After an abysmal 1-15 season from the Cleveland Browns in 2016, the Hue Jackson-led team will be looking for significant improvements in 2017.
This season, the Bengals play the Browns in Week 4 at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland and then in Week 12 at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati. Both games are scheduled for 1:00 p.m. ET starts.
We spoke with Dawgs By Nature's Brian Sump to learn about the Browns’ offseason, expectations for the upcoming season and more. First, we have some basic updates on the Browns and below is a more detailed Q&A.
Browns Notable free agent additions: WR Kenny Britt, C J.C. Tretter, RG Kevin Zeitler, CB Jason McCourty.
Contract extensions: OG Joel Bitonio, OLB Jamie Collins, OLB Christian Kirksey.
Notable free agent departures: WR Terrelle Pryor, RT Mitchell Schwartz.
Trades: (Acquired) QB Brock Osweiler
Draft picks expected to contribute as rookies: All three of the team’s first-round picks, DE Myles Garrett, SS Jabrill Peppers, and TE David Njoku, are expected to be starters from day one and players who can re-shape the franchise. Garrett needs to be the disruptor that Cleveland has lacked for so long, Peppers will be used all over the place on defense (and maybe even a little on offense), and Njoku has the athleticism to be the next big thing at tight end in the AFC.
Biggest offseason addition: On the offensive line, the team signed Kevin Zeitler from the Bengals to start at right guard, making him the highest-paid player at his position in the NFL. Promising center J.C. Tretter was signed from the Packers after seeing that Cameron Erving was too much of a liability to anchor the line. Left guard Joel Bitonio received a big contract extension, making him a top-10 paid guard in the NFL. The unit that was just ranked second best in the NFL by Pro Football Focus. The quarterback and wide receiver positions appear to be the team’s biggest question marks, making it all-the-more-important that the running game be a big factor on gameday, and I think we’ll see a very heavy commitment to it by head coach Hue Jackson.
Biggest storyline heading into training camp: As much as we’re tired of it, the quarterback competition between Cody Kessler, Brock Osweiler, and rookie DeShone Kizer will still dominate the headlines. I believe Cleveland’s roster was built to succeed despite the quarterback situation this year, but everyone wants to know if any of those three guys can rise to the occasion and stand out among the rest.
Under-the-radar storyline heading into training camp: Coaching-wise, the team made a change at defensive coordinator, replacing Ray Horton with Gregg Williams. The concept of a labeling a defense as being a 3-4 vs a 4-3 alignment no longer exists under Williams, as he will play multiple fronts. However, the team will lean toward the nickel defense being their base set with four defensive linemen, two linebackers, and five defensive backs. The defense was historically bad at times last year, but the team extended the right players (outside linebackers Christian Kirksey and Jamie Collins), and first-round picks Myles Garrett and Jabrill Peppers have the potential to be game-changing playmakers.
Notable injuries heading into training camp: WR Corey Coleman fell on a football earlier this offseason and is also recovering from hamstring injuries. DE Myles Garrett is recovering from a foot injury. Both players are expected to be ready for training camp, but will be monitored.
Cincy Jungle: What were the best parts of the Browns' offseason?
Brian Sump: The Browns made significant progress reforming their defense this offseason. Having one of the least effective pass rushes in the league last year, they fired their defensive coordinator and hired the notoriously aggressive Gregg Williams. Between the draft and free agency, the Browns added Myles Garrett, Jason McCourty, Jabrill Peppers and Caleb Brantley. Moreover, they also re-signed Jamie Collins, Christian Kirksey and Danny Shelton, providing a stable, youthful core heading into the future.
Cincy Jungle: What were the worst parts of the offseason?
BS: The Browns still failed to address the quarterback position. Maybe this does not necessarily turn out to be 'bad', depending on how the 2017 draft class develops, however yet another year will unfold without a clear vision for the most critical position on the football field. If any of the top 3 quarterbacks in this year's draft develop into something special, they will always be compared to Myles Garrett as the person the Browns chose instead. Additionally, the Browns were unable to deal for any of the top veteran quarterbacks, whether rumors of interest for Jimmy Garoppolo and Kirk Cousins were true or not. Instead, Cleveland essentially bought a second round draft pick by taking Osweiler (and his hefty contract) off Houston’s hands. Quarterback is still a position of great uncertainty for the Browns, one that Jackson has on multiple occasions has suggested needs improvement over the capability of those on the roster.
