The Browns are coming off a lost season, as they spent most of the year waiting on Deshaun Watson’s return. Even when Watson did return, the offense remained stuck in neutral. This Browns season preview will assess whether a full season of Deshaun Watson will produce better results.
AFC North Preview – Cleveland Browns
Draft Analysis: D+
This section will start with a silver lining: Cleveland’s grade would be an F- if it factored in the trades the Browns made that led them here. Not only has the Deshaun Watson deal been horrific for Cleveland, but it also might serve to launch Houston into relevance. Browns management got to watch the Texans make the second and third-overall picks this year and go “You’re welcome”.
Looking at the picks the Browns did actually make, a few stand out. Cedric Tillman has the size and speed combination to hit as a high-potential lottery pick in the third round. This draft class could very much depend on how well he develops. Dorian Thompson-Robinson could turn into a solid backup to develop behind Watson, but he doesn’t possess start traits. Dawand Jones adds solid tackle depth on the offensive line and has traits to develop into a potential starter. There could be some value here, but it’s difficult to add impact players to a roster with no picks in the first couple of rounds.
Season Outlook: 5-12
Maybe it’s poetic justice to a degree, but Deshaun Watson was unapologetically awful when he played last year. The preseason tape of Watson struggling to complete five-yard dump-offs was alarming and that continued in the regular season. Forget Russell Wilson’s contract, if Watson doesn’t return to his Houston form, he’ll have the worst contract in league history. Kevin Stefanski has shown his ability to coach with limitations at quarterback; he got Baker Mayfield to a playoff win. In this case, though, so much of the cap is locked into Watson for the foreseeable future that Stefanski needs to coax more out of him. Maybe it was rust, but at this stage, it’s hard to bet on a true return to form.
The rest of the offensive roster remains in great shape, so there definitely is an upside here if Watson does improve. The offensive line is top three in football with great bookend tackles and the best guard combo in the NFL. Joel Bitonio is an absolute unit in the middle. Nick Chubb remains one of the best pure runners in the NFL, but usage and age will likely catch up to him at some point. The rest of the skill position group is relatively weak, so hopefully, for Cleveland, Chubb’s downturn doesn’t come this year. The Browns lack a go-to receiver with Amari Cooper having shown he’s more of a solid number-two option over the course of his career. There are some intriguing young options such as David Bell and Donovan Peoples-Jones that could break out, but for now, receiver needs to be considered an area of concern.
Defensively the Browns are extremely top-heavy across the board. The key to this defense will be relying on the NFL’s best edge duo in Myles Garrett and Za’Darius Smith. If they can both stay healthy and productive, it could cover up the rest of the defense’s warts. That’s how fierce of a pass-rushing duo they could project to be. Elsewhere, the linebacking corps leaves a lot to be desired, with Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah as the only mildly productive starter returning from a year ago. Denzel Ward and Greg Newsome are a solid corner duo that will need to make up for lackluster safety play. Reliance on a handful of guys can work as evidenced by the Superbowl-winning Rams in 2021. However, one poorly timed injury to Myles Garrett and Cleveland could start giving up points in bunches.
Post Schedule Release Prediction: 10-7
The Browns finishing at 10-7 was arguably the most shocking result of the simulation. Cleveland has a difficult early slate, but they somehow survived an 0-5 start to finish on an epic 10-2 run. Sadly, they finished as the 8 seed and didn’t make the playoffs despite the incredible finish. While this exact path to 10-7 is extremely unlikely, the results are telling in terms of how much talent is truly on this roster. If Cleveland’s stars stay healthy and Watson can recapture his feel for the game, the Browns could be surprising playoff contenders.
**The post-schedule release prediction is based on a single simulation, with each game on the schedule picked only once. Difficult schedules to begin a season tend to lead to higher deviations between the season outlook and simulation results. Take a hypothetical team projected to have a season outlook of 8-9. If that team projects to start 1-5 due to a brutal opening stretch, it can derail their whole season. Coaches on losing teams tend to lose locker rooms faster and players on those teams tend to lose motivation. Teams that play an underachieving team later in a season, would likewise get a boost in their win rate.
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