The Cleveland Browns had a fantastic season in 2018, considering that they were fresh off consecutive seasons of 1-15 and 0-16. The Browns finished 7-8-1 and were in a position to win a few more games. The astonishing turnaround included trading troubled wide receiver Josh Gordon, the firings of the head coach and offensive coordinator, and the emergence of the nucleus of the team in Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb, who was a second-round steal while rushing for 996 yards and 8 touchdowns, and first-rounder Denzel Ward, who was voted to the Pro Bowl in his rookie season.
The Browns are no longer the punchline to every NFL joke. The playoffs are not out of reach next season, and their offense was trending with Mayfield finally ending the exhaustive yearly search for their franchise quarterback. Following the dismissals of Hue Jackson and Todd Haley after Week 8, Gregg Williams took over as interim head coach. When he took
over the team, they were 2-5-1. Along with Williams’ promotion, Freddie Kitchens was promoted from running backs coach to interim offensive coordinator.
The Williams/Kitchens combo guided the Browns to a 7-8-1 record, which is a 5-3 record under their right direction. Mayfield developed immensely under Kitchens racking up a 19:8 touchdowns to interceptions ratio with Kitchens in charge. Also, the first overall pick ended up with a 106.2 passer rating and 27 passing touchdowns, passing Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson’s rookie campaigns. His 93.7 passer rating was the seventh-highest ever for a rookie starter.
There was immense speculation on whom the Browns were going to hire as their next head coach. General Manager John Dorsey interviewed several candidates outside of the organization including former Detroit Lions head coach Jim Caldwell, New Orleans Saints tight end coach Dan Campbell, Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, as well as former Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy.
The best candidate for the head coaching job was already there in Kitchens, who was hired to be their 18th head coach in the team’s history. The offense’s jump he provided along with his bromance with Mayfield helped give the answers as to why Dorsey decided to hire the first-time ever head coach.
The times are changing in Cleveland. There is a new attitude. A swag if you will. The Land is buzzing about Baker and the dan6erous Browns.“I am never happy,” Dorsey said. “We are 7-8-1. That is an accomplishment from where we have come from, but our goal is to be competitive in the AFC North year in and year out. “You reflect back on what got us here. Then what you set those goals high for next year.. pick up where you left off in 2018 and dare to set your expectations high. Why not?”
What are the Browns most significant needs?
The Browns need to keep the momentum going so they can’t rest on last season’s accomplishments. Let’s dive in and visit the five most critical positions that need an upgrade.
Offensive Line: The offensive line allowed the fewest quarterback hits in the second half of the season in the NFL. Despite that, there is work to do, and their main issues are seen at each of the tackle positions. Robinson had the best season of his career but remains challenging to trust long-term despite his solid showing in the second half of 2018. Right tackle Chris Hubbard had a mediocre season at best and may not return. The biggest goal of the offensive line will be to protect Mayfield. They need to assure themselves that they can solidify the offensive line in front of their star quarterback.
Interior Defensive Line: The Browns ranked 26th in the NFL in team rush defense last season. They allowed 135.2 rushing yards per game and an average of 4.7 yards per carry. Adding a defensive tackle or two should be one of the biggest priorities in either free agency or the draft.
Linebacker: Can we please see Jamie Collins not play for the Browns any longer? He gets paid like one of the best but plays like one of the worst. The lack of speed was fairly evident in their inability to cover tight ends and of course, their struggles against the run.
Edge: The Browns have good starters in former first overall pick Myles Garrett and Emmanuel Ogbah. However, there is a need to find another effective edge rusher or two to rotate edge rushers throughout the game.
Wide Receiver: Mayfield needs more offensive weapons. The next step of his development coincides with building up the talent at the skill positions. Adding to the wide receiver position will allow the offense to open up and provide multiple opportunities in the explosive Browns offense.
Browns players set to hit the market in free agency
According to Spotrac, the Cleveland Browns will have the fourth most cap space in the league in 2019, trailing only the Indianapolis Colts, New York Jets, and Buffalo Bills. Cleveland will have roughly $75 million in cap space. Dorsey can considerably improve a team that was already the most improved in 2018.
The Browns do not have any free agents that are part of their core. Of the remaining players, only two played more than 40 percent of the snaps on offense or defense. Here are three current free agents that the Browns should resign for the 2019 season (in order of importance):
Greg Robinson, LT: Robinson was a free agent signing last offseason who lost out on the starting left tackle spot in training camp. He played in eight games for the Browns as the starting left tackle. According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed 1 sack, 0 quarterback hits, and 19 total pressures. He played well enough to validate his opportunity to compete next season. Mayfield loved him, so you know he will probably be back next season in some capacity.
