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2017 Team Report: Cleveland Browns

Offensive Philosophy

The 2016 Cleveland Browns were a trainwreck who, (unsurprisingly for a 1-15 team), ranked last in the league in rush attempts. Of course, their inability to sustain drives meant that even with a pass-heavy offense, they only ranked 19th in pass attempts, too. Running backs Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson could be capable of shouldering an offense, but unfortunately, with a three-way battle going on at quarterback, the Browns are unlikely to get enough leads to give them a chance.

Quarterbacks

Starter: Cody Kessler
Backup(s): Brock Osweiler, DeShone Kizer [R], Kevin Hogan

Starting QB: Kessler, like each Cleveland quarterback last season, suffered injuries throughout the year. He missed time due to multiple concussions and a chest injury. With Brock Osweiler's future in Cleveland murky at best and Kizer being a raw rookie, Kessler could end up leading the team in starts this season again but has little chance of being an NFL starter for a contending team.

Backup QB: In a curious move, Cleveland acquired Osweiler via trade. Houston was so ready to pull the plug on Osweiler (and get his $16M 2017 salary off the books) that they also sent Cleveland multiple picks in the deal. It was expected that Cleveland would trade Osweiler elsewhere or release him and eat the salary before ever playing a down, but reports indicate that he'll be given a chance to be the team's starter. Regardless of whether or not Osweiler wins the job, the team is going nowhere, and he's not nearly capable enough to be a part of any team's future. So he's likely to give way to another quarterback sooner rather than later. Kizer was picked in the second round and has intriguing upside. He's large and athletic, meaning he'll be capable of making plays with his legs as well as his arm. However, he did struggle to hold on to his job last season at Notre Dame and has plenty of work to do with his decision-making and mental capacity to be an NFL quarterback. Hogan had a 100-yard rushing game last season and brings some athleticism to the position, but he has limited arm talent and isn't likely to make many appearances outside of injury-related moves up the depth chart.

Running Backs

Starter: Isaiah Crowell
Backup(s): Duke Johnson, Matt Dayes [R], George Atkinson III, Terrance Magee
Fullback(s):

Starting RB: Crowell had an efficient 2016, averaging 4.8 yards per carry. But because his team was always in negative game scripts, he only had 198 carries, resulting in 952 yards. The negative scripts did lead to a career-high 40 receptions, though, which bested the 19 he had in 2015. The team did nothing at the position other than drafting Matt Dayes in the seventh round. They also tendered Crowell at a second-round level as a restricted free agent, making the multiple teams who showed interest in Crowell (per reports) stay away. Cleveland clearly thinks he can be a long-term answer, and the sides were negotiating a long-term deal early in the offseason.

Backup RBs: Unlike starter Isaiah Crowell, Johnson regressed from 2015 to 2016. Considering that Johnson is the bigger threat in the passing game (114 receptions in two seasons) and Cleveland faced negative game scripts all year, Johnson's regression could likely be chalked up to head coach Hue Jackson's arrival. Despite their NFL-worst record, Jackson was retained, so the backfield production could remain similar. Jackson has long been known for a power run game mentality. Dayes was a late-round draft pick who was a solid college player at NC State, showing acumen for many facets of the game but not excelling at any one in particular. He could remain on an NFL roster for multiple years but not ever be a starter-caliber player. Atkinson is a holdover from last season. He played in all 16 games but had seven carries. He's a special teams player.

Fullback:

Wide Receivers

Starters: Corey Coleman, Kenny Britt
Backups: Rashard Higgins, Ricardo Louis, Jordan Payton, Mario Alford, Rannell Hall, Josh Gordon (suspended)

Starting WRs: Coleman enters his second year hoping to avoid a repeat of his injury-marred rookie season. In 10 games, he only caught 33 passes for 413 yards. Coleman would also be best served if Cleveland's quarterback carousel from 2016 didn't repeat. There are reports that Coleman would move to the slot if Josh Gordon were reinstated, but head coach Hue Jackson has called Coleman "the guy." The team will continue as though Coleman is a perimeter starter. Britt signed a four-year, $32.5 million deal to replace Terrelle Pryor, who left in free agency. Britt's 2016 was a career season, where he racked up over 1,000 yards (his first time reaching that milestone) and five touchdowns on 68 catches. In the putrid Los Angeles offense, those are somewhat remarkable numbers.

