Cleveland Browns 2021 Team Previewby Jonas Clark July 24, 2021 1 comment
Expectations are high for the Cleveland Browns entering the 2021 NFL season, and rightfully so. Albeit a year later than most expected, the Browns’ roster lived up to the hype last season, ending their 18-year playoff drought, despite a third-place finish in the AFC North. Their season, of course, ended in the AFC Divisional Round, failing to overcome Chad Henne and the Kansas City Chiefs, losing 22-17.
The Browns finished 11-5 in the regular season, barely making the postseason where they went 1-1. With a 17-game schedule debuting this year, 11 wins may not be enough. Working in the team’s favor, however, is their third-place schedule. The pressure is on for 2021 Coach of the Year Kevin Stefanski to show these Browns “is the Browns” moving forward.
Make sure to check out all of our other 2021 NFL Team Previews.
Cleveland’s defense drew the ire of fans last season, and rightfully so. At no point did a lead feel secured, and one needs to look no further than the Wild Card Game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. After bursting out to a 28-0 lead in the first quarter, it felt like Cleveland was just hanging on, to win by 11 points, 48-37. The front office was noticeably displeased with the unit as well, focusing most of their assets in the offseason on that side of the ball. Safety John Johnson headlined a free-agency haul that included Troy Hill, Takkarist McKinley, Anthony Walker, and Jadeveon Clowney. Picking up cornerback Greg Newsome II and the versatile Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in the draft was big, too.
In the face of adversity, the rock-steady demeanor of Stefanski was invaluable. That leadership, along with consistency in roster and gameplan are also big reasons why this unit should really take off. For the first time in his professional career, Baker Mayfield is entering a season in the same offense he finished the previous season with. With chemistry and language established, the offense can officially move forward.
Stefanski surely has a few more tricks and wrinkles in his playbook than he showed last year. Expectations are high for Mayfield, and rightfully so, with his rookie contract running out. To earn his deal, he just needs to implement the game plan. The run-game will be the focus, but having Odell Beckham Jr. back along with third-round selection Anthony Schwartz is most interesting.
The front office overhauled last year’s mediocre defense in free agency in the draft. Now it’s up to second-year defensive coordinator Joe Woods to turn his unit around. From Week 1 last year, just four of the 11 starters on defense are returning. Some think the 2019 fifth-round selection, Mack Wilson, may not survive roster cuts this year. On paper, this new unit is stacked and athletically versatile, which has the potential to be scary. Potential is only worth something when it is realized, as has been an issue for players like Greedy Williams, Grant Delpit, and McKinley. Tossing Clowney and even Denzel Ward into that mix, given their injury history, availability of the talent will be a major factor of what the Browns can do.
Predicting the 53 Man Roster
There’s no doubt that Mayfield is the quarterback of the Cleveland Browns. Shining under Stefanski’s guidance in 2020, Mayfield had an excellent season after struggling in 2019. A veteran of Stefanski’s offense, Keenum was on the bench with Mayfield last year, and it would appear that his feedback has served the team well. He’ll once again be the first option behind Mayfield. Health permitting, the Browns should once again not need to carry a third-string quarterback that was a staple of the roster in the past.
One of, if not the most talented backfields in the league, Chubb and Hunt will continue to be interchangeable within the offense. Chubb should once again serve as RB1, getting the rock early to grind out the difficult yards and soften the defenses. While the team spent a sixth-round draft pick on Felton in this spring’s draft, he’ll likely sit fourth in the rotation, contributing mostly on special teams. Johnson, therefore, is the first option for third-string, flashing his potential in last year’s game against Dallas.
FB (1) – Andy Janovich
A disciple of the West Coast offense, Stefanski places high value on running the ball, and a fullback is almost essential. Janovich was active for 16 games with Cleveland last season including the playoffs, missing two mid-season due to Covid-19. His usage wasn’t great and waned deep in the season as the team became less effective rushing the ball.
Beckham’s return is welcome for a team that believes they are better with him; analysts looking at the unit’s success later in the season believe he’s expendable. This is still Landry’s room, however, proving as a reliable and favorite target of Mayfield’s along with Higgins. Peoples-Jones earned a lot of trust in his rookie season and will build upon that. The league grew accustomed to big plays from the Browns’ receivers, and everyone is expecting even more in 2021.
