The Cleveland Browns were a surprise overperformer during the 2020 campaign advancing to the AFC divisional round against the Chiefs. Cleveland did not reach its ultimate goal of winning a Super Bowl but the franchise must walk before it learns to run. If the Browns are to take the next step toward that goal, they will rely on three key factors:
Turnover has inhibited the Browns' franchise for two decades so it would be reckless to understate how important that it is for the team to return all 11 starters from last season. Quarterback Baker Mayfield showed a lot of growth in head coach Kevin Stefanski's system over the course of the year. There was a month of inclement weather in northeast Ohio that not only had a negative impact on his statistics but also contributed to an outside perspective of Mayfield's poor play. One narrative is certain: Mayfield needs a solid season as he states his case for a new contract. The Oklahoma product delivered one of the best rookie campaigns ever seen from a quarterback before understandably stumbling under the guidance of Freddie Kitchens in Year 2.
There is no debate that Cleveland's offense wants to rely on a strong ground presence to take pressure off the quarterback and set up bootleg throws down the field. There is no substitute for having comfort and Mayfield should have that as he enters his second season in a system for the first time in his career. It should be anticipated that new wrinkles are introduced with the return of a healthy Odell Beckham Jr. and the addition of speedy receiver Anthony Schwartz.
Led by offensive line coach Bill Callahan, the unit returns all five starters. They should improve simply from the logged time together and another year in the development of left tackle Jedrick Wills, who moved from right tackle at Alabama. All of these factors, along with the talented Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt and Jarvis Landry, should lead to a higher ceiling for the Cleveland offense in 2021.
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The Browns parted ways with veteran edge rusher Olivier Vernon and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson so there will be some changes to this defense. However, few would argue with the thinking that Malik Jackson, Jadeveon Clowney and Takk McKinley is a net positive from a year ago. Those additions are nice in theory but the biggest impact should be felt in the secondary.
Former second-round picks Greedy Williams and Grant Delpit return from injuries. It is difficult to rely on Williams, who has battled injuries throughout his two seasons in the league. As a result, Cleveland used its first-round pick on Northwestern cornerback Greg Newsome II and signed veteran Troy Hill. The AFC North franchise has suddenly built depth on the back end. In addition to the aforementioned return of Delpit, the team brought in coveted free agent John Johnson III. Delpit and Johnson join last season's starter, Ronnie Harrison, and standout rookie performer Richard LeCounte.
The linebacker spot should be upgraded as well with free agent Anthony Walker, who brings leadership over from Indianapolis, and second-round draft choice Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who has been all over the field during the preseason. All of these defensive additions afford defensive coordinator Joe Woods Jr. the opportunity to deploy his scheme in a way he was unable last season.
Leadership and collaboration
The process of cultivating talent on a roster begins and ends with open collaboration between coaching and the front office. The coaching staff should be able to express the types of players they need to run their system and the traits that they are looking for in those players. The front office should do everything in their power to acquire those skill sets with consideration of the available resources. Over the past two years, general manager Andrew Berry and Stefanski have preached open communication and that has manifested the constructed roster. It is arguably one of the most talented and deepest in the league, but that can change in a hurry if mismanaged. See: 2015 Cincinnati Bengals.
When the right players are in the building, coaching and leadership take over. Stefanski has fostered a fun environment that preaches accountability. He preaches that the strength of the pack is the wolf and the strength of the wolf is the pack. No one individual is greater than the team and its goals. When the Browns were without essentially all of their wide receivers against the Jets due to COVID-19, the team made zero excuses. When Stefanski and starting offensive guard Joel Bitonio were out dealing with COVID-19, the play-calling duties were handed over to offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt and the team registered its first playoff victory since 1995 over the rival Steelers.
The last time the Browns were regarded as a potential Super Bowl contender, owner Art Modell moved them to Baltimore. Proceed with caution, Cleveland.
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