Backup WRs: Higgins, Louis, and Payton were all part of Cleveland's 2016 draft class (along with Corey Coleman). The three reserves combined for 25 catches behind Coleman and Pryor and on a team with shoddy quarterback play. Louis figures to be the favorite to step up in the event of injury to a starter, but none are very quality options. Alford has been on two teams since being a late-round pick in 2015, but he has just one reception to his name. He's a speedster whose contributions will be on special teams, if anywhere. Hall, a jack-of-all-trades in college at the University of Central Florida who ran the ball, caught the ball, and returned kicks, was undrafted and hasn't been able to stay on a roster. Gordon is the wild card of this group. If reinstated, he could certainly help. Early in the offseason, the team said they would release or trade Gordon if he were reinstated. But in late March, they GM Sashi Brown said they weren't in a position at wide receiver where they could turn down a player of Gordon's caliber. Stay tuned.

Tight Ends

Starters: David Njoku [R]
Backups: Randall Telfer, Seth Devalve

Cleveland surprisingly released veteran Gary Barnidge during the draft the day after trading up to draft Njoku out of Miami (FL). He averaged 11.2 yards after the catch (yes, after it) in two collegiate seasons. He's not a good blocker but rather and athletic specimen "move" tight end. Njoku's height is 6'4" but his wingspan is 6'10". He has a high ceiling, but rookie tight ends almost always struggle. Telfer was drafted in 2015 but hasn't done much offensively (just two catches in four games played). That should continue, even with Barnidge's release. Devalve was a fourth-round pick in 2016 who played in 12 games as a rookie and caught 10 balls. He's another athletic tight end who is more adept at pass-catching than blocking, but he should see the field by default based on the depth chart.

Place Kicker

Zane Gonzalez [R], Cody Parkey: The Browns kicker situation has been unstable in recent years, but they are trying to change that this year. Cleveland spent a seventh-round pick on Zane Gonzalez. Gonzalez made 23 of 25 field goals last year, including 7 of 9 from 50+ yards. Seventy-five percent of his career kickoffs went for touchbacks over the last two years. The rookie should be considered the favorite over Cody Parkey, who only made 20 of 25 attempts after he took over for Patrick Murray. Even with a possible improvement in kicker quality, Cleveland is not a place to look for quality fantasy options at the position.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: George Atkinson, Duke Johnson

Cleveland never really settled its kickoff returner role in 2016, though George Atkinson is probably the leading candidate from the rotation to return in 2017. Duke Johnson played more on punt returns than kickoffs last year, but with his roster spot relatively safe, could easily work into the mix as Cleveland searches for a longer-term solution.

Punt Returners: Duke Johnson, Mario Alford

Johnson was Cleveland's primary punt returner in 2016, with Alford his top backup. Both players are scheduled to return in 2017, and provided Alford can secure a roster spot, the rotation should be similar.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Joe Thomas, LG Joel Bitonio, C J.C. Tretter, RG Kevin Zeitler, RT Cameron Erving
Key Backups: Shon Coleman, Spencer Drango, Matt McCants, Marcus Martin, Joe Greco, Roderick Johnson [R]

The Browns reloaded big time this offseason, adding new starters at center in J.C. Tretter and right guard with Kevin Zeitler. Zeitler was signed for big money and is expected to maintain the borderline Pro Bowl form he exhibited for the other NFL team in Ohio. Left tackle Joe Thomas remains an All-Pro stalwart, though he is getting on in years. Joel Bitonio was showing huge promise before last season's injury and getting him back in the lineup is also good news. The right tackle spot is a bit of a question mark, with Cameron Erving, Shon Coleman and Spencer Drango all in the mix to start. The team also have interior backups with starting experience in Marcus Martin and Joe Greco. Roderick Johnson is a raw talent but could be in the long term picture at tackle. Overall the Browns look to be among the best lines in football this season, and if they can solve their right tackle questions, they could even challenge for the top spot overall.

