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2019 Team Report: Cleveland Browns

Offensive Philosophy

New head coach Freddie Kitchens was an unlikely success story when he took over as Cleveland's offensive coordinator at midseason last year. Implementing an offense that was more similar to what quarterback Baker Mayfield ran in college, Kitchens turned the team's fortunes around overnight; Mayfield had a passer rating of 78.9 before the switch and 106.2 after. Kitchens brings in Tampa's offensive coordinator, Todd Monken, who is committed to keeping the scheme put in place over the last half of the season. Both coaches are strong proponents of borrowing concepts popular in college, including spreading the field horizontally as well as vertically, using varied personnel groupings to keep the defense off balance, and getting the ball out quickly.

Quarterbacks

Starter: Baker Mayfield
Backup(s): Drew Stanton, Garrett Gilbert

Starting QB: Mayfield's career arrow was already pointing up after a rookie season that saw him break the NFL's all-time rookie record for touchdown passes. On top of the individual accolades, Mayfield helped to bring a competitive edge back to a franchise that had shown anything but in the years prior to his arrival. The team's promise was likely the driving force in acquiring new assets that, combined with the typical second-year growth, should accelerate Mayfield's career progression at warp speed. The addition of Odell Beckham Jr and the continued chemistry building with Jarvis Landry and the supremely athletic David Njoku will help Mayfield's passing game prospects. And the acquisition of Kareem Hunt combined with the expected growth of Nick Chubb should provide the balance necessary to sustain drives. Mayfield's 2019 ceiling isn't quite limitless (like we saw from Patrick Mahomes in 2018), but it's probably higher than most are giving him credit for.

Backup QB: If Cleveland is forced to use the journeyman Stanton or AAF cast-off Gilbert, a promising season will be in jeopardy. Stanton has realized his ceiling in the NFL, and it's that of a short-term placeholder. And Gilbert is rightfully behind him.

Running Backs

Starter: Nick Chubb
Backup(s): Duke Johnson, Kareem Hunt(susp), Dontrell Hilliard, Trayone Gray [R]
Fullback(s):

Starting RB: After a first six games that yielded no more than three carries in any game, Cleveland traded Carlos Hyde to make room for what they felt was an inevitable emergence for Chubb. The team was right to put its faith in Chubb, who took over as the lead back and showed incredible promise. Three games of 100 or more yards and three more of 80+ highlighted Chubb's 10-game stretch as the starter. Chubb also caught 20 passes, two-thirds of his entire college total at Georgia. While the newly-acquired Kareem Hunt should factor in eventually, Chubb will have a large chunk of 2019 as the unquestioned starter and lead rusher, a role he showed he can handle in his rookie season.

Backup RBs: While Nick Chubb is the leader on the ground, Johnson is the team's preferred pass-catcher out of the backfield. And that preference is justified, with Johnson never failing to catch fewer than 47 passes in his four-year career. That low watermark did, however, come in 2018, as did a career-low 40 carries (after a prior low of 73). Johnson's skills are well-defined at this point in his career. And though he's the best pass-catcher in this backfield, Hunt has shown a knack for playmaking as well. A 1-2 punch of Chubb and Hunt would, in theory, allow the team to be less predictable, as both of those players have a similar skill set. Hunt, however, needs to behave and return from suspension first. Due to that suspension (and the team's overall long-view mentality), Hunt's biggest impact on the team may not come in 2019. The suspension is good news for Johnson's 2019 prospects, as is the lack of depth behind he and Hunt. Hilliard (undrafted free agent) and Mays (seventh-round pick) are inexperienced and highly unlikely to touch the ball in any meaningful situation.

Fullback:

Wide Receivers

Starters: Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry
Backups: Antonio Callaway, Rashard Higgins, Damion Ratley, Derrick Willies, Jaelen Strong

Starting WRs: In the blockbuster move of the offseason, Cleveland traded a first-round pick, a third-round pick, and Jabrill Peppers for the talented but mercurial wide receiver. In Beckham, Cleveland gets not only an All-Pro level talent but someone who can move Landry to a secondary role - one in which he's probably better suited to succeed. Beckham's presence should allow an offense that emerged last season to continue its growth and progress into being among the league's top quartile of offensive units. There is more competition for targets in Cleveland than he had in New York, but the quality of those targets and the scoring chances of this offense should make up for a lack of volume. Landry, who struggled with consistency last season, was thrilled with the acquisition of his former college teammate. Beckham's presence should allow Landry to be used more in the slot - a place in which he had success in Miami. In Beckham and Landry, Cleveland has among the most explosive and versatile starting wide receiver duos in the NFL. Both players can line up all over the field and create mismatches.

