The Cleveland Browns have been the laughing stock of the NFL since their return to the league in 1999. With two fluke winning seasons in 2002 (with the only playoff appearance in the team’s return) and 2007 (barely missing out on the playoffs despite a 10-6 record), the team has been haunted by a never ending curse of bad/washed out quarterbacks, inept front offices, poor coaching, and a focus on washed up veterans that provide “potential leadership” instead of embracing a full rebuild.
In 2016, that changed.
When Sashi Brown took over as the general manager, he wasted no time in establishing his presence, letting tackle Mitchell Schwartz, center Alex Mack, and WR Travis Benjamin walk to the Chiefs, Falcons and Chargers respectfully. Browns fans had ripped this move, but in the long run it actually paid off. Allowing the two linemen and receiver to walk freed up a load of cap space for the Browns to use for the following offseason.
Brown also shook up the draft for Cleveland, trading the team’s #2 pick to the Eagles in exchange for Philadelphia’s 1st round, 3rd round and 4th round selections from 2016, as well as the team’s first round selection in 2017 and their 2nd round pick in 2018. This set up the stage for many trades to come for the team.
Sashi made additional noise trading for Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins, then signing him after the season with a four-year, $50M contract extension.
But it was during the free agent year of 2017 and the draft that the Browns attracted serious attention. The team signed Rams receiver Kenny Britt, linemen JC Tretter and Kevin Zeitler in free agency, and bought a 2nd round pick from the Texans on the condition of being the team that had the displeasure of letting Brock Osweiler waste away on the roster. The trade was heavily compared to a basketball trade and was praised for its unconventional technique.
The team drafted Myles Garrett with the #1 overall pick as expected, before trading their 2nd first round pick to the Texans in addition for more picks. They went on to select Jabril Peppers and tight end David Njoku in the first round.
All things considered, it’s been a hell of an offseason for the Browns. Sashi Brown thus far has exceeded any expectations I had of him when he was first hired, and his methods of trading and signing go against the traditional norm of NFL culture not just because he wants to do it different, but because he’s used actual logic and reasoning behind his trades. Because of him, the Browns have successfully entered a full, actual rebuild, going after fresh, young talent and making trades/deals that make sense.
While the Browns may not make the playoffs in 2017, what they have made is one of the best offenses for a quarterback to play in thanks to their coaching and front office. Regardless of whether Deshone Kizer, Cody Kessler, or Brock Osweiler (maybe not) starts, all 3 will be in a heavy QB friendly environment that gives them excellent pass protection and a good slab of weapons to throw to.
Below, we will analyze the key parts of the Browns offense and why it is so QB friendly.
I’ve already written on head coach Hue Jackson before, so you can find more information there. But he’s the key ingredient to the Browns’ future. While the team went 1-15 in 2016, it was primarily based on the lack of talent on offense, incompetent quarterback play, and one of the absolute worst defenses in the league.
Jackson’s scheme and play calling allowed the Browns to stay in games they weren’t supposed to be in, and got them a Christmas miracle with a win over the Chargers on Christmas Eve.
In Cincinnati, Jackson was known for diversifying an already loaded offense that played at its peak in 2015. He was able to get the most out of Andy Dalton because his protection schemes kept the QB safe and gave him plenty of easy, open throws.
In Cleveland, while the offensive line was not as good in his first year, he was still able to provide the same friendly environment with less talent. On this play, Jackson calls for a play action pass off a jet sweep. The movement of the back and linemen creates misdirection, baiting the defense into going after the back. Gary Barnidge runs across the line of scrimmage and is left completely uncovered, allowing Robert Griffin III to make an easy throw for the first down.
On this play, Jackson calls to motion in the outside receiver behind the slot receiver. This is smart because the secondary can’t communicate this in time. This leaves one guy to guard two guys, resulting in the outside receiver being completely open. The QB is given an easy target and a first down.