Breshad Perriman, WR: Perriman signed with the Browns in Week 6 and finished the season with 16 receptions for 340 yards and 2 touchdowns while emerging as a vertical threat. The former 2015 first-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens looked like a rejuvenated receiver with the Browns. He still has a bright future in the league. Expect Perriman to be a Brown next season.
Rashard Higgins, WR: Higgins worked his way back up from the practice squad. In 2018, he caught 39 passes, which were the third-most among Browns receivers while hauling in 4 touchdowns. Higgins mentioned that he wanted to stay there and is fired up thinking about being involved in Kitchens’ offense. Look for Higgins to sign relatively quickly.
Who should the Browns target in Free Agency?
The Browns most significant needs are in the trenches and at receiver. With plenty of room under the salary cap, the Browns can pick and chose whom they want.
Let’s take a look on whom I want the Browns to sign in free agency:
Sheldon Richardson, Defensive Tackle, (Minnesota Vikings): The Vikings do not have much cap flexibility after signing quarterback Kirk Cousins last season. Sheldon Richardson would be a perfect fit at a position that is probably the Browns biggest need, defensive tackle.
With the Vikings last year, Richardson started all 16 games and racked up 49 tackles (six for a loss), 16 quarterback hits, and 4.5 sacks. He also finished with the second-most quarterback pressures of any Vikings defender in 2018. He was a part of a Minnesota defense in 2018 that ranked eighth in the league in yards allowed per carry.
Za’Darius Smith, EDGE, (Baltimore Ravens): Smith picked the perfect time to have a career season. He hits free agency after registering a career-high 8.5 sacks last season. The Browns need to emphasize getting to opposing quarterbacks with their front four defenders. Additionally, they need another edge rusher to complement Garrett on the other side. Of course, it’s a bonus to weaken a divisional opponent by taking away one of their up-and-coming pass-rushers.
Chris Conley, Wide Receiver, (Kansas City Chiefs): The Browns need a receiver to stretch the field, and Dorsey knows one that can help the team in Chris Conley. Dorsey drafted Conley in the third round in 2015 during his tenure with the Kansas City Chiefs. At 6’3″, 205, he has size and is a dynamic athlete. Kitchens should be able to find plenty of ways to use Conley in the Browns’ offense next season.
Josh McCown, Quarterback, (New York Jets): This selection might come as a bit of a surprise, but I believe that McCown would be a fantastic addition to the Browns’ roster this season. The former Brown would be a great asset in assisting with the development of Mayfield. His experience is basically like adding another coach and will be a great mentor for Baker.
Robbie Gould, Kicker, (San Francisco 49ers): The Browns have suffered long-running kicking issues, and Greg Joseph is not the answer. Joseph missed four extra points last season, which is not acceptable. Cleveland needs a veteran kicker to solidify the position as the team improves. They should look at veteran kicker Robbie Gould. He made 33-of-34 field goal attempts including 6-of-6 from beyond 50 the past two seasons.
The Cleveland Browns 2019 NFL Draft
The Browns are not familiar with picking so late in the first round, but I am fairly confident that they are not complaining. As the Browns attempt to build on the momentum from last season, they look to the draft to fill in the remaining holes on the team. Here is what I believe the Browns should do with their first four picks:
Round 1 – Pick #17 | Christian Wilkins, Defensive Lineman, Clemson
Wilkins is an impressive athlete and has displayed the ability to play multiple positions across the defensive line. His motor and toughness would be a great addition to a defensive line that needs improvement.
Round 2 – Pick #49 | Amani Oruwariye, Cornerback, Penn State
The Browns struck gold in picking Ward in the first round in last year’s draft. Now the Browns are looking for a tag-team partner for Ward. Oruwariye is a lengthy player and plays physical and can match up to the bigger receivers in the NFL.
Round 3 – Pick#80 | Yodny Cajuste, Offensive Lineman, West Virginia
Cajuste has superior agility for a big man of 321 lbs. He has a nasty attitude that could work well as a guard. He is also known as a punishing run blocker.
Round 3 – Pick#95 | Parris Campbell, Wide Receiver, Ohio State
Campbell has an NFL body and is one of the fastest players at wide receiver. He is very effective with gaining yards after the catch. He has a high football IQ that allows him to display his excellent route running ability. Campbell would be an excellent weapon for Kitchens to help open up the field.
Believe it or not, the Browns are on the brink of being a playoff team. The growth of the offense led by Mayfield and the relationship between him and Kitchens should grow and prosper this season. With Dorsey filling the holes with the fourth-most cap space and a city craving a winning team, the city of Cleveland has something to cheer for by Lake Erie. When is the last time you heard that?