The Cleveland Browns’ infamously ugly 2017 campaign felt like a punctuation for an organization that has been littered with dysfunction and poor play since its (re)inception in 1999. The Browns have won just four contests since 2015, and the team knows it needs to push harder this season in a division that features far fewer top-tier threats than in years past. After some massive roster shake-ups and multiple early round picks, the Browns look to rewrite the narrative of a franchise that buried itself in the cellar of the NFL and hasn’t seen much light since.
Cleveland Browns Season Preview
Recap of Last Season
Cleveland’s 0-16 season last year matched the 2008 Lions as the only other team to not record a win over the course of a 16 game season. Hue Jackson has an abysmal 1-31 record as the Browns head coach, and his reputation as a catalyst for QBs has temporarily fallen to the wayside after seeing next to no success out of Robert Griffin III, Kevin Hogan, Cody Kessler, Josh McCown, and, most recently, DeShone Kizer.
Last year showed some promise for the Browns, though, as their defense allowed just the 19th-most yards in the NFL and finished as the 7th-best rushing defense in the league. The caveat, however, reared its ugly head as Cleveland finished last in takeaways with a mere 13 in 2017.
Strengths This Year
Cleveland’s strengths and weaknesses are tough to pick out this early in the year, as the massive roster overhaul this offseason essentially leaves spectators waiting to see how effective many of the team’s new additions will be.
All things considered, the talent level for the 2018 Browns looks to be a huge improvement over last season. Cleveland went all-in on revamping the offensive side of the ball, and many of the pieces it brought in had successful campaigns in 2017. Former 49ers RB Carlos Hyde finished the year with 938 yards and 8 TDs last year, and WR Jarvis Landry led the league in receptions with the Miami Dolphins with 112 and added 987 yards with 9 TDs to boot.
Weaknesses This Year
In a way, everything was a weakness for the Browns last year, but those issues may be a distant memory after so much turnover in the roster.
Quarterback play hindered Cleveland the most last season, as its main starting QB in 2017 Kizer finished with an ugly 53.6% completion, 2894 yards through the air, 11 TDs and 22 INTs. If you’re keeping track at home, that’s a 4.6% INT ratio, the highest in the NFL out of any qualified passer.
In turn, the Browns passed the 20-point threshold in just four of 16 games last year.
After acquiring former Buffalo Bills QB Tyrod Taylor and drafting QB Baker Mayfield with the first overall selection, those woes hopefully won’t return for the 2018-19 campaign.
The Browns had nowhere to go but up this offseason, and they made as many splashes as any team over the summer.
The offensive side of the ball received a huge boost. Taylor, Hyde, and Landry all will enter the system as key pieces immediately.
Taylor’s 2017 season felt unnecessarily raucous after being benched for the young Nate Peterman mid-season. Taylor finished the season with 62.6% completion, 2,799 yards, 14 TD and only 4 INT, as well as 427 rushing yards and 4 more scores on the ground. Taylor’s 1% INT ratio ranked atop the NFL alongside Alex Smith last season, and if he can continue protecting the ball and creating plays for his receivers, the Browns offense is in for a big boost in 2018.
Hyde and Landry will add new dimensions to the attack, as well as second-round selection RB Nick Chubb out of Georgia, and the long-awaited full return of WR Josh Gordon makes Cleveland’s offense scary on paper. Gordon’s last full season in 2013 saw him record 1,646 receiving yards en route to a Pro Bowl appearance and a First Team All-Pro selection.
The Browns’ offensive line also got a huge boost from free agency and the draft. Cleveland took C Austin Corbett from Nevada with the 33rd overall selection. Corbett and current Browns G Joel Bitonio briefly played together in college, and the duo will be reunited on the line this season.
While the team lost 10-time Pro Bowl T Joe Thomas to retirement, Cleveland made up for Thomas’ departure from football by signing T Chris Hubbard and T/G Greg Robinson. Hubbard started 10 games for the division rival Pittsburgh Steelers last season, and Robinson, the former second-overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, made multiple spot starts in Detroit with the Lions as well in 2017.
On defense, Cleveland used the fourth-overall pick in this offseason’s draft to snag former Ohio State DB Denzel Ward to fill holes in the secondary. Ward’s 17 passes defended in his last year with the Buckeyes gave him the fourth-highest single season total in school history, and Cleveland hopes Ward brings that same intensity this year.
Cleveland’s rampant trade discussions created a lot of change, and the offense specifically saw a big makeover. All three of the Browns’ tenured quarterbacks in 2017—Kevin Hogan, Cody Kessler, and DeShone Kizer— were either not resigned or traded, and the team also opted to allow RB Isaiah Crowell to walk in free agency.
Since the Browns made so many moves to replace the offense, the defense was hit much harder by the turnover. The Browns parted ways with both starting cornerbacks from 2017, Jason McCourty and Jamar Taylor, and they also shipped DT Danny Shelton to the New England Patriots with a fifth-round pick for a 2019 third-round selection.
McCourty and Taylor combined for 24 passes defended last season, but the addition of Ward will likely help offset the loss.
Shelton, on the other hand, was trickier to replace. Shelton regressed slightly last season, finishing with 1.5 fewer sacks and 12 fewer tackles than his 2016 season, but the young defensive lineman still was held in high regard. Cleveland’s 2017 third-round pick Larry Ogunjobi will likely carry most of the load this year in Shelton’s absence.
The Browns may not be averse to starting Baker Mayfield at some point this season if Tyrod Taylor is unable to control the football, and a mid-season quarterback change can be difficult for an offense to adjust to on the fly.
While the team has seen a significant talent increase, I see the Browns finishing the year at 7-9 and 3-3 in division play. On paper, the Browns look to be at least a .500-level team, but chemistry takes time to build, and bringing in so many new faces will create kinks that take time to iron out. Browns’ fans can hold out hope for this season, though, but if the plan falls through in 2018, and the organization sticks with the great core it assembled this offseason, 2019 may be the team’s year.
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