When people point at the Browns’ receivers not being up to league standards and preventing them from having a loaded offense, from an abstract point they’re right, but Hue Jackson at the helm makes up for this. Give me a great offensive line and a coach that can provide a QB friendly environment over a loaded receiving corps and a coach that doesn’t help the quarterback out. With the former, you’re guaranteed more openings and easy throws for the QB.
A healthy and fully improved offensive line will help the Browns, especially with Jackson calling the shots. He’s one of the best coordinators in the league and provides the beginning of what is to come for the Browns offense.
Next, let’s check out the running backs. The Browns have one of the best and most underrated duos in the league, with two backs that are young and have wide skill sets.
Isaiah Crowell’s development since year 1 has been substantial, as he’s gradually shown better footwork and running ability into tight gaps. While he’s been provided with quality run blocking, he hasn’t been the product of it, as he’s been able to make runs on his own as well.
This play shows Crowell’s athleticism. The right tackle blows his protection, noted immediately by the back. He stops and cuts back outside before showing burst, shuffling his feet and crossing past the first down marker. Crowell shows off an impressive burst after grabbing the football, helping him on this run.
Here, Crowell provides an example of how he’s able to run through tight windows. Before going up the middle, he lowers his head, protecting the ball, and is able to glide through the gap and cuts through the open space.
As one of the most exciting receiving backs in the league, Duke Johnson has been a gem for the Browns. He is a gifted route runner and extremely dangerous after the catch. He finished with the 4th most receiving yards of any back in the league in 2016 (514), finishing only behind David Johnson (879), Le’Veon Bell (616), and James White (551). His 53 catches were also 6th most out of all receiving backs.
On this play, Johnson cuts inside to the first down marker. His awareness allows him to spot two defenders coming up against him the second he catches the ball. Once he sees this, he is able to make a sensational cut, avoiding the tackle and advancing the the field position.
On third downs, Johnson is your safest bet. Not only is he fast and nimble, but he is also tough to bring down because of his slippery nature and his quick vision. An example is shown on the play above.
The combination of a healthy Crowell and Johnson will be lethal in 2017 behind the healthy line. They create enough plays on their own that they can give the Browns offense multiple dimensions to work with.
While the team doesn’t have the best group of receivers, they have some pieces that are definitely worth watching.
Kenny Britt is the Browns’ big free agent prize, and he’s a really good wide receiver (as illustrated in this article). With the Rams, he never had a good quarterback (Sam Bradford was out for the season in his only year with Britt) or a WR friendly offense. He gets the latter in Cleveland, and could potentially get a good QB to play with if Kessler ever develops or Kizer takes command of the starting job.
In signing Britt, the Browns have replaced Terrelle Pryor with someone who is a bit more balanced and every bit as a threat at the catch position. Britt provides a huge frame to work and great strength, making him ideal for downfield throws and yards after the catch. On this play, Britt is held, but is able to break away from the guy guarding him. He bounces off tacklers and stays on his feet, bulldozing his way into the end zone for the touchdown.
Britt is also a strong red zone option thanks to his footwork and body. On the above play, he’s able to box out his defender like a tight end, attacking the ball while making sure his feet stay in bounds. The combined concentration on the catch and his position allow him to score the touchdown.
Myles Garrett is the guy that’s gotten most of the draft buzz for Cleveland, but it’s David Njoku, drafted in the first round out of Miami, that gives them a potential superstar at the tight end position. It’s true that Njoku is lacking in blocking, but in today’s league filled with receiving tight ends (and with a great offensive line), it’s not that big of a deal.
Like Britt, Njoku provides a cushion at the catch point, and in this case, he is a tight end! In Miami he was extremely dangerous partially for these reasons. The above play is one of the most impressive catches I’ve seen from any tight end in college. Njoku only gets one foot in (it counts as a touchdown due to the college football rules), but the concentration and ability to stay in bounds are both remarkable.
On this play, Njoku shows his toughness, breaking through a tackle and bullying his way into the end zone. He’s a dangerous receiver and will be able to bring yards after the catch and contact to the team.
Britt and Njoku have been the two big additions to the receiving group, but the Browns have two other receivers that could potentially breakout.
