Cleveland Browns 2021 Season Recapby Jonas Clark January 15, 2022 1 comment
To say that the Browns missing the playoffs is disappointing is a vast understatement. With deep postseason aspirations, Cleveland (7-9) looked like a true contender for the first 30 minutes of the season. From there, they proceeded to largely struggle the rest of the season. They hardly looked like the team that led the Kansas City Chiefs 22-10 at halftime in Week 1 again.
One of the biggest questions entering the season was how the offense would operate with the re-addition of Odell Beckham Jr. The former All-Pro was released before Week 9 after the team couldn’t find a suitor before the trade deadline. With the bulk of their roster still under contract, including Baker Mayfield under his fifth-year option, Cleveland is poised to run it back. Still, several key players like Jadeveon Clowney are set to enter free agency, while others may not make the talent cut after a down year in 2021.
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What Went Right
For the last five years, one area the Browns have excelled at is the NFL Draft. This season was no different. First-round selection Greg Newsome II held his own opposite Denzel Ward in the secondary as a starter. Andrew Berry grabbing Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah may be the absolute steal of the draft in the second round in years to come. The rookie multi-tool was elite, earning a spot on PFF’s ‘All-Rookie’ team, and would be in the conversation for Defensive Rookie of the Year if it weren’t for Micah Parsons.
This season also saw safety Grant Delpit make his debut after missing all of last season. Another value-pick in the second round, he started the final six games, finishing in place of the injured Ronnie Harrison. It is no surprise that the majority of the bright spots were on defense. The team focused most of their energy on that side of the ball in both the draft and free agency.
What Went Wrong
Last season’s playoff run felt like a dream for Browns fans. With Mayfield’s injury in Week 2, things unraveled over the next month. The reality of the nightmare season, however, ultimately revealed itself. Despite this, they barely missed a shot to win the division as late as Week 16. Still, Cleveland wrapped up the regular season looking as dysfunctional as ever. Concerns about the head coach and the quarterback surfaced as last season’s heroes became this year’s villains. Even reliable players like Nick Chubb and Jarvis Landry on offense made critical mistakes in two of the Browns’ biggest games of the season. That side of the ball in general took a giant step back.
Beyond the inconsistency on offense and defense in 2021, the Browns’ season was largely lost on special teams. Both the starting punter and starting kicker from 2020 didn’t finish the season with the team, and Cody Parkey didn’t even make it through camp. Cleveland’s margin for error to win was already extremely low this year. Failed execution on special teams when the offense was struggling spelled the team’s doom. Needing wins in the final month, two of the Browns’ final three losses can be attributed to the lack of a reliable kicker. One win against either the Green Bay Packers or Las Vegas Raiders could’ve put Cleveland back in trajectory for the playoffs.
Team Award Winners
MVP – Myles Garrett
Great players make those around them better. This season, Garrett did just that, not only for the defense but for the entire team. The additions on defense surrounded the Defensive Player of the Year candidate with the best supporting cast of his career and he didn’t waste it. Garrett’s strip-sack score in Week 14 against the Baltimore Ravens was the first touchdown in his five years in the NFL. The sack earned him the franchise’s single-season sack record with 15 takedowns. What’s more, the second-quarter score was exactly what the Browns needed, giving them just enough to survive Baltimore’s second-half surge. It was no surprise that Garrett earned the third Pro Bowl nod of his career, his second in consecutive seasons. He finished with 16 sacks and 33 quarterback hits.
Offensive Rookie of the Year – Demetric Felton
Cleveland didn’t utilize a lot of rookies on offense as most of their depth chart from last season returned. Still, one of the more exciting pieces was the addition of Felton, a sixth-round hybrid player out of UCLA. Availability helped him edge out Anthony Schwartz, and his level of play was more consistent than offensive lineman James Hudson III. Felton ranked eighth on the team with 181 receiving yards, scoring two touchdowns while catching 18 of his 21 targets. Quarterbacks had a 134.3 passer rating when tossing his way. Playing three positions, it is hard to ask much more from a late-round pick.
Defensive Rookie of the Year – Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah
Cleveland grabbed a pair of defensive studs in the first two rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft in Newsome and Owusu-Koramoah. JOK gets the nod here for the team’s Defensive Rookie of the Year. In 14 games, the rookie out of Notre Dame made 10 starts. He ranked second on the team with 76 combined tackles, three for losses. Owusu-Koramoah was reliable against the pass, holding opposing quarterbacks to a 70.2 rating when targeted. What doesn’t show up on the stat sheet is the speed with which he played. Evidence of it, however, can be found in his 3.7 yards allowed per target. Cleveland practically drafted him as a response to Lamar Jackson in Baltimore. JOK didn’t disappoint, demonstrating blazing closing speed to contain the shiftiest of players.
Biggest Surprise – Mack Wilson
Wilson needed to have a big season in his third year to keep his spot on the roster in Cleveland. The 2019 fifth-round selection had 82 tackles, a forced fumble, and an interception during his rookie season, but regressed greatly in 2020. On the bubble entering training camp, Wilson took a step toward his old production, noticeably improving his tackle percentage from 80 percent in Year 2 to 98 percent this season. With injuries on the depth chart at the position, Wilson was moved around the linebacker corps in his 14 games, recording six starts. In addition to more efficient tackling, he registered career-bests in pass coverage while not allowing a touchdown. Entering the final year of his contract in 2022, Wilson should be with the team in the fall.
Biggest Disappointment – Kevin Stefanski
The bar for Stefanski was set high after a 2020 season that ended with the Browns in the playoffs and helped him earn Coach of the Year honors. Cleveland looked like it was finally turning the corner to be a respectable franchise in the NFL. Instead, the organization relapsed to its old image with the confusion around Mayfield’s injury, and it never got back on the wagon during the season. From players and players’ family members criticizing the staff and players to Peyton Manning and Troy Aikman’s critiques of the offense late in the season, it was a mess. Stefanski will return in 2022, but his seat is already getting warmer. His culture of accountability from his first season needs to return next year to save his job.
One Burning Question
Is Mayfield the Guy?
The Browns burned through 29 starting quarterbacks in 19 seasons before Mayfield made his first start. Cleveland’s key roster pieces are still under contract for the next couple of seasons. That means the title window is still open for the Browns. While the wide receiver depth after the release of OBJ will likely be addressed in the draft and/or free agency, the quarterback position is the key to the team’s ceiling. Mayfield had strong first and third seasons, which could suggest he’s poised to rebound. His fifth-year option was picked up by the Browns last offseason, so he is locked up for 2022. Still, Mayfield is receiving surgery on the torn labrum in his left shoulder, and the offense could still better play to his strengths.
Follow Jonas Clark on Twitter @jarkclonas
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