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2021 Team Report: Cleveland Browns

Last updated: Wed, Aug 25

Offensive Philosophy

The Vikings promoted Kevin Stefanski to offensive coordinator midway through the 2018 season. At the time of the move, they ranked 3rd in pass attempts and 31st in rush attempts. After the change, they fell to 25th in passes and rose to 13th in rushes, and then in their full season under Stefanski in 2019 they finished 30th in pass attempts and 4th in rush attempts. The Browns hired Stefanski to turn around a pass-heavy offense gone awry, and in 2020 they ranked 28th in pass attempts and 4th in rush attempts. Stefanski is an old-school coach who believes strongly in building a solid foundation through the running game and letting the passing game play off of it.

Quarterbacks

Starter: Baker Mayfield
Backup(s): Case Keenum, Kyle Lauletta

Starting QB: Mayfield entered 2020 with doubts about his future in Cleveland. But after ending the season with a flourish (14 touchdowns and 2 interceptions in the team's final 8 games) and leading Cleveland to a playoff victory, Mayfield's fifth-year option was picked up. He's set to be the team's quarterback through 2022, and the parties could agree on a long-term deal later this year. 2020 was Mayfield's most successful season so far, but it was his lowest yardage total. Perhaps that's a microcosm of Mayfield's outlook. When the team is at its best, it's not because he's passing for 300 yards and multiple touchdowns every game. He's most effective when the run game is supplementing the offense and the defense is doing their part as well. Mayfield has a long future as an NFL starter, but he's not going to carry a team on his back to sustained success.

Backup QB: Keenum gives Cleveland one of the better backup quarterback situations in the NFL. He was brought in last year and give $10 million guaranteed to push Mayfield, and it worked. Mayfield played well, especially down the stretch during the team's playoff run. And Keenum didn't see any meaningful playing time. But for a team with playoff aspirations, Keenum is a valuable asset that could keep them afloat if Mayfield were hurt. Lauletta is a journeyman who is likely to be a camp arm but not much else.

Running Backs

Starter: Nick Chubb
Backup(s): Kareem Hunt, D'Ernest Johnson
Fullback(s):

Starting RB: Chubb headlines a 1A/1B committee with Kareem Hunt. His ceiling is limited due to Hunt and due to health concerns. Chubb missed four games last season with a knee injury but returned to be his fully effective self. His full ability was on display in the team's Wild Card win over Pittsburgh as he totaled 145 yards from scrimmage and scored a 40-yard receiving touchdown. Despite the missed time, Chubb led the team with 1,067 rushing yards.

Backup RBs: Hunt offers a highly capable backup and more versatility than Chubb in the passing game. Hunt caught more passes than Chubb in 2019 despite an eight-game suspension and more than doubled Chubb's reception total last season. Cleveland's usage of Chubb and Hunt remains to be seen. Johnson is a clear third behind Chubb and Hunt. He only saw 33 carries last season, the majority of which were in the four-plus games that Chubb was injured.

Fullback:

Wide Receivers

Starters: Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry
Backups: Rashard Higgins, Donovan Peoples-Jones, KhaDarel Hodge, Anthony Schwartz [R]

Starting WRs: 2021 is a critical year in Beckham's career. He entered last season surrounded by trade rumors after being out-paced by Landry in 2019 production. Now he returns after an injury-shortened season. Rashard Higgins played well after Beckham went down. He's on track to be fully healthy by Week 1. Landry is the team's most consistent weapon, leading the Browns in receiving two straight years. In 2020, however, that number was only 840 yards. Landry remained a security blanket last year, averaging only 11.7 yards per catch. At this point in his career, it's safe to say that's his profile. He'll have high reception totals with a low average depth of target.

Backup WRs: Higgins averaged 11.5 yards per target in 2020, second in the NFL among qualifiers behind Will Fuller. His productivity earned him a one-year deal to return to Cleveland. Higgins isn't going to light the world on fire, but he's productive and reliable when called upon. Once a five-star recruit, Peoples-Jones earned limited playing time as a rookie. He only caught 14 passes, but he averaged 21.7 yards on those receptions. Schwartz is another explosive athlete as a former state and world record holder in the 100-meter dash. He caught passes and was utilized as a rusher at times last season at Auburn. He could catch on as a return man and perhaps a gadget play offensive weapon. With the skill sets of the other receivers around them (particularly with the team's leading receiver being a low-aDOT possession player), Cleveland needs Peoples-Jones and Schwartz for their ability to make chunk plays. With how often Cleveland utilizes two tight ends and their balanced offense, their depth receivers are unlikely to make a significant impact on offense.

