Cleveland has been a city associated with playoff success in recent years. A city which has fond memories of the Believeland years during Lebron’s second coming with the Cavaliers; a city whose baseball team is currently sitting with the longest World Series Championship drought in history, yet still brings hope after a Fall Classic return in 2016 and setting the MLB winning streak record in 2017; a city whose football team has spent the better part of the last two decades as the NFL laughing stock. Could 2018 finally be the year the Browns make Cleveland believe.
Offensive Identity Found
Last year’s Cleveland Browns offense was led by 3 different Quarterbacks across the course of the season. Those 3 quarterbacks combined for a total of 8 starts prior to the 2017 season, all 8 of those belonging to 3rd string QB Cody Kessler. Going into the 2018 season, the Browns QB room features a 7th year veteran with playoff experience in Tyrod Taylor, a 10-year vet career backup in Drew Stanton and the reigning Heisman trophy winner and first overall pick in Baker Mayfield.
The importance of the Quarterback position in football can never be stressed enough, hence why 3 of the top 5 base salaries in 2018 belong to Quarterbacks’ and the other 2 belong to pass rushers. For the first time since operations resumed in 1999, the Browns appear to have some form of stability at the QB position and a long term plan in place.
Quarterback isn’t the only position which has been strengthen in Cleveland. Both Wide Receiver and Running back have received a massive upgrade with the Browns offseason acquisitions of Jarvis Landry and Carlos Hyde and the drafting of Antonio Callaway and Nick Chubb. Callaway, a first-round talent with off-the-field issues, has been a pre-season standout for the Browns and along with Jarvis Landry, the Browns could have one of the better receiving tandems in the league. The Browns could potentially find themselves in possession of one of the NFL’s best offensive unit’s this season as another player known for his off the field issues has claimed to of turned his life around and is return to return to the elite level he showed before. That man is another Browns receiver, Josh Gordon.
If everything does click for this Browns offense, then they will be a force to be reckoned with in 2018. Landry was a top 5 receiver last season and Gordon has shown he has elite talent in his locker. Combining that with first round talent of tight end David Njoku and back field trio of Hyde, Chubb and Duke Johnson, Tyrod Taylor (or Baker Mayfield) will have plenty of weapons at his disposal as the Browns look to improve from having the league’s worse offense in terms of points for.
Strength and Depth on Defense
The Browns ranked 31st on defense in terms of points against however they ranked 14th in the league in terms of yards given up. These statistics highlight the Browns inability to score points offensively. Their offense also led the league in turnovers, which often gave the opposition short field situations to work with. That isn’t to say that all the Browns issues defensively came from their offense. The Browns defense was last in the league in 2017 for turnovers and inside the bottom 10 for both passing and rushing touchdowns. If you don’t have a recognised defensive strength, you can’t game plan a way to force your opposition to play to your strengths.
It is easy to claim that the Browns defense lacked the genuine talent required to compete at a high-level last year and the team statistics would back up that argument. That is not actually the case however. Myles Garrett was an All-Rookie selection and the linebacking trio of Joe Schobert, Christian Kirksey and James Burgess were all top 50 ranked defenders. It’s also worth noting that Schobert and Kirksey played every single defensive snap in 2017. A lack of depth at the line-backer position in Cleveland ultimately impacted the Browns defence. The Browns have addressed this by adding free agent Super Bowl champion Mychael Kendricks to the line-backer group.
Another player who perhaps suffered from a lack of rotation was Jabrill Peppers. Peppers played a mix of line-backer and strong safety at Michigan, as well as running back. Peppers role in his rookie season was different entirely, he played in a much deeper safety role, underutilising his skill set. He played over 95% of snaps in 11 of the 16 games last season as well as being the teams primary returner on special teams. Early signs for 2018 show that the Browns intend to use Peppers much closer to the LOS and utilise his big play ability more effectively.
So how does all this add up to a team going from 0-16 to a genuine playoff contender? Reflecting on 2017 season does provide a lot of optimism for Browns fans. 6 of their 16 losses last season were games they lost by just one score, including two of those going to overtime. 3 of the other 10 games the Browns lost were games that they were still within one score heading into the 4th quarter. The aforementioned improvements in offensive leadership and experience, coupled with the improvements made to depth on defense at key positions should be all the Browns need to avoid these late game collapses.
Highlighting one game, week 15 against the Chicago Bears. The score at half time was 3-6 in favour of the Bears. The Bears would score an unanswered 14-0 second half to seal a 20-3 win. Offensive turnovers contributed massively to the Browns failure to score second half with both a fumble and an INT. Looking at the snap counts for that game and the Brown’s 3 starting LB’s played every snap on defense, as well as playing snaps on special teams, starting free safety in that game Jabrill Peppers played every single defensive snap and nearly half of the special teams snaps.
Looking ahead to 2018, the Browns have addressed depth at multiple positions defensively and have a calmer, more experience signal caller under centre. That added depth and experience will help lead this eliminating late game collapses on both sides of the ball. Adding those two things to last season could of hypothetically resulting in 10 game which the Browns won, instead of lost. 10-6 would have been a wildcard worthy record. With added depth, experience and talent, and another year of learning under coach Hue Jackson, there is no reason why the Browns can’t put together a 10-6 season or better in 2018.
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