AFC North: 2021 Browns Review

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Expectations, meet Reality.

The 2021 Browns, full of promise and direction at the outset of the 2021 NFL season, ran into a wealth of difficulties on many fronts, ultimately finishing third in the AFC North, although it should be noted the division was gridlocked for the majority of the year and the Browns, for all their warts, remained competitive throughout.  Second-year head coach Kevin Stefanski experienced his first real fan and media pushback after garnering Coach of the Year honors in 2020; it’s safe to say the honeymoon’s officially over with him in Cleveland.  Stefanski’s biggest challenge going forward will be to recapture some of the goodwill and local appreciation that was lost in 2021, and he can best accomplish that by looking in the mirror first.

Here’s how the 2021 Browns fared positionally:

 

Quarterback

It’s difficult to quantify starting QB Baker Mayfield’s season.  On the surface, Mayfield’s performances were pedestrian; he failed to see viable targets and didn’t deliver consistently when he did.  His mobility was sorely challenged, and as such, his height prevented him from finding appropriate passing lanes to compensate, resulting in a wealth of TE and RB activity at the expense of the WR corp.  A deeper look reveals Mayfield gutted out most of the season with a torn labrum in his left (non-throwing) shoulder, which in normal circumstances would be lauded, as it demonstrates “toughness” and “sacrifice” for the sake of the team.  The obvious conclusion, of course, is that Mayfield probably shouldn’t have played after sustaining the injury; his numbers were mediocre, and his turnovers were often ill-timed and damning for the team’s chances.  The Browns have exercised their fifth-year option on Mayfield, so the embattled QB will have the opportunity to live up to those same expectations, however burdensome, in 2022.  We’ll see what his reality will eventually be.

Backup QBs Case Keenum and Nick Mullens performed adequately in their spot starts; should Mayfield have chosen to end his season early via surgery, the offense probably wouldn’t have suffered much in Keenum’s hands.

 

Running Back/Fullback

RB Nick Chubb’s best games are often astounding to watch.  Other than perhaps Tennessee’s Derrick Henry, there’s no more frightening sight to a would-be tackler than Chubb barreling downfield with a proverbial full head of steam.  Injuries limited Chubb’s production in 2021, but he still managed 1,259 rushing yards and a now-career-typical 5.5 YPC; aided by RB Kareem Hunt, himself limited by injury to eight games, and RB D’Ernest Johnson, the Browns rushing attack remains their most formidable weapon for 2022.

Seldom-used FB Andy Janovich was serviceable in a blocking role, often working in tandem with the offensive line to free up Chubb and company.

 

Wide Receiver

Whether due to Mayfield’s injury or just a pattern of play-calling, this group suffered a substantial lack of production in 2021.  Starting WR Jarvis Landry missed time due to COVID-19 and assorted injuries, resulting in 12 appearances with middling results.  Landry met his career yards-per-reception average at 11.0, but came nowhere close to being the reliable possession receiver he’s been previously.  Fellow flanker Donovan Peoples-Jones had some nice moments, but was inconsistent and prone to drops down the stretch.  He’ll need to tighten up his game to remain a starter in 2022.  Backup WR Rashard Higgins largely disappeared in 2021, and it remains to be seen whether he’ll be retained, a major disappointment after he’d posted a promising 2020 campaign.  Former Brown Odell Beckham Jr. was released at midseason after some unfortunate media coverage of his grievances, and it should be noted the Browns experienced almost no change in production with or without his presence.

 

Tight End

Stefanski loves his tight ends, as evidenced by the presence of three starting-caliber examples on the roster.  The problem?  None really played like a starter consistently when given their chances.  TE Austin Hooper is nominally the first in line, but he was superseded in many ways by holdovers David Njoku and Harrison Bryant; Njoku had some nice moments, including a seven-catch, 149-yard effort in October against the Chargers – a high-water mark for all three TEs.  Njoku is slated to hit free agency this spring, and he’ll have a market; the question is whether the Browns would bother to invest big money in him when his production, such as it is, could probably be reproduced by cheaper options.  Given existing depth, it’s guessed Njoku will be playing elsewhere in 2022.

 

Offensive Line

A mixed bag here, as guards Wyatt Teller and Joel Bitonio each garnered Pro Bowl berths, as opposed to the tackles, who struggled at points due to injury and substandard play.  LT Jedrick Wills played reasonably well in his starts, but missed enough games (4) to create some protection problems.  Backup LT James Hudson III played adequately in Wills’ stead, but no one will assume a changing of the guard there just yet.  RT Jack Conklin was injured in Week 5 (dislocated elbow) and returned in Week 8 for all of 21 plays before reaggravating the injury.  Conklin returned in Week 12, only to tear the patellar tendon in his right knee after a mere 10 snaps.  His status, needless to say, remains in question for 2022.  Given the performance of backup RT Chris Hubbard, the Browns are most likely exploring other options.

