As Josh Lambo sliced a 45 yard field goal try wide right in the dying embers of a Week 16 Yuletide festival of terrible football, the Cleveland Browns were vindicated from suffering a fate worse than death- finishing 0-16.
Only the Los Angeles (née San Diego) Chargers would have been capable of losing to the Browns last season. With first year head coach Hue Jackson at the helm on the field, and former lawyer (yeah, seriously) Sashi Brown in charge upstairs a team ravaged by injury and inexperience looked a surefire lock to hurtle to a win-less season.
Handing out the big bucks in free agency and drafting three players in the first round of the draft, are Cleveland poised to start scrapping for the AFC North?
The season started with Robert Griffin III under centre. The season finished with Robert Griffin III under centre. Some other things happened in the middle featuring Josh McCown, Cody Kessler, Charlie Whitehurst, Anthony Scaramucci, Kevin Hogan, and even rehabilitated QB Terrelle Pryor.
I will now be nice about the Cleveland Browns – the running back tandem of Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson was very effective. Since the Browns were often trailing, the yardage totals aren’t hugely flattering; but the yards per carry are. Crowell picked up 4.8 yards per attempt, and Johnson 4.9. Crowell added 319 yards through the air, and Johnson a satisfying 514. Crowell is your heavy-duty pickup truck, Johnson the nimble sports car.
Terrelle Pryor enjoyed a rebirth at wide receiver, as he posted 1000 yards and 4 touchdowns – not bad for a guy not tipped to make the roster.
The defense lacked severely up-front. Rookie Emmanuel Ogbah led the team with a worryingly low 5.5 sacks coming off the edge, and interior pressure was almost non-existent. Jamar Taylor was a pleasant surprise at cornerback however, and could be seen relieving the seemingly perpetually declining Joe Haden more next year. Inside linebacker Christian Kirksey was the backbone of the defense, and earned a three year contract extension.
Football starts in the trenches, and Cleveland spent some serious cash on their offensive line. Extending guard Joel Bitonio with a 6 year $51 million contract was step one. Keeping to the theme of interior protection, signing ex-Packer J.C. Tretter to a 3 year $17 million deal was step two, and former-Bengal Kevin Zeitler with a 5 year $60 million blockbuster step three. Factor in a potential Hall of Fame left tackle in Joe Thomas, and you’ve got yourself an offensive line with credentials to be in the top five of all the units in the league.
The Browns traded for Texans’ disaster Brock Osweiler, in a move that basically ate up his salary on a team that could afford to do so, in return for draft picks.
With Terrelle Pryor not keen to re-sign, the Browns signed Rams revelation Kenny Britt, who, with a year of some of the worst quarterback play this writer has ever seen, posted 100+ catches and 1000 yards. His physical presence on the outside will perfectly complement the finesse of now second year wide receiver Corey Coleman.
In the draft, Cleveland took the best player in the class first overall. Edge rusher Myles Garrett out of Texas A&M will be an excellent partner for Emmanuel Ogbah. Later in Round One, Michigan safety/all around playmaker Jabrill Peppers will join Garrett in a defense needing firepower- something I’m confident he can provide. Trading back up into the first round, the Browns closed a great draft night with David Njoku, a tight end who can provide instant upside on the offense.
The other notable draftee is quarterback DeShone Kizer. I actually thought Kizer was the best passer in the draft from his tape, and whilst I understand other QBs went earlier for better knowledge of pro offenses, college accolades, or being the subject of Andy Reid’s burning affection, I think Kizer will make the kind of throws you’d want your quarterback to make.
The offensive line could be up there with the Cowboys, the Steelers and the Raiders for the very best in the league; and those teams are all playoff contenders. Of course, other cogs are whirring there, but it’s worth noting. Thomas is one of the best to ever do it, and the trio of Bitonio-Tretter-Zeitler means very little will penetrate the middle of the offensive line. Crowell did an incredible amount with very little in front of him last year, and with these stars in front of him, the sky is the limit.
The receivers deserve a mention too. Corey Coleman had his rookie season shortened by injury, and was the number one guy when healthy. With the arrival of the intensely physical Britt, that label is gone. The 2016 first-rounder could thrive with less attention from defensive coordinators. Njoku brings size and athleticism too.
The edge rushing duo of Ogbah and Garrett should generate incredible sack numbers, and the interior team of Danny Shelton and Larry Ogunjobi could fill up space very quickly. Linebackers Jamie Collins and Christian Kirksey will provide a thump in the run game and coverage in the passing game.
Quarterback is the immediate question mark, but the Browns do have options. Cody Kessler looked pedestrian but assured in his nine games, throwing just the two picks. Kizer has reportedly looked fantastic in training camp thus far, and heck, even Brock Osweiler believes he is competing for the starting job.
Free safety Jordan Poyer was a considerable loss in free agency as he departed to Buffalo, and cornerbacks Joe Haden, Jamar Taylor, and Briean Boddy-Calhoun may have difficulty containing teams’ passing offenses. This secondary is downright flammable. Whilst I do like how Jabrill Peppers will fit Gregg Williams’ defense as a free-roaming, play-making Thunderer, this team could well finish 32nd in defensive pass yardage.
They’ll use this at my trial – but I honestly think that this Browns team could challenge for the playoffs. In an NFL dominated by an ‘old boys’ type mechanism of how to build a roster, the Browns are challenging convention at every corner off the field. Accruing draft picks, the time could be approaching for Hue Jackson and Sashi Brown. If the running game delivers behind the offensive line, and Cody Kessler can take care of the ball like he did last year (2 interceptions in 195 pass attempts), and most importantly, the secondary can hold up, this team could put wins together. 9-7, third in the AFC North, missing a Wildcard spot.
Classic Browns implosion. Need I say more? 3-13, fourth in the AFC North.
The Browns will be good this year. That offensive line is too stacked not to win some games. Stopping teams could be diificult, as the presence of rookies means there are many question marks remaining on the defense. 7-9, third in the AFC North.