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2018 Team Report: Cleveland Browns

Offensive Philosophy

Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley helped revitalize and extend Ben Roethlisberger's career in Pittsburgh, but a clash of personalities led to him joining the Cleveland Browns this offseason. The Browns invested heavily in their passing game, bringing in quarterback Tyrod Taylor and drafting Baker Mayfield with the #1 pick in the 2018 draft. Haley more than anyone in recent history has preferred to run his offense through just one back and one receiver, but with an abundance of weapons carried over from the 2017 squad and added during free agency, it's likely he'll adapt his offense to spread the ball around much more in 2018.

Quarterbacks

Starter: Tyrod Taylor
Backup(s): Baker Mayfield [R], Drew Stanton

Starting QB: Tyrod Taylor was acquired via trade in March in exchange for the 65th overall pick. He allows Cleveland to bring first overall pick Baker Mayfield along slowly while still competing and having a competent player at quarterback. Taylor will be a free agent after this season (part of the reason Buffalo didn't want to retain him), but if Mayfield progresses as the team hopes, the need for Taylor won't be strong. While the situation doesn't provide him long-term certainty, it does offer a chance for Taylor to show he can be a leader and mentor before he gets to test the free agent waters.

Backup QB: Cleveland surprised many when they opted for Mayfield at number one overall instead of Sam Darnold or Josh Allen. But Mayfield's college productivity and skill set exceed that of the other top quarterback prospects in the class. The biggest knock on Mayfield is his height, but the NFL is starting to transform into a league where escapability and improvisation matter more than prototypical size and remaining in the pocket. Plays do still need to be made from in the pocket. And in his final collegiate season, Mayfield showed that he was able to make structured reads and throws. What is sometimes forgotten due to his small size is that Mayfield has a big arm. Only the cannon-wielding Josh Allen threw the ball harder than Mayfield at the NFL Scouting Combine. Drew Stanton is a career backup who has shown that he's capable, though far from spectacular, in spot duty. He'll be third on the depth chart this season, but he signed to a two-year deal and could end up being the backup to Mayfield in 2019 with Tyrod Taylor set to hit free agency.

Running Backs

Starter: Carlos Hyde
Backup(s): Nick Chubb [R], Duke Johnson, Matt Dayes, Darius Jackson
Fullback(s):

Starting RB: After signing a three-year deal worth $15 million (which made him a top-eight earner at running back on an annual basis), it looked as though Carlos Hyde was set to be the man in Cleveland - or at least a "1a" with Duke Johnson playing a pace-changing "1b." However, the team's selection of Nick Chubb with the 35th overall pick has Hyde's outlook appearing murky. Hyde showcased previously-unseen versatility last season, catching 59 passes in Kyle Shanahan's offense in San Francisco. In his three seasons, prior, Hyde had caught 50 passes total. Cleveland looked to be replacing Isaiah Crowell with a better version. With Chubb in the mix, Hyde should see fewer touches than originally projected and only sniff a top-half of the league season if there are injuries to others in the backfield. Another upside-limiting factor on his outlook is that while Cleveland appears to have improved, they still aren't projected to be a very good team in 2018. Without positive game scripts, running backs require passing game production to be a factor. And Johnson will still be in the mix there.

Backup RBs: Chubb had an interesting up-and-down college career. As a freshman, he had over 1,700 yards and 16 touchdowns on an eye-popping 7.1 yards per carry. Then, a knee injury in his sophomore year stunted his development. He returned the following year but appeared to lack the explosiveness he had in 2014 as a first-year player. But he book-ended his career at Georgia nicely with 1,345 yards and 15 touchdowns as a senior splitting time with Sony Michel, who was drafted four picks ahead of Chubb at 31 overall. He brings a desirable combination of speed and power to the mix in Cleveland and is someone who could unseat Hyde this season if he learns the non-running-based nuances of the position such as pass-blocking and route-running. Johnson showcased plenty of versatility in 2017, playing some slot receiver in addition to the ability he had shown catching balls out of the backfield in his first two seasons. Johnson has never caught fewer than 53 balls, with his high-water mark being the 74 (on 94 targets) he reeled in last year. Johnson also added four rushing touchdowns and 4.2 yards per carry in limited duty on the ground. His role is safe; regardless of the acquisitions of Hyde and Chubb, Johnson should see at least 80 targets if he's healthy all year. Matt Dayes was a seventh-round pick in the 2017 draft and didn't play any offense last year. He did return kicks and should continue to have a presence on special teams. But if he's needed for offensive purposes, it will be because Cleveland was bitten hard by the injury bug. Darius Jackson is a former sixth-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys. He's a special teamer at best.