Tight Ends

Starters: Austin Hooper
Backups: Harrison Bryant, David Njoku

Hooper's first season in Cleveland after being signed as a highly-touted free agent was solid but unremarkable. 46 catches in 13 games isn't going to make a Pro Bowl, but Hooper should find a bigger piece of the offense in his second year. Bryant also enters his second year in Cleveland (and in the NFL) after being drafted in 2020. He won the Mackey Award as the nation's top collegiate tight end in 2019 and followed that up with a respectable rookie campaign. Due to its depth chart at both tight end and receiver, expect Cleveland to employ plenty of "12" personnel with two tight ends. Both Hooper and Bryant offer a blend of pass-catching ability and blocking skill that make it hard for defenses to figure out if the play will be a pass or run. Njoku might not end up on the roster in training camp due to his salary and standing on the depth chart.

Place Kicker

Cody Parkey (inj), Chase McLaughlin: Parkey was adequate for the Browns last year, even dependable by recent Browns kicker standards. He made 19-of-22 field goal attempts, including 10-of-11 from 40-49 yards, but he had no attempts from 50+, missed two kicks between 30-39 yards, and four extra points, so the Browns are certainly open to improvement. Parkey making all 11 kicks during the postseason will help his case in the battle against Chase McLaughlin, who the Browns added on waivers after the Jets let him go. McLaughlin has been NFL quality in stints with five different teams, so this will be a legitimate kicker battle in camp and the preseason. The Browns kicker opportunity wasn't great last year, so there's no reason to chase the winner in drafts. UPDATE: Parkey (quad) has been put on injured reserve and McLaughlin will be the team's 2021 kicker.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Donovan Peoples-Jones, D'Ernest Johnson

Despite only played 12 games, rookie Donovan Peoples-Jones was one of the few players to lead his team in both punt and kickoff returns last year. Unfortunately for the Browns, Peoples-Jones' per-return averages were among the worst in the league. Expect the Browns to give him some competition for the job in 2021.

Punt Returners: Donovan Peoples-Jones, D'Ernest Johnson

Despite only played 12 games, rookie Donovan Peoples-Jones was one of the few players to lead his team in both punt and kickoff returns last year. Unfortunately for the Browns, Peoples-Jones' per-return averages were among the worst in the league. Expect the Browns to give him some competition for the job in 2021.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Jedrick Wills, LG Joel Bitonio, C J.C. Tretter, RT Wyatt Teller, RT Jack Conklin
Key Backups: OT Chris Hubbard, OT James Hudson [R], OL Nick Harris

Left guard Joel Bitonio and right tackle Jack Conklin lead this line, both making All-Pro last season. Center J.C. Tretter is a calming presence inside. Right guard Wyatt Teller was a dominant run blocker until he got injured. Left tackle Jedrick Wills is an improving second-year player, and swing tackle Chris Hubbard would start on most other squads. Going into the season, this group holds the top ranking: one overall.

Team Defense

The Browns D/ST will have new starters all over the place, but it's possible that they are the breakout defense of 2021. Joe Woods will be in the second year of his tenure as the defensive coordinator, and he'll have the benefit of a full offseason and slew of talent infusion to help him. Jadeveon Clowney and Takk McKinley can be an upgrade from Olivier Vernon and the team has the bodies at defensive tackle to make up for the loss of Larry Ogunjobi and Sheldon Richardson, including new addition Malik Jackson. Linebacker should be improved with Anthony Walker and second-round pick Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah on the roster, and the team's newlook secondary is very impressive on paper with three excellent safeties and Troy Hill and first-round pick Greg Newsome added to give Denzel Ward viable running mates at cornerback. Opening at Kansas City isn't a great Week 1 draw, but the Browns D/ST is still a wise last round pick if you are waiting on the position.