Corey Coleman’s rookie season was cut short thanks to injuries that kept him out during the middle of the season. He’s not great at the slot, but played well in Hue Jackson’s offense when on the field, and showed flashes of explosiveness.
Here, Coleman does the step jab on Janoris Jenkins and gets open easily, leading to the score. Coleman is fast and can afford to be schemed open in Jackson’s offense. He just needs to stay on the field so we can see what he can become.
Ricardo Louis is another receiver both the Browns and Browns fans have been excited about in the offseason. He had some bad drops in his rookie season, but he is a talented receiver.
This play shows Louis’ shiftyness after the catch. His experience on the field was limited due to the amount of reps he got, but it offered some positives. He has a good frame to work with and can potentially be a YAC weapon. We’ll still need to see more from him, but at this point he should get more opportunities in his second season, especially since the Browns reportedly liked the improvements he made.
Finally, we look at the bread and butter of the Browns offense: The offensive line. For a team that hasn’t had much success since its return, it’s been able to completely rebuild its offensive line in just a year, something competing teams like the Seahawks and Vikings have struggled to do.
In free agency, the Browns made two big splashes that have revamped their offensive line, signing center J.C. Tretter from Green Bay and right guard Kevin Zeitler from Cincinnati. Tretter is 26 while Zeitler is 27, so both players are young enough to play for the Browns while they continue to rebuild while also offering veteran presence.
Both Tretter (#73 in the first GIF) and Zeitler (#70 in the 2nd GIF) are athletic linemen that will patch much needed areas for the line. Tretter gives Cleveland a legit center while Zeitler gives the team much needed depth at the right guard position. These two pieces will be vital to what will likely be one of the top offensive lines in the league.
Future Hall of Fame left tackle Joe Thomas needs no introduction. He’s been the league standard in each of his 10 seasons in Cleveland, and shows no sign of slowing down. Left guard Joel Bitonio will return after a foot injury kept him out for the season last October. He signed a 5-year extension with the Browns in the offseason, and is one of the league’s top left guards when healthy. John Greco provides depth at the right guard position as well.
The one unproven is the right tackle position, where Shon Coleman and Cam Erving will battle it out, but the Browns have filled enough holes at the line where they should be one of the league’s most dominant units once again.
The Cleveland Browns have built one of the best offenses for a quarterback to take over. With an excellent, revamped offensive line featuring Joe Thomas, Joel Bitonio, JC Tretter and Kevin Zeitler, a QB friendly scheme with efficient playcalling from Hue Jackson, a dynamic RB duo of Isiah Crowell and Duke Johnson, and a receiving corps featuring Kenny Britt, Corey Coleman and David Njoku, the Browns will put little pressure on their quarterback while giving them weapons to throw to.
As far as the overall team goes, the defense clearly still needs work and the team still needs established QB play before talk of the playoffs can begin. The front office understands this. This will be year 2 of the rebuilding process for the Browns, and they have done a phenomenal job of doing so. The team made plenty of crucial signings and draft picks in the offseason, drastically improving the quality of the team and adding more pieces all around.
Sashi Brown and the front office have done wonders managing the team. The Browns have avoided mistakes of the past by making logical steps for a true rebuild, collecting young talent and bringing in veterans with smart, reasonable deals. The best part is that they have added loads of draft picks for future drafts, with plenty of cap space for the 2018 season.
This is not a 10-12 win roster, but it definitely won’t be an 0-16 or 1-15 team. As the offseason continues to unfold, the Browns have looked like one of the least dysfunctional teams in this span in a time where other teams are shooting themselves in the foot with scared, illogical moves. If Kessler develops or Deshone Kizer takes the starting role, this group will look even better.
It’s been a long time since Browns fans have seen the playoffs. As a Browns fan myself, I’ve waited for the opportunity to see my team host a playoff game for the longest time. It’s one of the things that’s on my bucket list. It’s not likely that it will happen this season.
At the rate this team is rebuilding, however, we won’t have to wait long.
Featured image via dawgpounddaily.com