The Cleveland Browns finished with a disappointing 8-9 record this season after appearing in and winning their first playoff game since 1994 last season. The team lost several players to injury for periods of time throughout the year and were one of the more COVID disadvantaged teams in the league. However, sympathy will not get the organization back to the playoffs, but these five steps — along with continuity among the coaching staff — will.
1. Fix the quarterback position
The team minimally needs to get Baker Mayfield healthy. Mayfield will be playing on his fifth-year option in 2022. His throwing style involves his entire body, so it is reasonable to think his injury impacted his play this season. However, he should be further along in terms of his ability to read defenses. There were a lot of plays left on the field this year as his footwork wavered. Mayfield has shown that he can win with this team, but he has been far too inconsistent to inspire confidence long-term.
Executive vice president of football operations and general manager Andrew Berry spoke on the subject Tuesday.
“We fully expect Baker to be our starter and bounce back,” he said.
Simplistically, some will look at Cleveland’s quarterback situation and say it needs to replace Mayfield. When exploring the options in the 2022 NFL Draft, the Browns are unlikely to find an upgrade over the incumbent. Does it make sense for the team to pursue Kirk Cousins, who will be 34 years old at the start of the 2022 season, if he is available? What about Aaron Rodgers, who will turn 39 in December? It has been said that neither Deshaun Watson nor Russell Wilson have a desire to play in northeast Ohio. Derek Carr might make the most sense, but even that would require clearing a few hurdles. It makes zero sense to make a change without having a better alternative in mind.
2. Add a No. 1 wide receiver to the roster
Cleveland’s situation with Odell Beckham Jr. was well-documented, but do not pretend that he had been the top receiver option that he had been earlier in his career. He was still helpful in the way he attracted the defense’s attention away from other players. With the No. 13 overall selection, the Browns should have some options in the 2022 NFL Draft. Ohio State’s Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave and Alabama’s Jameson Williams have been highly regarded. Williams suffered a devastating injury in the national championship game and has yet to declare.
In free agency, Tampa Bay’s Chris Godwin and Los Angeles’ Mike Williams should be the most coveted. Godwin is coming off an injury of his own. Beyond the addition of a No. 1 wide receiver, Cleveland needs to add depth. Jarvis Landry is scheduled to count $16.553 million against the salary cap next season, and production has not met that payout. It is doubtful he remains on the roster at that number.
The Browns may need to explore complimentary pieces as well. Last year’s third-round draft pick, Anthony Schwartz, brought little to the table, and the rest of the group (Donovan Peoples-Jones, Rashard Higgins and Landry) struggled to get separation consistently.
3. Re-sign Jadeveon Clowney and David Njoku
Clowney was everything that Cleveland hoped he would be when it signed him last offseason. He continued his pace as a difference maker in the run game but also provided nine sacks — tied for the second-most of his career in a single season. The former No. 1 overall selection will turn 29 years old in February, but he should be welcomed back if the number is right.
“JD had a really good season for us, was very productive run and pass, and a disruptive player,” Berry said. “He paired nicely with the other guys who we had up front, obviously with Myles (Garrett) being at the forefront. He had a good year. He did the things that we envisioned when we signed him. Good season. Fit in nicely for us. The next several weeks, we will see kind of what the future holds with all of our guys across the roster.”
It would help if the Browns re-signed reserve defensive end Takk McKinley as well. He was effective when called upon.
As for Njoku, he became the player the organization expected him to be when it took him in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft. The stats may not stack up with other greats, but he was sharing a workload with Austin Hooper and Harrison Bryant. Bryant is still on his rookie deal and relatively inexpensive, while Hooper has two years left on the lucrative deal he signed in 2020. His play has not stood up to the contract, but the team would only save $2 million to move on from him this year. With tight end being such an important position to the offensive scheme, it does not make sense for the organization to make that move now. But can it afford to pay two tight ends free agent money for a year? Berry will have a decision to make on Njoku.
4. Find some difference-making mainstays at defensive tackle
Cleveland’s highest-ranked interior defender was Malik McDowell at No. 106 overall, according to PFF. The team has used two draft picks in the first four rounds on the position over the past two years but it remains a weakness. Veteran Malik Jackson was signed in free agency but also offered little. It is a lackluster group of free agents coming to the table, but perhaps Buffalo’s Harrison Phillips or Cincinnati’s B.J. Hill are of interest. Cleveland could target Georgia’s Travon Walker, Jordan Davis and/or Devonte Wyatt and Texas A&M’s DeMarvin Leal in the first few rounds of the draft.
5. Tender a competitive offer to restricted free agent D’Ernest Johnson
Cleveland’s playoff hopes probably would have been extinguished a lot sooner had it not been for Johnson’s breakout performance in which he accounted for 168 all-purpose yards and a touchdown against Denver in Week 8. For an offense predicated on running the football, the Browns can never have a shortage of good options. The team should place a competitive tender on Johnson, and if another team matches, then so be it. There are only so many resources available to teams, and some must be reserved to address other positions of need. Johnson, 25, has just 165 touches in his young NFL career, so there is not a lot of tread on his tires.