Fullback:

Wide Receivers

Starters: Josh Gordon, Jarvis Landry
Backups: Corey Coleman, Antonio Callaway [R], Rashard Higgins, Ricardo Louis, Damion Ratley [R], Jeff Janis

Starting WRs: Reinstated late last season, Josh Gordon played well for someone who hadn't seen NFL action since 2014. In five games, he caught 18 passes for 335 yards (18.6 yards per catch) and 1 touchdown. Assuming Gordon maintains his current good standing with the league, he always has massive potential. Tyrod Taylor riffed well with Sammy Watkins during that pair's time in Buffalo, and there's nothing in Gordon's skill set that suggests he can't be a deep ball weapon for Taylor as well. A receiver that doesn't exactly fit what Taylor does well is Jarvis Landry. Brought in via trade for a fourth and a seventh-round draft pick, Landry signed a five-year deal worth $75.5 million, suggesting he is part of Cleveland's long-term future. While his expertise on intermediate, interior routes doesn't align well with Taylor's skills, it does make him an ideal receiver for rookie Baker Mayfield. At Oklahoma, Mayfield made every throw, utilizing all parts of the field. He showed a knack for quick decision making and getting the ball into his receivers' hand with the accuracy required to allow them to run after the catch. It wouldn't be surprising to see Landry start off slowly this season and have his production boost if Mayfield begins playing more later in the year.

Backup WRs: 2018 represents a make-or-break year for Corey Coleman. After missing 13 of a possible 32 games - and not producing when he actually does suit up - the team brought in Landry as a free agent, drafted two rookies at the position, and anticipates having Josh Gordon for his first full season since 2014. Coleman is a former first-round pick, so the talent and skill set is there. But it hasn't clicked yet for him. And with two more accomplished players in front of him and a quarterback duo that probably isn't good enough to sustain production for more than two pass-catchers, the deck is stacked against Coleman. Antonio Callaway is an uber-talented player but comes into the league with some baggage from a character standpoint. He tested positive for marijuana at the combine and was suspended for all of 2017 by the Florida Gators for using stolen credit card information. With all of those concerns, Callaway was still the 105th pick, suggesting his potential is immense. He was considered a first-round talent by many in the scouting community. If Callaway can stay out of trouble, he has a chance to climb the depth chart quickly and displace Coleman. Rashard Higgins and Ricardo Louis each enter their third seasons after being fifth-round and fourth-round picks, respectively, in 2016. They're very opposite in profile, with Higgins being a "technician" who lacks measurables, while Louis is a speedster who isn't the best at fundamentals such as route-running. Neither figure to make a splash this season with the talent above them, particularly with the acquisition of Landry and the return of Josh Gordon. Damion Ratley is another rookie, drafted in the sixth round. He's incredibly raw, but his 4.39 speed at 6'3" and 190 pounds begged a draft selection by someone. Jeff Janis is another athletic marvel, but he hasn't been able to turn that into a productive career so far. Going from Green Bay to Cleveland isn't exactly the way to revive a career for a passing game player, but Janis' special teams contributions could keep him on the roster.

Tight Ends

Starters: David Njoku
Backups: Seth Devalve, Darren Fells

Evaluating David Njoku's 2017 is difficult. Being selected with the 29th overall pick generates high expectations, but tight end is a position difficult for rookies to have an immediate impact. Ending the year with only 32 catches for 386 yards is underwhelming, but Njoku's 4 touchdowns showed some promise. With another year of learning, he can provide both Tyrod Taylor and Baker Mayfield (particularly the latter) with an athletic target whose catch radius allows for slightly inaccurate passes to turn into positive gains. Seth DeValve enters his third year in Cleveland as the pass-catching backup to Njoku. A fourth-round "project" out of Princeton, he's in a difficult situation of trying to develop while playing for an offense that doesn't yield a plethora of pass-catching volume. Darren Fells was signed to a three-year, $12 million contract this offseason. With a scant 57 catches in four years, it's clear that he's a blocker first and receiver second.

Place Kicker

Zane Gonzalez: The Browns produced the fewest field goal makes in the league, tied with Green Bay at 15. Rookie kicker Zane Gonzalez didn't help, making only 75 percent of his 20 attempts. Even if he improves in his second season, this will be one of the worst situations in the league for kicker opportunity and Gonzalez should be avoided except as a last resort.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Matt Dayes, Jabril Peppers

The Browns retain a lot of stability on special teams from 2017, returning both of their top kickoff returners in Matt Dayes and Jabril Peppers.