Defensive Line

Starters: DT Andrew Billings, DT Malik Jackson, DE Myles Garrett, DE Jadeveon Clowney
Backups: DT Malik McDowell, DT Jordan Elliot, DT Tommy Togiai [R], DE Takkarist McKinley, DE Porter Gustin, DE Curtis Weaver, DE Joe Jackson

Starting DL: The Browns were a middle-of-the-pack defense in 2020. Middle of the pack versus the run, the pass, in takeaways, sacks, and many other statistical areas. They have made several personnel changes on that side of the ball over the offseason. Most of them should make the team better but the loss of both starting defensive tackles is not going to help. Instead of Larry Ogunjobi and Sheldon Richardson, Cleveland will line up Andrew Billings and Malik Jackson on the interior. Billings and Richardson are both dependable veterans with starting experience, but neither has the extra gear of their predecessors. Richardson and Ogunjobi combined for 25.5 sacks over the last three seasons. Billings and Jackson combined for nine over that span. At a glance, the addition of Jadaveon Clowney to replace Olivier Vernon is a big upgrade. A close inspection, however, might suggest otherwise. Throw out an injury-shortened 2019 and Vernon has averaged nearly eight sacks per season since 2013, with at least six and a half every year. Clowney on the other hand has exceeded six sack twice in seven seasons. Clowney does have a great deal of upside but there is no guarantee this will be more than a lateral move. The one sure thing here is Myles Garrett who has become one of the game's elite three-down defensive ends. He is excellent versus the run, is coming off a 12 sack season, and is a candidate to lead the league in sacks. The Browns remain open to re-signing Richardson at some point if he is willing to accept a lower contract. That would be a huge plus. As things stand, the front four might be a bit of a downgrade over last year's version.

Backup DL: One issue Cleveland does not have is a shortage of quality depth. Malik McDowell was a second-round pick of the Seahawks in 2017 but never played a down for them due to injuries suffered in an ATV accident. That was followed by legal issues and an 11-month jail term. He is a talented player that has been away from the game for a while and is attempting to rejuvenate his career. If he can get back to the player he was coming out of Michigan State, McDowell could push for a starting job. Jordan Elliot was a third-round pick of the Browns last season. He saw a good amount of action in the rotation as a rookie and held up well. Elliot may never develop into a starter but he can be effective in a part-time or short-term role. Elliot will compete with this year's fourth-round selection Tommy Togiai for playing time behind the starters. Cleveland is the latest team to give former first-round bust Takkarist McKinley a chance to jump-start his career. McKinley totaled 13.5 sacks over his first two seasons with Atlanta and 4.5 over the last two years with the Falcons and Bengals. He struggles as a point of attack defender but could contribute in a pass-rush role. Curtis Weaver was drafted by the Dolphins last year. Miami tried to slide him through waivers when he was injured so they could add him to the practice squad, but he was claimed by the Browns. Weaver is a high upside project that had a solid college career at Boise State. Porter Gustin and Joe Jackson may be competing for a roster spot. Gustin is a hard-working, blue-collar, fan-favorite who also earned the respect of the coaching staff with his intensity and heart, but he is not a particularly talented player.

Linebackers

Starters: MLB Anthony Walker, WLB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah [R], SLB Sione Takitaki
Backups: WLB/SLB Malcolm Smith, MLB/WLB Jacob Phillips, SLB/MLB Mack Wilson, WLB Tony Fields II [R]

Starting LBs: After moving on from Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey, the Browns turned to a collection of veteran free agents and youth at the linebacker positions in 2020. They were looking for their young players to step up and take control. Instead of Mack Wilson, Jacob Phillips, or Sione Takitaki seizing the opportunity, Cleveland ended up with Malcolm Smith and B.J. Goodson logging the majority of the playing time with the young players mixed in via part-time rolls. The position was addressed strongly in the offseason. First with the signing of Anthony Walker in free agency, then with the selection of Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in the second round of the draft. Walker is a rock-solid three-down middle linebacker and a considerable upgrade. He is not a major big-play threat but is a savvy veteran player and a sure tackler with good cover skills. The organization considers Walker a long-term answer and a team leader. Owusu-Koramoah is the player Cleveland expects to be their playmaker at the second level. He is undersized for a linebacker at 6'1" 221 pounds but has great speed and athleticism. Owusu-Koramoah has been compared to Derwin James and is expected to line up on the weak side where he will often not be accounted for in blocking schemes. This position will take advantage of his sideline to sideline range and allow him to gamble on big plays. If he works out as anticipated, Owusu-Koramoah can be special. Pencil in Sione Takitaki as the strong-side linebacker though that is not written in stone. He will have to hold off Malcolm Smith and possibly Jacob Phillips for the job. Takitaki played fairly well in 2020. He is a solid, take-on, linebacker who stands up well at the point of attack but is somewhat of a liability in coverage. On paper, the Browns are much improved at the second level. All that remains now is for the group to jell and prove they can live up to the expectations.