Backup WRs: Callaway, a fourth-round draft pick who slipped due to character concerns rather than talent questions, had a mostly positive rookie year. While not listed in the duo of starters, his presence will be important. If Callaway is able to maintain a viable presence on the outside that defenses have to account for, Odell Beckham Jr and (more importantly) Jarvis Landry will be able to work from the slot and exploit mismatches against slot corners and safeties. Callaway ended last season with a solid-yet-unspectacular 43 catches for 586 yards and 5 touchdowns. If his character concerns remain behind him, he should earn a spot to play a near-majority of offensive snaps (and a vast majority of those with three receivers in the formation). Higgins is a fourth-year pro who is the final remaining receiver from a 2016 Cleveland draft class that saw the team draft four receivers in the same class. That's very impressive, especially considering that Cleveland used a first-round pick on a receiver that year (Corey Coleman) and that Higgins was the final receiver they chose. Higgins has shown flashes of being able to be a solid NFL contributor, but he's likely to remain behind Callaway pending an injury or discipline issue. If pressed into duty, Higgins is capable, though. Ratley is a 2017 sixth-round pick who saw limited action last season due to injuries and delayed emergences ahead of him. He's likely to hang around, but the team won't be counting on him for significant offensive snaps. Willies has a similar story and outlook to Ratley. He was undrafted last year but made the team and saw action in a few games.

Tight Ends

Starters: David Njoku
Backups: Demetrius Harris, Seth DeValve, Orson Charles, Pharaoh Brown

Njoku enters his third season after showing progress from Year 1 to Year 2. He had the same amount of touchdowns but increased his receptions from 32 to 56 and his yardage from 386 to 639. Njoku will see better competition for targets with Odell Beckham Jr in town and Jarvis Landry in his second season. But a size/speed specimen with red zone abilities in an offense projected to take a big leap forward is always a player to monitor. Njoku's value for Cleveland is the mismatches he creates. Ideally for him, those yield high value targets and production as well. Harris joined Cleveland this offseason after five years in Kansas City. Harris is a "move" tight end with plus athleticism, but his time behind Travis Kelce didn't afford him much opportunity to showcase it. Harris may suffer the same fate in Cleveland (playing behind a talented tight end). It's likely he'll play a meaningful, if inconsistent, role. After a 2017 season that included 33 catches on 58 targets, it seemed as though DeValve may emerge. But Njoku's presence and emergence stunted that growth. With Harris now in the fold in addition to Njoku, DeValve's role will be small.

Place Kicker

Greg Joseph, Austin Seibert [R]: After Zane Gonzalez beat out Greg Joseph in a kicking competition last year, the Browns appeared to be ready to settle down with the 2017 seventh-rounder. Gonzalez missed two field goals and two extra points to explain an otherwise inexplicable loss in Week 2 at New Orleans. Joseph was acceptable, but was a negative factor in both losses to the Ravens and certainly shouldn't be thought of as secure in his job. New special teams coordinator Mike Priefer oversaw some rocky kicker moments at Minnesota, and he'll be tasked with figuring out the best course for this ascendent team after kicker woes kept them from doing more last year. They spent a late fifth on Austin Seibert, a player who can handle punts as well as kickoffs and field goals, but he wasn't accurate from distance and barely used from 50+, so he's far from a shoo-in to win the job.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Dontrell Hilliard, Antonio Callaway, Duke Johnson

Safety Jabrill Peppers had been Cleveland's primary returner for the last two seasons, but he was traded this offseason as the Browns acquired Odell Beckham, Jr. from the Giants. With Peppers out of the picture, Dontrell Hilliard and Antonio Calloway are the top remaining options, though Duke Johnson and Jarvis Landry both have experience as returners and might find that the team can spare them more now that there is a glut of talent on offense around them.