Punt Returners: Jabril Peppers, Duke Johnson

Jabril Peppers handles most punt returns for the Browns, and when he needs a break, Duke Johnson has the kind of experience and sure grip on a roster spot to be an ideal backup.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Shon Coleman, LG Joel Bitonio, C J.C. Tretter, RG Kevin Zeitler, RT Chris Hubbard
Key Backups: Donald Stephenson, Spencer Drango, Austin Corbett [R], Austin Reiter, Zach Banner

The Browns' offensive line lost legend Joe Thomas to retirement this offseason. Shon Coleman, who started at right tackle last season, will likely shift back to his college position of left tackle to start the season. Spencer Drango, Zach Banner and Donald Stephenson are other tackles on the roster. The interior is set: left guard Joel Bitonio, center J.C. Tretter and right guard Kevin Zeitler are good starters. Right tackle Chris Hubbard arrived from free agency from the Pittsburgh Steelers. Hubbard started most of last season for the injured Marcus Gilbert and is familiar with the division. The Browns' offensive line enters the season as a low-tier option.

Team Defense

The Browns weren't the worst fantasy defense in 2017, but they were close, finishing 31st ahead of only Oakland in most scoring systems. They woke up with a takeaway every week, their only defensive touchdown, and multiple sacks in four of the six weeks that ends Myles Garrett and Emmanuel Ogbah played together. With better health from that duo and linebacker Jamie Collins (who only played in six games), combined with a competent offense led by competent quarterback play from Tyrod Taylor or #1 overall pick Baker Mayfield, and the addition of a budding #1 corner in #4 overall pick Denzel Ward, the Browns defense can only improve. The team also added Damarious Randall to help at safety and hopefully move 2017 first-round pick Jabrill Peppers closer to the ball. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams made a ton of puzzling choices, including the deployment of Peppers, and we can't really assume those will be fixed, but the run defense should remain strong despite the trade of Danny Shelton to New England. Cleveland may climb out of the fantasy basement to have some matchup usefulness this year.

Defensive Line

Starters: DT Trevon Coley, DT Jamie Meder, DE Emmanuel Ogbah, DE Myles Garrett
Backups: DT Larry Ogunjobi, DT Caleb Brantley, DE Carl Nassib, DE Nate Orchard, DE Chad Thomas [R]

Starting DL: In 2016 the Browns were near the bottom in virtually every important defensive category. After investing a lot of resources on that side of the ball last offseason, the club made great strides. The run defense went from thirty first to seventh, the pass defense improved to the top twenty and their 34 sacks ranked twenty one after finishing at thirty the previous season. The defensive line had a lot to do with the improvement despite having players in and out of the lineup with injuries. Number one overall pick Myles Garrett finished with seven sacks despite missing five games with ankle and concussion issues. The second year pro has a chance to become one of the best in the game. Emmanuel Ogbah was the other opening day starter and is expected to pair with Garrett as starters in 2018. Ogbah started his career as an outside linebacker in the 3-4 of the previous coaching regime but is thought to be a more natural fit in the current 4-3. He landed on IR with a broken foot after ten starts a year ago but should be ready to go for training camp. Garrett got all the attention last year but Trevon Coley may be the better story from the Browns rookie class. The undrafted free agent not only made the team, he was the opening day starter and played more snaps on the season than any other Cleveland defensive lineman. Coley is entrenched at one tackle spot while the trade of Danny Shelton opens a competition for the other. Jamie Meder, Caleb Brantley and Larry Ogunjobi will be in the mix as well, with Meder more of a run stuffer and Brantley able to put pressure on the quarterback. Ogunjobi probably has the highest ceiling of the entire group.

Backup DL: The Browns have built a formidable starting group up front but they also find themselves with excellent depth. In fact only Myles Garrett and Trevon Coley are completely safe as starters. Both Carl Nassib and Nate Orchard were productive college ends that the previous regime attempted to cast as outside linebackers. That experiment met with marginal success. Nassib started games early last year while Garrett was out and again at the end of the season after Ogbah landed on IR. Orchard also saw significant action recording a pair of sacks on 433 snaps. With all the veteran depth on the roster it was surprising the team used a third round pick on University of Miami standout Chad Thomas. It is hard to say where he will fit in the long run but Thomas is not likely to see a lot of opportunity as a rookie. The coaching staff rotated several players at tackle in 2017, including Larry Ogunjobi who was their third round pick, and Caleb Brantley who was taken in the sixth. Both should continue to factor in the rotation this season with Brantley being particularly interesting. He was considered by many to be a first round talent heading into last year's draft. Brantley fell all the way to round six due to off field concerns. He made a strong impression on the field as a rookie and has been able to avoid trouble so far. Brantley's playing time increased in December and he finished the season with 14 tackles, 5 assists, a pair of sacks and a forced fumble on 218 plays. He could push Jamie Meder for a starting spot this summer.