Cincy Jungle: What do you think of your draft class?
BS: I think the draft was outstanding - Myles Garrett was the consensus #1 pick, and we didn't screw it up. After watching more film on Peppers, he becomes extremely intriguing and fits into the Mark Barron type role that Williams developed with the Rams. While most are familiar with Garrett, Peppers and Kizer, the Browns have some interesting sleeper picks in Larry Ogunjobi, Caleb Brantley and Howard Wilson. I think that this draft has the potential to be fantastic, especially if these players fit into Williams' scheme as much as expected.
Cincy Jungle: What are your expectations for who starts at quarterback this year?
BS: I believe that the competition for starting QB is wide open right now, but if I had to gamble now as to who would start opening day I’d put my money on Brock Osweiler. Osweiler reportedly looked the best through OTAs and has the experience that Kizer lacks, and physical tools not possessed by Kessler. While Osweiler certainly has his own problems, he could be the compromise that allows Jackson to institute his vertical offense without the limited playbook Kizer would initially command.
Though I think Osweiler may be the opening day starter, it would be an unexpected surprise if he were to persist as such throughout the season. My expectations are for Kessler, Osweiler and Kizer all to see starting time due to midseason injuries. Even when our offensive line has been solid, quarterback health has been a consistent issue during the past several years.
Cincy Jungle: What's your expectation for how the team will perform as a whole? Much better than 1-15? A little better?
BS: First, I’d say that last year the Browns played better than a 1-15 team. That’s not to say they weren’t bad – they were – but there were multiple games at the beginning of the season where they really outplayed their opponent, only to lose from some unfortunate circumstance. The best example of this is when Cody Parkey was signed as their kicker 24 hours before they played Miami. He missed three field goals throughout the game, including a potential game-winning attempt in overtime, leading to a very winnable loss. As long as the Browns’ luck returns to average next season, I’d expect the team to earn four to six wins.
Cincy Jungle: What's the strongest position group on the roster?
BS: The offensive line is easily the strongest position on the roster, especially after their strong push in free agency to acquire Zeitler and Tretter. Anchored by perennial Pro Bowler Joe Thomas, the Browns really only have one uncertainty on the offensive line, right tackle. After signing Tretter (C) and Zeitler (OG), and then extending Joel Bitonio (LG), four of the five OL positions are locked in. Shon Coleman, or former first round pick Cameron Erving, should be able to win the RT position to round out what PFF rates as one of the top five offensive lines in the NFL.
Cincy Jungle: How about weakest position group?
BS: Quarterback is easily the weakest position. Without an established starter at the most important position on the field, finding a franchise quarterback is well understood as the greatest priority for bringing the Browns back to respectability.
Cincy Jungle: What's your biggest concern when it comes to the Bengals?
BS: My biggest concern is the Bengals’ passing threat. A.J. Green has always been incredible, but the addition of John Ross and Joe Mixon will add a level of dynamism to the Bengals offense, which was not seen last year. The Browns’ secondary is thoroughly average with an aging (and slowing) Joe Haden and Jamar Taylor expecting to cover the wings. If Mixon can contribute on passing third downs and Tyler Eifert performs to potential, the Browns are going to be hard pressed to put athleticism in all the right places to cover the Bengals’ weapons.
Cincy Jungle: What are your thoughts on Hue Jackson and the direction in which he's taking the team?
BS: I really like Jackson and I think the aggression he is trying to instill in the team is commendable. After so many years of losing, it’s always important to acknowledge the cultural problems that come with a losing record. All indications are that Jackson is handling the situation as well as one can, holding the players accountable while still effectively motivating the team.
You can find my Q&A on the Bengals’ offseason on Dawgs By Nature here.