Punt Returners: Antonio Callaway, Dontrell Hilliard, Jarvis Landry

Safety Jabrill Peppers had been Cleveland's primary returner for the last two seasons, but he was traded this offseason as the Browns acquired Odell Beckham, Jr. from the Giants. With Peppers out of the picture, Dontrell Hilliard and Antonio Calloway are the top remaining options, though Duke Johnson and Jarvis Landry both have experience as returners and might find that the team can spare them more now that there is a glut of talent on offense around them.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: Greg Robinson, Joel Bitonio, J.C. Tretter, Austin Corbett, Chris Hubbard
Key Backups: Bryan Witzmann, Kendall Lamm, Drew Forbes [R], Eric Kush

Left guard Joel Bitonio is the leader of this unit. He was honored with a selection to the All-Pro second team for his dominant performance last season. The rest of the interior with veteran center J.C. Tretter and second-year right guard Austin Corbett are strong performers. Right tackle Chris Hubbard is more technically sound than left tackle Greg Robinson, but both are still young enough to improve at their trade. Eric Kush and Kendall Lamm are likely the first two players off the bench, and have starting experience. This line returns all five starters from last season and they grade as a mid-tier group, with upside to go higher in the rankings if both tackles and the right guard continue to develop.

Team Defense

The Browns were a top 10 fantasy defense in the first half of the season under Gregg Williams, and they were very consistent at generating takeaways and sacks over the course the season, with few, if any poor efforts. Williams is gone to the Jets and Jabrill Peppers is gone to the Giants, but Steve Wilks is a solid replacement and Peppers helped them land Odell Beckham Jr, who should improve the team and game scripts for an already awakening defense. Add Olivier Vernon and Sheldon Richardson up front, and that should help mask the hole at safety. Opening at home against Marcus Mariota is a good Week 1 play, so the Browns are a viable D/ST choice even before the last round this year.

Defensive Line

Starters: DT Sheldon Richardson, DT Larry Ogunjobi, DE Myles Garrett, DE Olivier Vernon
Backups: DT Trevon Coley, DT Brian Price, DE Carl Davis, DE Chris Smith, DE Chad Thomas, DE Anthony Zettel

Starting DL: As a team the Brown turned the corner and came a long way in 2018. The defense still has room to improve however after ranking 22nd in sacks, 25th versus the pass and 28th against the run. To help the defense catch up with the offense, the organization committed five of their seven draft pick and a lot of other capital to improving their defensive personnel. Free agent pickup Sheldon Richardson is a former first round selection and an excellent addition. He is a stout run defender as well as a pass rush contributor with 23 career sacks in six seasons. Richardson will bump last year's starter Trevon Conley into a backup role and should make a significant impact. Larry Ogunjobi earned a starting job in his second season and made the most of it. He ranked second only to Myles Garrett in both tackles and sacks among the teams linemen. This tandem gives the Browns a pair of powerful and athletic tackles to anchor what should be a significantly improved unit. Myles Garrett looked good as a rookie in 2017 but last season demonstrated why he was worthy of the first overall pick. With 44 combined tackles, 13.5 sacks and 3 forced fumbles he emerged as a force in year two. Garrett should continue to ascend the ranks of the elite in year three, especially considering the improved talent level around him. In 2018 Ogunjobi was second on the team in sacks at five and a half while Emmanuel Ogbah provided just three as the other starting end. The trade for Olivier Vernon gives Cleveland a significant improvement opposite Garrett and could lead to a pair of double digit sack producers in 2019. Vernon is an excellent addition as a three down end who excels as an edge setting run defender while also providing a quality complimentary pass rusher. He has 46 sacks over the last six seasons including double digits in 2013 while with the Dolphins.

Backup DL: The Browns have built a formidable starting group up front but they are not particularly deep. As a former starter Conley gives them as strong third tackle but beyond him there are questions. Brian Price is a third year former undrafted free agent with 19 career tackles. After Price they have no one at tackle with NFL playing. On the outside Cleveland has Anthony Zettel who gained has a few games of starting experience with Detroit due to injuries in 2017. He has 7.5 career sacks over three seasons. Journeyman Chris Smith has 8.5 career sacks while playing with three teams in four seasons. He can contribute as a pass rush specialist but struggles as a run defender. Chad Thomas was a disappointment as the team's third round pick a year ago.