Backup LBs: Malcolm Smith is an 11-year veteran that has played for six teams. Smith has been a productive starter for some of them, including the Browns in 2020. He has the versatility to play any linebacker position in a 4-3 but has played his best football from the weak side. Smith is dependable in coverage and solid versus the run. He can also contribute in the big-play columns as shown by his seven career sacks and 16 turnovers. He projects as a backup, working behind the first-round rookie, but could start early in the season. Smith could also get some consideration to start on the strong side ahead of Sione Takitaki. At the very least Smith gives the Browns a starting quality option behind all three starters. The organization has not completely given up on Mack Wilson or Jacob Phillips but the way they aggressively addressed the position this offseason is a rather strong sign of the expectations. Wilson and Phillips were given ample opportunity to prove themselves last season. Cleveland not only signed Walker and used a number one on Owusu-Koramoah, but they also added Tony Fields, in round five. Phillips, Wilson, and Fields should earn their pay on special teams.

Defensive Backs

Starters: SS Grant Delpit, FS John Johnson, CB Denzel Ward, CB Greg Newsome [R], CB Troy Hill
Backups: SS Ronnie Harrison, FS Sheldrick Redwine, S Richard LeCounte III [R], CB Greedy Wilson, CB Robert Jackson, CB M.J. Stewart, CB Brian Allen

Starting DBs: The Browns have a good problem in the secondary where they have more starting quality players than there are positions. Last year's second-round pick, Grant Delpit, missed his rookie season with an Achilles injury. His rehab has gone well and is expected to assume the starting strong safety role he was drafted for. Delpit is an aggressive, hard-hitting run defender with a linebacker mentality and the play-making ability of a free safety. He was responsible for 12 turnovers and seven sacks in three seasons at LSU and should be an impact addition for the Browns. Free safety John Johnson proved himself over four seasons with the Rams. Had Los Angeles not been cap-strapped, he would probably still be there. Both Delpit and Johnson can play either safety position, giving the coaching staff a lot of options. Johnson recorded eight interceptions in 54 games with the Rams and was the team's second-leading tackler in 2018. Together, Johnson and Delpit give the Browns what could prove to be one of the best safety tandems in the league. Corner Denzel Ward is a former top-five pick (2018) and he plays like it. He is a shut-down cover corner and a play-maker with 12 turnovers in three seasons. Ward will be joined this year by rookie first-round pick Greg Newsome and Troy Hill, who was also poached from the Rams via free agency. The plan will be for Newsome to start opposite Ward on the outside while Hill fills the nickel/slot role he held for much of his time with the Rams. Hill has been in the league since 2015. It took him a while to develop, but he has accounted for 11 turnovers in the last three seasons and scored three times in 2020. While Cleveland emphasized adding playmakers this offseason, Newsome did not excel in that aspect while at Northwestern. That said, his scouting report suggests those skills are present to be tapped. He is a fast and athletic corner that excels at press coverage but is just as comfortable working off the ball or in zone. In short, he is as complete and well-rounded a cover man as this draft had to offer.

Backup DBs: Cleveland's secondary was hit by the injury bug in 2020, exposing a relative lack of depth. That will not happen again this year. The team traded for strong safety Ronnie Harrison on the eve of the regular season after Delpit was lost. By week seven he was in the starting lineup. Harrison lacks the versatility of Delpit or Johnson but is a viable starter at strong safety if called upon. Sheldrick Redwine and rookie Richard LeCounte fill out the depth chart at safety. Redwine has seen a good deal of playing time as an injury replacement over the last two seasons and has done a more than adequate job. Both players will earn a paycheck on special teams unless there is a rash of injuries ahead of them. Greedy Williams was the Browns' second-round selection in 2019. He started as a rookie but has battled injuries, including a season-ending shoulder issue in week five last year, that included nerve damage. Concerns about the shoulder likely played into the team's personnel decisions. If healthy, Williams might be the best dime corner in the game in 2021. M.J. Stewart is a veteran with starting experience from his time in Tampa Bay. He is more than capable of holding down a corner spot for a few plays per game or as a short-term starter if needed. Robert Jackson and Brian Allen are young, developmental players that could be competing for a roster spot.