Linebackers

Starters: WLB Christian Kirksey, MLB Joe Schobert, SLB Jamie Collins
Backups: MLB Genard Avery [R], SLB James Burgess, OLB Mychal Kendricks

Starting LBs: Losing a player to injury is never a good thing but in the NFL it often provides opportunity for guys that otherwise may have gone undiscovered. This was the case for Cleveland last year when the early loss of projected starter Tank Carder opened the door for Joe Schobert to shine. Schobert moved into the lineup at middle backer during the preseason and ended up one stop behind Christian Kirksey for the team lead in tackles. Schobert proved to be more than a tackling machine, adding three sacks, three forced fumbles, and an interception as well. Ironically the presence of Schobert seemed to bring out the best in Kirksey as well. The two fed off one another helping Kirksey add big play production that was missing over his first three years with the team. Together these two young players helped turn one of the league's weakest defenses into a solid unit with a bright future. Jamie Collins was lost to injury early in the 2017 season but not before we had a chance to see what the Browns will look like with everyone healthy. Unlike most 4-3 teams that pull one of their linebackers in sub packages, Cleveland left all three on the field in nickel packages. The versatility of Collins was a big factor in this approach as he is an excellent play maker both in coverage and coming off the edge. In a short time Cleveland's linebacker position has gone from a C- to a solid A.

Backup LBs: The Browns signed Mychal Kendricks after the Eagles released him. He is a versatile linebacker who should be able to be a top backup at multiple positions. The Browns also played with four linebackers and three defensive backs on the field more than any other defense last year, so Kendricks can contribute in that formation. James Burgess played well when Collins was lost last season. The former undrafted free agent stepped right into the three down role and looked a lot like Collins both on the field and in the box scores. Barring another injury situation burgess is not likely to see the field much but he may get a shot as the top backup at all three positions. The team added Genard Avery in the fifth round this year. He is considered by most to be a project and should earn his keep on special teams for a while. Beyond Burgess and Avery the Browns have a collection of young players battling for roster spots through special teams play.

Defensive Backs

Starters: SS Jabrill Peppers, FS Damarious Randall, CB Denzel Ward [R], CB Travis Carrie
Backups: S Derrick Kindred, S Derron Smith, CB E.J. Gaines, CB Terrance Mitchell, CB Briean Boddy-Calhoun

Starting DBs: The 2017 season saw the Brown show a great deal of improvement in many areas including passing yards allowed. One glaring issue was not resolved however. After ranking twenty six with ten interceptions in 2016, the Browns went backwards with only the Raiders totaling fewer than their seven. The organization responded by completely re-vamping the secondary. In fact last year's first round pick Jabrill Peppers could be the only returning starter. As a rookie starter Peppers was not particularly impressive. He was adequate in run support and solid in coverage but a single interception was his only big play contribution. The year of experience and infusion of talent around him could make Peppers a different player in year two. Damarious Randall spent the first three years of his career playing corner for the Packers. Cleveland signed him intending a move to free safety. The position is not completely strange to Randall who lined up there at times during his college career. What the Browns expect to get from Randall is a big play threat. Three years in Green Bay produced ten interceptions, 32 pass breakups and a pair of scores. He is a bit undersized for a safety but no one questions Randall's physicality as a tackler. Rookie first round pick Denzel Ward will be one of the starting corners. The former Ohio State star was widely considered the best corner in this year's draft. He has all the tools to become one of the league's premier cover men and should be a fixture in Cleveland for the next several years. There will be plenty of competition for the other outside starting job. The organization added E.J. Gaines, Travis Carrie and Terrence Mitchell in free agency. All three of these veterans have extensive starting experience with their former teams.

Backup DBs: With all the free agent addition Cleveland's corner position is both talented and deep as they have five starter quality players. Until we get into the preseason it is anyone's guess how the pecking order will look behind Ward. The depth is less impressive at safety but is still fairly strong. Derrick Kindred has started several games at strong safety for the Browns over the past two years. He does not make splash plays but will provide dependable depth. While former Bengal Derron Smith is penciled in as the backup at free safety, there is a chance he could emerge as a starter. The Bengals made a significant offer to keep Smith who saw plenty of action with them last season. In the end Cleveland made an offer Cincinnati was unwilling to match. Smith's versatility was an important factor as was his familiarity with the new defensive scheme.

Last modified: 2018-06-16 15:39:45