Team Defense

Like the rest of the Browns, the Cleveland defense is starting at the bottom with nowhere to go but up. They were among the league's worst defenses in sacks, forced fumbles, and interceptions. Gregg Williams was hired to install his 4-3 defense and bring an edge to one of the weakest defenses in the league. The team lost Jordan Poyer to Buffalo in free agency, but drafted Jabrill Peppers in the first round as a potential replacement. Mid-season trade target Jamie Collins has been signed long-term to anchor a very good linebacker trio, and #1 overall pick Myles Garrett is the marquee defensive lineman on the edge with hope that 2015 first-rounder Danny Shelton can gum things up inside with 2017 third-round pick Larry Ogunjobi likely stepping in to play significant snaps right away. The Browns were the worst fantasy D/ST in most scoring formats last year, but they could crawl out of the basement this year until Williams' guidance. It's still a stretch to expect them to crawl into your lineup.

Defensive Line

Starters: DT Danny Shelton, DT Desmond Bryant, DE Emmanuel Ogbah, DE Myles Garrett [R]
Backups: DT Jamie Meder, DT Larry Ogunjobi [R], DT Caleb Brantley [R], DE Carl Nassib, DE Nate Orchard

Starting DL: Cleveland's woes at the quarterback position tend to get most of the spotlight but they have not been good on defense recently either. The Brown's were 31st versus the run in 2017 and 30th in sack production. Thus it should have surprised no one when they used two of their three first round picks on defense, including number one overall on defensive end Myles Garrett. Most draft analysts had Garrett as the clear top pick in this draft class. He is close as it gets to a sure thing. Garrett should be an impact starter from day one and will help the Browns as they transition from a 3-4 base scheme to a 4-3. We should temper our expectations of Garrett a bit though. There is a lot of pressure on him to be a standout right away but history tells us rookie pass rushers usually take a couple of years to hit their stride. Emmanuel Ogbah played outside linebacker in the Browns 3-4 last year and has been penciled in as the other starting end in the new scheme. This is in part because his 5.5 sacks were a team high last season. The other important factor to consider is Ogbah was drafted by the current regime which probably means he was selected with the scheme change in mind. He was the first pick of the second round in 2016 after recording 13 sacks in his final season at Oklahoma State, so there is a lot of reason for optimism. One thing is certain; the Browns have made a big investment in pass rushers over the last two drafts. They are young and talented at the position. Danny Shelton was a first round pick in 2015 but was drafted by the previous coaching staff to play nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme. At 6'2" and 335 pounds he is a tough man to move off the spot yet Shelton can surprise with his mobility and athleticism. He is likely to be a two down player but should be able to make the switch successfully and make a significant contribution to the run defense. The opening day starter at the other tackle position is anyone's guess. Desmond Bryant is likely to see significant time in the rotation at the least and will probably be on the field in passing situations. He played end in the 3-4 recording 14.5 sacks over his first three seasons with the team before being lost to a pectoral injury at the beginning of 2016. Prior to joining the Browns Bryant played well at both tackle and end in the Raiders 4-3, so we know he has the versatility to make the change.

Backup DL: There will be a lot of competition for starting spots across the Browns defensive front this summer. With all the early picks used on pass rushers and interior linemen in recent years Cleveland is both talented and deep up front. The key will be finding where everyone fits in the new scheme. Jamie Meder has a solid shot at starting next to Shelton on the inside and should at the least be part of a rotation. Rookie additions Larry Ogunjobi (3rd round) and Caleb Brantley (6th round) could also be significant factors as the season progresses. Ogunjobi could see some time on passing downs early while Brantley was considered by many to be a first round talent. He fell all the way to round six due to off field concerns. If he can stay clear of trouble we could see Brantley paired with Shelton as the starting tackles at some point.

