes is the lack of staff changes. Since Baker Mayfield came into the league in 2018 he has played for four different head coaches. No team is going to do well when a new head coach comes in every year and tries to implement a new system. Mayfield has excelled under Stefanski and will be the happiest that there is not another change.

In the playoff win against the Steelers, the Browns went into the game without their head coach and numerous other coaches. Despite this, the Brown raced out to a 28-0 start and really showed the quality in depth they have at the coaching positions. A team with quality coaches at every level is bound to succeed. The Cleveland Browns are lucky to not have to worry about any major coaching changes for once.

State Of The Roster

As mentioned previously the Cleveland Browns had one of the dominant offenses in the 2020 season. Luckily for Cleveland, that offense should return in the 2021 season. The highlight of the Browns offense was the offensive line. Ranked as the best in the league in 2020 the Browns line looks set to be unchanged heading into the coming season. With players ranking at the top of their position all the way across the line Mayfield, Chubb and Hunt look set to be well protected once again.

In 2020 Stefanski brought in the multiple tight end offense that he utilized during his time in Minnesota.  His ability to create multiple different looks with Austin Hooper, Harrison Bryant and David Njoku allowed his offense to get creative. Stefanski and Mayfield’s ability in the play-action game was the backbone of the offense. With the group more than likely to stay together in 2021 there is no reason why the Browns won’t have a dominant offense once again in 2021.

On the defensive side of the ball, it’s another story. With just a couple of playmakers on the defense currently, there will need to be a bit of work done in the offseason. Obviously, Myles Garrett is a game-changer and is a truly exceptional talent. Denzel Ward in the secondary is another exceptional talent who will definitely be there in 2021. Opposite Ward will likely be Greedy Williams who is due to return from injury. Cleveland will finally get a chance to see what 2020 second-round pick Grant Delpit is capable of.

With some free agents on the defense and the offense pretty much set to go, the offseason looks set to be a defensive one for Stefanski and co.

Salary Cap & Cut Candidates

Credit: Gene J. Puskar (Associated Press)

Cleveland Browns look likely to have $21 million in free cap space heading into the 2021 season. Money that they could improve with some moves. As mentioned the offense was one of the best in 2020. Cleveland has a star wide receiver in Odell Beckham Jnr on the roster but the offense looked better when he was of the field. Other than a huge game against the Dallas Cowboys, Beckham failed to impress. The emergence of Peoples-Jones and Higgins has given the impression that Cleveland could be great without their star receiver.

If Cleveland can work out a trade for Beckham they could save another 15 million against the cap and use that money to bolster the defense. With so much wide receiver talent available in the 2021 draft, losing Beckham may not be the worst idea in the world. Even if Cleveland thinks they need to bring in more options for Mayfield the draft class is deep.

Cleveland Brown’s pass defense was their biggest flaw in 2020. Given that M.J. Stewart is likely to be a candidate for the cut block. Failing to impress in 2020 Cleveland would save an extra million against the cap if they cut him prior to June. Not a huge amount of money but every little helps.

Sheldon Richardson is next in line to be axed. Since his pro bowl season years ago, Richardson has failed to impress to that level again. Travelling about teams and never finding a home is an indicator that he is not the player that many teams have expected him to be. With him set to earn just under 12 million dollars in 2021, the Browns would be wise to move on from Richardson and find some new talent in the draft.

Free Agents

Cleveland Browns
Credit: Ron Schwane (Associated Press)

Heading into 2021 the Cleveland Browns have a host of free agents, but importantly none that they can’t live without. Unlike their division rivals the Steelers, the Browns aren’t slated to lose any of their stars to free agency. 

The biggest name hitting free agency is Olivier Vernon. Vernon finished the season with nine sacks but playing opposite Garrett he was always going to get opportunities at the quarterback. He added over 50 quarterback rushes to his resume in 2020. An Achilles injury towards the end of the season may force the Browns to move on from the 30-year old. 

After Vernon, the free agents that need addressing are in the secondary. Cornerbacks Kevin Johnson and Terrence Mitchell and safeties Karl Joseph and Andrew Sendejo are all set for free agency. After the season that the Browns pass defense had they should let them all walk and rebuild through. Sendejo and Mitchell played the majority of snaps for Cleveland but with Sendejo now 34 the time has come to find someone younger. 

Mitchell could be a candidate to be resigned to cover the slot but after a poor defensive season, the Browns may elect to use the majority of their nine picks in the 2021 draft on the defense.

Team Needs

Cleveland Browns
Credit: Jason Miller (Getty Images)

If you haven’t caught on yet the Cleveland Browns need to add some stars to the defense. Offenses are the exciting part of the league but defense wins championships. Cleveland are a million miles away from that currently. In Myles Garrett, the Browns have one of the best edge players ever but with his partner in crime Olivier Vernon set to hit free agency, the Browns need to find a replacement. 

One player who is available is JJ Watt. Throughout his career, Watt has made a habit of getting to the quarterback and forcing sacks. He is coming towards the end of his career but there is nothing to suggest that he can’t still be effective. Especially working opposite someone who will draw double and triple-team coverage. Due to his age, Watt is unlikely to demand huge money but Cleveland has the cap space to work with if they wanted to. Imagine that AFC battle against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Watt v Watt twice a year would be a treat for NFL fans. 

Once the Browns bolster the offensive line the focus should turn to the secondary. One player who is set to be available and could be a boost to their secondary is Desmond King II. In his first two seasons, he excelled for the Los Angeles Chargers before his move to the Tennessee Titans. Despite not performing as well in the previous two seasons he would still be a viable option for Cleveland. 

If Cleveland can add some talent to the defense they will absolutely be one of the favorites for the postseason and maybe even the Super Bowl.