Linebackers

Starters: Christian Kirksey, MLB Joe Schobert, SLB Genard Avery
Backups: MLB Mack Wilson, MLB/OLB Sione Takitaki, OLB Ray-Ray Armstrong, MLB Adarius Taylor

Starting LBs: The Browns are in good shape at the linebacker positions. Joe Schobert emerged as a quality three down starter in 2017. He is both a strong run defender and a play maker with six sacks, four forced fumbles, a pair of recoveries and two picks in 29 games. At 25 years of age Schobert is set to be a cornerstone for the Cleveland defense for a long time. Christian Kirksey was the Browns third round pick in 2014. He became a three down middle backer in 2016 and had two highly productive seasons as a starter. The coaching staff shifted Kirksey to the weak side in 2017 when Schobert emerged. The duo co-existed well and were a near mirror image in both playing style and production. Kirksey battled injuries from the start in 2018 and was ultimately shut down after week nine. He is expected to be healthy for all off season work and should return to form in 2019. The new face in the lineup will be Genard Avery who is set to replace Jamie Collins on the strong side. The 2018 fifth round pick made a strong impression as a rookie. He got on the field in a significant role when Kirksey was shut down, finishing with 40 tackles, 4.5 sacks and a takeaway.

Backup LBs: One sign that an NFL team is a contender is when they start accumulating quality depth at several positions. We will have to see what they look like when the pads go on but on paper Cleveland has made some good investments in linebacker depth. Ray-Ray Armstrong and Adarius Taylor give the unit some experience behind the starters. Neither is a starting caliber player but they are serviceable if called upon for short term relief. Middle backer Mack Wilson was the team's fifth round selection this spring. Most scouts graded the former Alabama linebacker as a possible three down starter at the pro level due to his speed, athleticism and cover skills. Unless there is an injury in front of him, Wilson will likely earn his keep on special teams for now, but should he get on the field it may be hard to get him off it. Wilson may not be the Brown best rookie linebacker. Third round pick Sione Takitaki is a versatile player who could emerge as the top backup at all three linebacker positions. He was somewhat inconsistent at BYU but had a strong senior year statistically. The coaching staff will start him out working with the middle linebackers but Takitaki is expected to see work at all positions as the offseason progresses. If either or both of these youngsters work out, Cleveland will be rock solid at the second level.

Defensive Backs

Starters: SS Morgan Burnett, FS Damarious Randall, CB Denzel Ward, CB Terrance Mitchell, CB Travis Carrie
Backups: S Eric Murray, S Sheldrick Redwine, S Jermaine Whitehead, CB Greedy Williams, CB Phillip Gaines, CB Donnie Lewis, CB Justin Burris

Starting DBs: A combination of injuries and marginal play had the Brown pass defense heading in the wrong direction in 2018. Safety Jabrill Peppers never lived up to his first round draft status, playmaker Terrance Mitchell was lost to injury early in week four and Denzel Ward seemed to hit the rookie wall around mid-season before battling injury in December. Peppers has been replaced be proven veteran Morgan Burnett, Mitchell is healthy, Ward is 100% with a year of experience under his belt and the Browns added another talented cover man in Greedy Williams. With four starter quality corners, a pair of quality safeties and what should be a significantly improved pass rush, Cleveland's should field a formidable pass defense in 2019.

Backup DBs: The Browns have a good mix of talented youth and veteran savvy behind the starters. On the corners Phillip Gaines and Justin Burris have eight NFL seasons between them including some time as a starter for Gaines. Williams slipped to the second round despite being considered a first round talent on many draft boards. If he can prove the doubters wrong, he might be the steal of the draft. Depth at the safety position has also been addressed from two sources. Eric Murray is a veteran free agent addition who saw considerable playing time with the Chiefs over the past two seasons. The Browns then used a fourth round selection on Sheldrick Redwine. The rookie was a playmaker at Miami with 10 turnovers and 3.5 sacks in two years as a starter. He has the potential to become a starter down the road which may be the team's plan. Burnett signed a two year deal but the structure of the contract would make it easy to let him go after this year.

Last modified: 2019-05-24 15:19:09