Cleveland Browns general manager John Dorsey seems to have been playing fantasy football with the team’s roster this offseason. The much maligned Browns have managed to trade for and sign several big ticket names to dramatically overhaul their starting line-up.
The question is now whether this team, which now resembles something out of a Madden fantasy draft, can put together a cohesive, winning product on the field.
An explosive offence?
Last season’s interim offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens is now the permanent head coach. Cleveland therefore pegged ex Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator Todd Monken to take over the offence from Kitchens (though the head coach will still be the offensive play caller).
Nonetheless Monken called the plays in 2018 for the Bucs who ranked first in passing offence and 3rd in total yards/game. He did that with journeyman quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and former first rounder Jameis Winston under center.
Considering the level Baker Mayfield played at last year when he became Cleveland’s starter, Monken must be salivating over this opportunity. As other outlets have reported Monken probably chose this role with the Browns as a way to propel himself back into consideration for a head coaching role next offseason (a la Adam Gase in Chicago). That alone should indicate the changed situation and expectations in Cleveland this year.
The Browns passing game weapons rival if not surpass those in Tampa with the spectacular addition of Odell Beckham Jr to go with his close friend Jarvis Landry and second year wideout Antonio Callaway. Callaway and likely 4th receiver Rashard Higgins showed enough last year to indicate they can still be effective behind the two marquee names in front of them on the depth chart. Callaway put up an average of 13.6 yds/reception and Higgins (14.7 yds/rec).
In addition tight ends David Njoku and Demetrius Harris must be rubbing their hands at the prospect of playing in an offence designed by Kitchens (a former tight ends coach) and Monken given the opportunities provided to Bucs tight ends OJ Howard and Cameron Brate during Monken’s time there.
The running back stable is led by Nick Chubb who managed a superb 996 yds in 9 starts at 5.2 yds/carry last season and will be the bell cow back this year, especially until Kareem Hunt returns following suspension. Pass catching back Duke Johnson also reported to camp despite demands for a trade which will help minimise distractions for the team.
The key weakness is of course the offensive line, especially at tackle. All these weapons count for very little if Mayfield is constantly under pressure. Whilst he has performed well when improvising to evade oncoming pass rushers, that won’t be a sustainable recipe for success over the full season. Could Dorsey explore the trade market to reinforce the perimeter of the O line?
Don’t sleep on the defence…
The defence is also in great shape and returns the majority of its main playmakers from a year ago: interceptions leader Damarious Randall (4 picks); playmaking cornerback Denzel Ward (3 picks); sack artist Myles Garrett (13.5 takedowns) and second leading tackler Joe Schobert (103 combined tackles). The team let leading tackler Jamie Collins leave but the additions to this unit add up more than the subtractions.
Pass rushing defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi is joined by 7th year player Sheldon Richardson who kept himself out of the tabloids in Minnesota. He hasn’t stuffed the stats sheets as he did in the early years of his career in New York with the Jets but is still an effective player as part of a rotation.
Dorsey also added another pass rushing threat opposite Garrett in Olivier Vernon from the New York Giants. That should help open up more opportunities for Garrett and Ogunjobi and is especially important in the AFC North where stunting the Steelers potent passing attack is necessary in order to win the division. That mission will be helped by the collection of talent in the secondary which also added cornerback Greedy Williams from LSU in the second round of the draft, who was once projected as first round pick.
The defensive unit could actually garner more headlines than the offense as the season wears on. The leadership of defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, who was excellent in that role for the Carolina Panthers, is an added boon on this side of the ball.
A major concern is the quality of the depth behind those blue chip starters. Will allocating so many resources to those high priced additions rob Cleveland of the opportunity to add players who don’t represent a significant drop off in talent should OBJ et al get injured? It’s inevitable that at some point the Browns will have to turn to second or even third string players to keep their playoff push going as the physical demands of an NFL season take their toll.
The other area of concern is managing the characters in the locker room. Players like Richardson have a notable past in this regard with off field incidents as does Hunt. Dorsey isn’t afraid of taking a chance on these players but invariably these problems rematerialise, such as with Robert Nkemdiche and Tyreek Hill. Could that derail the Browns season?
More so though, this is a roster with a large collection of big personalities. Can they coexist? Kitchens seems to be the type of guy who can handle this as seen in his press appearances to date and his handling of Mayfield last season. Can he do this for the rest of the roster? He will be aided in that regard by Mayfield who, it has already been noted, has been unafraid of holding his teammates to account during training camp.
Likelihood of making the playoffs: highly probable
Inevitable comparisons will be made to the Eagles ‘Dream Team’ of 2011 which only managed to put together a losing record. However in more recent history John Elway built the Denver Broncos 2016 Super Bowl winning team largely through trades and free agency, so there’s nothing to say Dorsey’s aggressive approach cannot work.
However, predictions of the Steelers demise due to the loss of Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown seem premature as they still have a collection of talent on offence which may thrive even further without off the field turmoil. The Ravens lost a lot of talent on defence this year but always seem to put a formidable team on the field and cannot be discounted as repeat champions in the division.
The Browns are likely to get into playoffs but I’m more cautious in predicting it as a wild card berth rather than as division winners. It may take this team time to gel and it’s going to be difficult for them to live up to the lofty expectations immediately.