 

Defensive Line

Edge rusher Myles Garrett turned in a typically excellent year with 16 sacks, earning him Pro Bowl honors as his presence continues to force teams to adjust their blocking schemes.   Free agent pickup DE Jadeveon Clowney posted 9 sacks on the opposite side, doing enough to warrant a decision by the Browns regarding his free agency status.  At DT, the “Two Maliks”, Jackson and McDowell, performed adequately, but neither offered much push inside or had to, as their primary responsibilities centered around occupying blockers for the edge rushers, which they generally did.  Midseason pickup DE Takkarist McKinley was not terribly impressive, to be kind, in 2021, and his torn Achilles may sideline him for much of 2022.  The Browns have some depth work to do here, also possibly replacing one if not both starters on the interior.

 

Linebacker

The Browns drafted a solid WLB in Notre Dame’s Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah; the rookie was hobbled at times, but showed excellent instincts and speed during his appearances.  “JOK” is considered a cornerstone for a building a young, dynamic LB corp as long as he remains healthy.  MLB Anthony Walker put in a quietly effective season, posting 113 total tackles and generally closing down rushing lanes as befitting his position.  SLB Sione Takitaki was simply “okay” before his season-ending shoulder injury; given his propensity to stop the run (and not rush the quarterback), the Browns tended to rotate Takitaki inside on passing downs as an insurance policy of sorts.  It might behoove them to let him concentrate on one position going forward for consistency’s sake.

 

Defensive Back

Pro Bowl CB Denzel Ward had a very good season, including nabbing 3 interceptions and returning one 99 yards for a TD.  He also enjoyed his healthiest year, managing to play in 15 games; Ward missed starts due to COVID-19 protocols and a tweaked hamstring – mild considering his extensive injury history.  2021 first-round CB Greg Newsome II was erratic and often confused, but his talents are evident and plentiful; he’s expected to grow into the position more fully in 2022.  Slot CB Greedy Williams turned in a solid season (33 tackles, 2 INTs) after missing the entire 2020 campaign; he’s on track to hit the weight room to improve his competence against runners.  Second-year S Grant Delpit saw his first official NFL action in 2021 with mixed results, but he’s also expected to continue to improve along with the rest of this young, evolving secondary.  Free agent S John Johnson III struggled early in his transition to the Browns and was often out of position, resulting in broken coverages and little support.  Johnson improved as the season continued and managed to nab three interceptions, but given the ascension of Delpit, he’s not likely to be retained.  Veteran S Ronnie Harrison Jr. had a solid 2021 campaign, providing some consistency and a calming presence.

 

Special Teams

After the collapse of holdover K Cody Parkey in training camp, the Browns settled on unheralded K Chase McLaughlin to fill in; McLaughlin didn’t fare too well, making 15 of 21 FG attempts.  His COVID-19 absence in Week 16 forced the Browns to start Chris Naggar, only to return to McLaughlin the following week.  Obviously, K remains unsettled for 2022, as there’s little to like about McLaughlin’s season except his popping a 57-yard FG Week 3 against the Bears.  Former Browns P Jamie Gillan and his golden locks have departed the Browns due to wild inconsistency, and was backfilled by longtime veteran P Dustin Colquitt.  Given that Colquitt’s 40, it’s guessed the Browns will pursue other options in 2022.

 

Coaching

As mentioned above, second-year head coach Kevin Stefanski struggled after earning league honors in 2020.  Stefanski, who is the Browns’ primary offensive playcaller, may be realizing delegating that task may be in his best interest.  His calls were often untimely and “too cute”; essentially relying on trickery and misdirection rather than relying on the team’s core offensive strength, which is clearly running the football.  Stefanski often overtasked Mayfield with calls he simply couldn’t execute due to injury or just plain old technique, and more often abandoned the run entirely – a source of extreme frustration for fans and delight for opponents.  We’ll see if he’s learned from it in 2022.

Defensive coordinator Joe Woods was maligned often for positional breakdowns and a seeming lack of discipline in coverage, but it should be noted his fortunes improved markedly late, with the team surrendering 16 or fewer points in six of their final seven games and standing firm on third downs.  For all the barbs and invectives hurled his way, Woods will most likely be retained in 2022, and deservedly so given the late turnaround.

 

Outlook

Fuzzy.  The Browns have a lot of key players under contract for 2022 and should field roughly the same roster; there’s room for obvious improvements in the front seven, particularly at LB and on the defensive interior.  Offensively, line depth is always welcome, and the Browns will have to make some hard decisions at WR, where they need at least one more solid performer.  As mentioned above, the Browns seem settled on Mayfield at QB for 2022, but his return from injury and early performances bear watching, as they will surely contribute to his contract and long-term status in Cleveland.

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