For all of the success that the offense enjoyed last season, the tight end group was the least stable. Signed as the highest-paid player at the position at the time, Hooper put up the lowest numbers since his rookie season in most statistical categories. Fans and coaches will be looking for him to play a bigger part. Bryant was a pleasant surprise, making the all-rookie squad at the position, but had his struggles. The Njoku experience continues to be inconsistent, but he appears bought-in after seeking a trade last year.
The top offensive line in football last season, the Browns return everyone for 2021. Teller’s development at right guard took a big step, while Wills impressed as a rookie. Bitonio, Tretter, and Conklin played like the stars they are (as much as linemen can be stars). With such a physical approach, the Browns’ line is exhausting and prone to injury. As the unit that makes the rest of the offense possible, Hubbard and Harris should be locks to make the 53-man roster. The insurance of Hance feels necessary.
Few teams outside of Washington and San Francisco can boast three first-round picks on their defensive line, let alone two taken first-overall. As Garrett continues his pursuit of a Defensive Player of the Year award, a healthy and effective Clowney and McKinley should help him post some gaudy numbers. Garrett has the freedom to line up where he wants along the line, which can sometimes be on the interior. This and the sometimes limited availability of Garrett and Clowney through their careers means depth is needed.
Jackson’s prime days are behind him. With so much talent around him, the Browns just need consistent play similar to what Sheldon Richardson provided before. Jackson, however, came at a much cheaper price. The Browns will finally get to see what they have in Billings who joined the team last year on a one-year deal. Prior to opting out last season, he was a two-year starter with the Bengals. He and Jackson will be strong mentors for the young Elliott taken in the third round of the 2020 draft.
Losing starter B.J. Goodson from last year hurt, but the addition of Walker was a strong response. A former leader with the Indianapolis Colts, he will play a big part with Cleveland at middle-linebacker, and with former Super Bowl MVP Smith, are the veterans of the unit. Takitaki is likely to be the other starting linebacker on the outside. Owusu-Koramoah and Phillips are young and have the potential to be big playmakers. JOK is the definition of position versatility the Browns want.
The secondary for the Browns was rough at times last year, and the biggest issue is availability. Three years in, former fourth-overall selection Ward has Pro Bowl potential but has yet to play a full season. Likewise, Williams has had injury issues, missing his entire second season last year with continued nerve damage in his shoulder. Newsome could take Williams’ starting spot on the outside, and Hill will serve as the third starting corner in Wood’s defense.
An even bigger signing than Clowney, Johnson is the gem of the Browns’ free-agency class. He’ll likely pair with Harrison as the starting safeties, though Delpit could push Harrison. Another injury in the secondary last season, Delpit missed his rookie season coming out of LSU after tearing his Achilles during camp. He too is a very versatile player and could appear lined up elsewhere.
Infamous for his “double-doink” with the Bears in 2018, Parkey did himself a favor with Cleveland, hitting all eight of his extra point and field goal attempts in the playoffs last season. His play earned him a fresh one-year deal for the coming season. A fan favorite, Gillan will reprise his role with the team as “The Scottish Hammer” returns as the punter. Snapping to both specialists, Hughlett has been the long-snapper for the Browns since 2015 and enters the fourth year of his six-year $6 million contract extension from 2017.
One Player to Add
Per Over The Cap, the Browns still have $20 million in salary-cap space. With contract negotiations for Mayfield, Chubb, and Ward being discussed, how much flexibility the team has is unsure. Still, one area of uncertainty on the team is on the interior defensive line, where a player like Kawann Short could be worth a look. Released by the Carolina Panthers, Short has played just five games over the last two seasons, exiting last season for shoulder surgery. A two-time Pro Bowler, his presence would be a luxury for the Browns. Still unsigned, Short would have serious value somewhere under $5 million for the year.
2021 Outlook & Odds
The Browns are a favorite to win the AFC North, currently sitting at -130 to win at least games 11. Expectations for the team are high for the team that had a shot to upset Kansas City late in the division round of the playoffs. Cleveland showed what the offense could do last year, and that was without the talents of OBJ for most of it. This year, fans and experts will be watching the defense to see if all of the resources pumped into it made a difference. The team’s first pick, Newsome, will be someone to watch, though the most attention will be on JOK. Highly regarded as a top-pick, Cleveland snagged him in the second round.
Season Prediction: 12-5 and Make the Playoffs as a Wild Card Team
Follow Jonas Clark on Twitter @jarkclonas
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