Linebackers

Starters: MLB Christian Kirksey, SLB Jamie Collins, OLB Joe Schobert
Backups: MLB Tank Carder, WLB Dominique Alexander, OLB James Burgess

Starting LBs: With the addition of Jamie Collins via trade last season and the late move to a 4-3, the Browns linebacker position went from a dismal mess to somewhat of a team strength. When they are in the base alignment Collins will work from the strong side with Christian Kirksey and Demario Davis at the middle and weak side spots. Collins is a difference maker who averaged 6 tackles and 2 assists over his eight games with the team last year. He is also the kind of playmaker which Cleveland has been missing at the second level for a long time. The previous regime drafted Kirksey but were reluctant to turn him lose as a three down middle backer. His coverage ability is mediocre but Kirksey established himself as a quality run defender and showed an ability to blitz. The coaching staff will have to be careful with coverage schemes to make sure opponents are not able to exploit Kirksey but it is not as if he is a big weakness. The team left a hole at one linebacker spot when they traded Demario Davis back to the Jets for Calvin Pryor. Schobert could be a better fit in a 4-3 and should have a shot to win the job in camp and the preseason.

Backup LBs: The Brown starters are solid but an injury at the position could present problems. Tank Carder is a career backup and special team contributor while both Dominique Alexander and James Burgess are young, inexperienced former undrafted free agents.

Defensive Backs

Starters: SS Jabrill Peppers [R], FS Derrick Kindred, CB Joe Haden, CB Jason McCourty, CB Jamar Taylor
Backups: S Ed Reynolds, S Ibraheim Campbell, S Tyvis Powell, CB Briean Boddy-Calhoun, CB Trey Caldwell, CB Marcus Burley, S Calvin Pryor

Starting DBs: Cleveland's pass defense ranked 21st in 2016 and they were in the bottom third of the league in interceptions. Thus it was no surprise to see them use substantial resources on the secondary. The big addition being first round pick Jabrill Peppers at strong safety. The team made no major additions at linebacker but the selection of Peppers should help address both the run and pass defense. He is physical, fast and has the leadership quality the organization has been missing. Peppers will give the defensive play caller a lot of options. He can blitz, cover man or zone, play in the box or line up deep, and is a strong tackler. If there is any knock on him coming out of Michigan it is a lack of ball skills. There is no clear cut starter at free safety heading into camp. Last year's fourth round pick Derrick Kindred has been penciled in at the spot entering camp but he may be pushed for the job. Kindred opened last season as the starting strong safety where he gained a lot of experience. By mid season however, he was splitting time. His season was then cut short by injury. Joe Haden is the Browns lead corner. He has struggled with some injuries recently but when healthy is among the league's upper echelon players at the position. with a good size/speed combination and excellent cover skills Haden has the versatility to match up with both fast and big physical receivers. He is the anchor of Cleveland's pass defense and a considerable big play threat. The team's initial plan for the 2017 season was to start Jamar Taylor opposite Haden with rookie fourth round pick Howard Wilson and Briean Boddy-Calhoun competing for time as the nickel back. With Wilson lost for the year to injury the team inked veteran Jason McCourty as a short term replacement. While the situation may be a setback for the long term plan; McCourty is a quality add whose experience probably makes the team better for 2017 than they would have been with the rookie in place. As it stands McCourty will likely compete with Taylor for the starting spot opposite Haden with the loser of the battle serving as the third corner in sub packages.

Backup DBs: The Browns are thin on proven depth in the secondary. Both Ed Reynolds and Ibraheim Campbell had opportunity to earn a starting role at safety last season but neither was able to impress. There is still a chance one of them might outplay Kindred and get back on the field but nothing points to either being more than marginal short term starters. Calvin Pryor was acquired in the offseason and could fit in a box safety role that doesn't leave him exposed in coverage. Boddy-Calhoun was an undrafted free agent last season that played surprisingly well at times. He will be the next man up at corner and will likely continue to see some action in dime packages. Beyond Boddy-Calhoun the team has little experience.

Last modified: 2017-06-01 16:38:38