2016 Record: 1-15; 4th AFC North
Head coach: Hue Jackson (Browns W/L: 1-15, Career W/L: 9-23)
EVP of Football Operations: Sashi Brown
Key ins: WR Kenny Britt Rams; QB Brock Osweiler Texans; C/G JC Tretter Packers; WR James Wright Bengals; G Kevin Zeitler Bengals
Key outs: G Alvin Bailey; QB Robert Griffin III; WR Andrew Hawkins; S Tracy Howard; QB Josh McCown; DT Stephen Paea; G Austin Pasztor; S Jordan Poyer; WR Terrelle Pryor Sr; DB Tramon Williams
Draftees: R1 (1) DE Myles Garrett, Texas A&M; R1 (25) S Jabrill Peppers, Michigan; R1 (29) TE David Njoku, Miami; R2 (52) QB DeShone Kizer, Notre Dame; R3 (65) DT Larry Ojunjobi, North Carolina Charlotte; R4 (126) CB Howard Wilson, Houston; R5 (160) T Roderick Johnson, Florida State; R6 (185) DT Caleb Brantley, Florida; R7 (224) K Zane Gonzalez, Arizona State; R7 (252) RB Matt Dayes, NC State
Hue Jackson now knows what rock-bottom looks like. Even for a franchise that hasn’t strung winning seasons together since Marty Schottenheimer’s last and Bud Carson’s first (of one and a bit!) in 1988 and ’89, 2016 was rough. A franchise low of a 1-15 record (1999’s 2-12 was the previous worst) in his first year as Browns boss would have confirmed the task in front of him.
The former London Monarchs running backs coach inherited a roster that was promptly shorn of starters Mitchell Schwartz, Travis Benjamin, Tashaun Gipson and Alex Mack on the first day of free agency 2015. Donte Whitner and Karlos Dansby, would be cut later and, to the relief of Browns fans, Johnny Manziel and Dwayne Bowe also exited left.
Chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta, EVP of football operations Sashi Brown and Jackson purged the roster, set about accumulating draft picks, took their lumps through the 2016 season and, in January, were able to roll over $50.1 million of cap space into this season (only Jacksonville and San Francisco topped $30m).
They used some of that in an aggressive trade for Houston Texans’ unwanted quarterback Brock Osweiler. The QB wasn’t the bounty, the Browns sent a fourth-round pick in the opposite direction and got a 2017 sixth-rounder and next year’s second-rounder. Writing off the ex-Bronco’s $16m salary, if he was later released or traded, was deemed worth it for the extra pick in 2018.
After OTAs in May, Jackson described Osweiler as a “pleasant surprise” and “outstanding” and the competition between him and Cody Kessler (who went 0-8 as Browns starter in 2016) will be keenly watched in training camp. Joining them in the quarterback room is the mobile, big-armed rookie from Notre Dame, DeShone Kizer, who has drawn physical comparisons to Steve McNair. The rookie isn’t expected to start, but then neither was Dak Prescott, so never say never.
There’s no Ezekiel Elliot coming through the doors any time soon though. Leading rusher in 2016 was Isaiah Crowell, who ran for 952 yards, the highest total since Peyton Hillis topped 1,000 yards in 2010 [makes tank noises].
Crowell made the starting role his own last year, scoring seven touchdowns and going over 100 yards four times. Second-year man Duke Johnson Jr accumulated over a 1,000 all-purpose yards and the coaching staff will be looking to get him more touches in his third season. North Carolina State rookie Matt Dayes, who has catching ability and rushed for 10 scores last season, could end up contributing.
Over 130 receptions and 1,600 yards left Ohio in the offseason – Terrelle Pryor, who completed his journey from QB to legit wide receiver, signed with Washington and 31-year-old tight end Gary Barnidge was cut. Pryor’s replacement comes in the form of Kenny Britt, who himself had a personal best season with the circus that was the LA Rams. Britt, who has avoided major injury for the last three seasons will be expected to provide the big plays for whoever’s behind centre.
Barnidge burst on to the scene (and into many a fantasy team) with a Pro Bowl 2015 season that saw him grab nine scores and 1,043 yards on 79 receptions but in 2016 his output dropped to two TDs and 612 yards. David Njoku averaged 16.2 yards a catch at the University of Miami last year and the Browns traded back into the first round to grab him. The athletic 6ft 4in tight end will be expected to start from the off.
The offensive line gave up 66 sacks for the 31st scoring team in the NFL last year, a team record, so steps were taken to bolster that unit in the offseason. On the first day of free agency, the best available guard, Kevin Zeitler, was grabbed from AFC North rivals Cincinnati and centre JC Tretter signed from Green Bay. They’ll team with Joel Bitonio, who was rewarded with a five-year extension in the offseason, and stalwart left tackle Joe Thomas, who hasn’t missed a snap (or a Pro Bowl) in his 10 years in Cleveland.
Jackson’s second year brings a second defensive coordinator. Ray Horton’s unit finished 30th in points allowed and was replaced by the abrasive Gregg Williams, currently to be seen swearing profusely on All Or Nothing. Williams has a reputation as an in-your-face coach (remember Bountygate) and has already questioned cornerback Joe Haden’s toughness. Haden went to the Pro Bowl in 2014 but has had two injury-plagued seasons since. Clearly Williams doesn’t plan to coddle the talented corner.
Overall No1 pick DE Myles Garrett joins a defense that has talented parts other than Haden and the aggressive defensive coordinator won’t hesitate to unleash him on opposing quarterbacks. Linebacker Jamie Collins, who came by way of a midseason trade with New England last year, can also get after the QB. Christian Kirksey inside is a non-stop player who led the team in tackles last season.
On the line, second-year defensive tackle/nose tackle Danny Shelton was fifth on the team in stops and end Emmanuel Ogbah started all 16 games as a rookie, grabbing six sacks, a team high. Rookie tackle Larry Ojunjobi came in the third round and he’ll be joined in the rotation by 2015 leading sacker, end Desmond Bryant, who missed the whole of 2016.
An intriguing piece will be Jabrill Peppers, Michigan’s do-it-all defender, a DIAD if you will. The 6ft 1in 205-pounder played safety and linebacker in college but also added five rushing touchdowns on offense and a punt return TD in his Wolverine career. Described as a bigger version of Arizona’s Tyrann Matthieu, Peppers will inject excitement into the Browns’ special teams and be moved around on defense to exploit his wide skill set.
Also entering the Browns’ defensive backfield is Calvin Pryor, who Cleveland swapped for Demario Davis with the Jets. Pryor is only three years removed from being the 18th overall pick in the 2014 Draft but fell out of favour with Todd Bowles in the Big Apple. The big-hitter will get a fresh start in Ohio and fits well with Williams’ desire to bully and intimidate opponents.
Rookie kicker Zane Gonzalez (is that a record for number of Zs in a name?) will battle Cody Parkey for the kicking job in camp. Britton Colquitt of The Fabulous Punting Colquitts (brother Dustin (Chiefs), dad Craig and uncle Jimmy all punted in the NFL) had his best season since 2012.
Jackson has always been able to talk the talk and his players love to play for him and after 2016, the only way is up.