For the most part, the Cleveland Browns have hit the nail on the head, but there are still a few decisions that could haunt the team in 2020.
For years many fans have thought the best thing that could happen to the Cleveland Browns is for owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam to sell the team. No one doubts that the Haslam’s want to win in Cleveland, but there is reason to believe that they are less than average owners. Year after year it feels like the Browns are searching for a new general manager and head coach, and year after year Browns fans are disappointed.
For the younger generation, there is likely no bigger disappointment than the 2019 season. Yes “the drive” and “the fumble” were catastrophic in the late ’80s, but at least the team was winning games. Since 1999 the Browns have had 30 starting quarterbacks, two winning seasons, and one playoff appearance (loss).
In 2018, rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield brought hope to the city as the team appeared to turn the corner after getting their first win following an 0-16 season in 2017. After the spark in 2018, all was lost the following season with a lack of leadership from head coach Freddie Kitchens. Even with the addition of Odell Beckham, Olivier Vernon, and Sheldon Richardson, the Browns struggled to move the football on offense and couldn't stop anyone on defense.
So far in 2020 it feels like the team finally doing all the right things. First, they hired the youngest general manager in the league in Andrew Berry. Berry has brought in a tremendous amount of talent thus far and has done so with team-friendly contracts. Second, the Browns brought in a tremendous head coach in Kevin Stefanski. Yes, Stefanski is a first-year head coach, but he has mentored multiple quarterbacks to career years and runs a scheme that should be helpful in rebounding Mayfield’s career.
Although the team appears to finally be headed in the right direction, they must prove it on the field. There are no rings for offseason champions. No team is perfect, and while the Browns have had a tremendous offseason, let’s look at a few decisions that will likely go down as mistakes.
3. Accepting fifth-year option on tight end David Njoku
With the addition of pro-bowl tight end Austin Hooper in free agency, many were surprised that the Browns decided to pick up the fifth-year option of David Njoku. Stefanski has been vocal that you can never have enough tight ends, but with all the offensive weapons on the Browns roster, it remains to be seen if there will be enough targets to keep Njoku motivated.
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Njoku had a solid rookie year with 32 receptions, 386 yards, and four touchdowns. He followed that up in year two with 56 receptions, 639 yards, and another four touchdowns.
Many expected a huge year for Njoku in 2019, but an unfortunate injury early in the season would never allow him to get on track. In four games last year, Njoku had five catches for only 41 yards, however, one of those catches was for a touchdown.
To this point, Njoku has been a great team player, but he doesn’t appear to be a great fit in the Stefanski scheme. One of Hooper’s bright spots is his ability to block, which Stefanski needs in his wide zone scheme. Njoku has become a great pass-catching tight end but is a well below average inline blocker. Obviously, there is a chance the Njoku will accept the challenge and improve his blocking while being an important part of the offense as the second tight end.
The fear here is that with limited targets, Njoku will become frustrated and only become a piece that the Browns are trying to trade in 2020. Njoku has been a solid performer but doesn’t appear he will live up to the first-round pick the Browns spent on him in 2017.
With a fully guaranteed salary of over $6 million in 2021, Njoku could be tough to get rid of and will be an expensive asset if injured or frustrated with his role. It felt like the right move was to cut ties after 2020.
2. No strong additions at linebacker
Fans love Mack Wilson at linebacker, but the film shows there is still much improvement needed to become a solid NFL linebacker. For a fifth-round pick, let’s not complain and chalk it up as a win. However, I’m not sure the same can be said for the rest of the linebacking core.
Wilson, Sione Takitaki, B.J. Goodson, and rookie Jacob Phillips look to carry the load in the 2020 season with a few others on the depth chart that will be limited to special teams. Of the four, Wilson is the only that has been an every-down player.
Takitaki comes into year two with limited field experience but high expectations. Goodson has been in the league four seasons and is known as a run stopper but has never had more than 44 tackles in a season. Phillips is a rookie third-round pick who could get thrown into action early much like Wilson last year because of the lack of talent.
Defensive coordinator Joe Woods has already shared that he wants to utilize the dime package which requires only two linebackers on the field. After troubles stopping the run last season fans are nervous it will be a reoccurring issue in 2020.
Maybe Takitaki and Wilson will each take huge progressions from year one to year two, but at this moment it is a glaring weakness. Analytical regimes may not value the linebacker position, but you must have someone who can get the team lined up properly.
There is still time for Berry to sign a guy like Nigel Bradham or a veteran who gets cut before final rosters, but at this moment Berry seems committed to the group they have. The defensive line (assuming no injuries) is strong enough to hide the position at times, but one of these guys is going to have to have a breakout year for the Browns to be successful on defense.
1. Release of two key locker room leaders
Perhaps the biggest mistake of the Browns offseason is the departure of two key veterans Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey. While both these guys were apart of the current weakest position for the Browns, their leadership will be missed more than anything.
Kirksey was drafted by the Browns in 2014 and started to come into form in 2016. After 138 tackles in the 0-16 season of 2017, Kirksey struggled to stay healthy. He played seven games in 2018 and only two games last season. The Browns attempted to restructure his contract, but Kirksey’s market was hot enough he would eventually be released and sign with the Green Bay Packers.
Kirksey had the heart of many fans and always supported the town of Cleveland like it was where he was born and raised. Financially, letting Kirksey go was the right move, but the locker room will miss his presence. A second-year player like Wilson or a rookie like Philips could learn so much from Kirksey and what it takes to be an NFL linebacker.
Joe Schobert was a great football player on two very bad Brown’s teams. In 2017 Schobert led the NFL in tackles with 144 and made his first Pro-Bowl. He missed three games in four seasons with the team and was the only reason Wilson was able to get lined up most of last season. Schobert led by example and not with his mouth, but sometimes those are the best leaders.
Again, financially it would have been tough to sign Schobert to a deal like Jacksonville was willing to give him. But, if Dorsey would have been active during the middle of the 2019 season, the Browns could have extended Schobert a year or two at his $10 million asking price.
Keeping one of these fan favorites would have been so beneficial for the younger players on the team and made the linebacking core much stronger. In a perfect world, a two-year extension with Schobert would have been the best option because of Kirksey’s health concerns. Look for Baker Mayfield and Denzel Ward to step up as leaders as they enter their third year in the league.