The Browns spent the start of their offseason plugging some of their biggest holes.
After allowing Baker Mayfield to be sacked 40 times last season, Cleveland picked up one of the best tackles on the market by signing Titans standout Jack Conklin. Austin Hooper received the richest deal for a tight end, giving Mayfield another proven playmaker and another blocker in the run game.
Case Keenum joined the fold in case anything happens to the third-year quarterback. Keenum, who had a career year under the tutelage of Kevin Stefanski in 2017, reunites with his one-time Vikings QB coach. In January, Stefanski arrived to take the reins from an overmatched Freddie Kitchens as head coach.
The Browns have made a handful of moves that should inspire hope in a young roster. Now they have to try to avoid the fruitless fate that followed so many similar offseasons in Cleveland.
The Browns have made smart moves in the past, only to harvest nothing from them
In 2017, the Browns made enough offseason changes for me to open an analysis of their signings and draft picks with this line:
The Cleveland Browns will improve in 2017. After a 1-15 season, they have few other options.
Somehow, some way, I was wrong. Cleveland became the first team in NFL history to win one game and then get worse the following year. All this happened despite adding Myles Garrett, Larry Ogunjobi, David Njoku, and Kevin Zeitler. Without a franchise QB in tow and still under the leadership of Hue Jackson, the Browns went 0-16.
That led to more changes that seemed to be a step in the right direction. Mayfield and Tyrod Taylor arrived in 2018 to stabilize the passing offense. Jarvis Landry and Carlos Hyde followed. Four selections in the first 35 picks of that draft brought the promise of instant, low-cost starters like Nick Chubb and Denzel Ward.
But Jackson wasn’t fired until he struggled through a 2-5-1 start. While the Browns recovered over the latter half of the season, 2018 was another lost campaign — albeit one that ended with an overarching sense of confidence. Cleveland finished the year with a 5-3 record as Mayfield looked like a franchise quarterback. For the first time in recent memory, the Browns were favored to win the AFC North.
The team hired Kitchens, the interim offensive coordinator who made his QB a rookie of the year candidate, then traded for Odell Beckham Jr. to lead the receiving corps. Olivier Vernon came with him to provide an important counterpunch to Garrett’s pass rushing. Sheldon Richardson and Morgan Burnett were added to buttress a young, talented defense with veteran help. Expectations, again, were high.
The first-year coach was overwhelmed from Day 1. The Browns played sloppy — they gave away more than 1,100 yards in penalties — and Mayfield regressed. The defense failed to gel. Garrett missed the last six games due to a high-profile suspension. Kitchens followed up his preseason hype with six wins and was fired at the end of the year. Instead of winning the division, the Browns missed the playoffs for the 17th straight season.
So here we are, once again staring down a pretty good offseason haul and stoking the embers of the continuously smoldering landfill fire that is Cleveland optimism. The Browns have made fans pay time and time again for daring to dream, no matter how savvy their spring moves look. Will 2020 just be the latest link in a depressing chain?
Why 2020 could be different
Cleveland’s recent failures have been rooted in the team’s inability to cultivate a franchise QB. Hiring Stefanski gives the Browns an innovator who helped coach Keenum and Kirk Cousins to career-best performances in Minnesota. He’ll have an excellent opportunity to do the same with Mayfield.
Two key signings will also aid in what the Browns hope is Mayfield’s bounce-back year. After getting sacked entirely too often and getting only 41 receptions (and just a 59 percent catch rate) across five different tight ends, the third-year QB has reinforcements to rely on up front.
Conklin is the type of player who can provide above-average blocking at a vital spot. While his play has dipped after two stellar seasons to open his career, he can be a sigil of stability for a team in desperate need of leadership.
Hooper has never started more than 10 games in a season over a four-year career, but he’s coming off back-to-back Pro Bowl trips. In those two years, his per-16-game average pegged him around 80 catches, 800 yards, and six touchdowns. More importantly, he’s caught nearly 79 percent of his targets since 2018. He’s getting paid to be a trusted safety valve when defenses zero in on Landry and Beckham.
Conklin and Hooper are the headliners, but they aren’t the only new faces who could spur change.
Signing Karl Joseph is the latest fix for a hole at safety. Jabrill Peppers, who was supposed to be the guy, was traded to New York in the Beckham deal. Damarious Randall was solid after converting from corner to safety, but he missed a good chunk of last season due to a torn Achilles and is now a free agent. Even if Joseph hasn’t been especially consistent in his career, he fills a need for a middling pass defense.
Andrew Billings regressed last season in Cincinnati, but was an underrated piece in the center of the Bengals’ defensive line in 2018. Veteran defensive end Adrian Clayborn hasn’t stood out the past two seasons, though he can still bring a rotational edge-rushing presence. Former first-round pick Kevin Johnson was quietly solid as a rotational corner for the Bills in 2019 and may finally be hitting his stride at 27 years old. They’ll all help.
Then there’s the draft, where Cleveland will have four of the top 97 picks, including the 10th overall selection. This year’s class of prospects is heavy on big, athletic blockers and ballhawk defensive backs. It shouldn’t be difficult for the Browns to land a difference-maker at left tackle and safety come April.
Of course, expecting anything good for the Browns has proven to be folly. Even when the team makes good decisions, they seem to go nowhere.
But 2020 could be the year that changes. Stefanski’s arrival may mark the dawn of a new era. The Browns spent another offseason propping up Mayfield and making necessary improvements on both sides of the ball. Now they’ve got to churn that potential into production if they’re ever going to escape the endless cycle that’s kept them from sniffing the playoffs.