Change for its own sake isn’t necessarily progress.
The 2022 Browns may be split on that statement, considering they posted one game worse in the NFL standings in 2022 (7-10) after some pretty jarring offseason changes, yet seem confident that the future portends better results and rosters. By banking their future on very expensive yet mostly unavailable QB DeShaun Watson, the team essentially left a 17-game-long voicemail message: “We’re sorry, but the Cleveland Browns are unable to play fully-rostered NFL football right now. Please call back in 2023. In the meantime, feel free to let us know how we’re doing after the tone!”
Without diving (again) into his thorny legal proceedings, Watson’s 11-game suspension from season’s outset established a tone for the rest of the Browns campaign, as career bridesmaid QB Jacoby Brissett played solid, capable, and thoroughly unexciting football in Watson’s absence. The effect on the rest of the team was obvious; despite occasional standout performances, the Browns were mostly listless, victims of the front office’s excess and their new QB’s allegedly bizarre sexual appetites. Still, there were some notable moments.
As mentioned above, Watson didn’t take over QB duties until Week 12, when the Browns still had a sliver of hope about possibly stealing a playoff berth. Brissett had slogged through a 4-7 effort to that point, and appeared exhausted. The Browns went 3-3 after Watson’s return, albeit surviving some extensive rust and poor decisions by Watson as he reacclimated to the NFL after nearly two years of inactivity. Whether he’s able to improve on his performances in 2023 is fodder for next season’s year-end column.
RB Nick Chubb, the probable team MVP, played out the season in typical fashion, rushing for a career-best 1,525 yards and 12 TDs. When all else failed, there was always Chubb, whose consistency and battering downfield style usually provided a much-needed first down or score. Fans were ultimately baffled when Chubb wasn’t used; indeed, there were instances where the Browns were either leading or within a score of a run-defense challenged team, when they would simply abandon the run entirely in favor of Brissett’s arm – an underwhelming prospect even on a good day. Backup RB Kareem Hunt added 468 rushing yards, but was more useful in the passing game, with 35 receptions in mostly checkdown scenarios.
Free agent pickup WR Amari Cooper re-established himself as a premier receiving threat with 78 catches for 1,160 yards and 9 TDs. Fellow WR Donovan Peoples-Jones set career highs with 61 catches for 839 yards and three TDs, and TE David Njoku added 58 catches for 628 yards and four TDs. The falloff in receiving numbers is vast after that trio, with Hunt’s 35 catches placing fourth on the team.
The offensive line was one of the team’s brighter points this year, as they remained mostly healthy and productive, regardless of the QB they were protecting at the time. Special mention goes to Pro Bowl G Joel Bitonio, who posted one of his finest seasons.
The Browns fired defensive coordinator Joe Woods immediately after the regular season’s conclusion. That alone should be telling, as the Browns were rather inconsistent on defense in 2022 despite a solid roster.
DE Myles Garrett posted another excellent career installment with 16 sacks and two forced fumbles. Fellow DE Jadeveon Clowney wasn’t nearly as effective, only posting two sacks in 12 games – obvious disappointments from a player whose sole responsibility these days is to rush the passer. The interior of the defensive line did the rest of the defense few favors, as DTs Jordan Elliott and Taven Bryant were mostly ineffective against the run – again, their primary responsibility – resulting in the league’s 26th ranked rushing defense.
The Browns LB corp showed some depth, but was vastly limited by injuries. WLB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah was lost to a sprained foot in Week 13, ending a promising second season. SLB Sione Takitaki tore his ACL Week 12 in Texas, and will most likely not return until October of 2023. In the interim, the Browns relied on veteran Reggie Ragland and second-year depth piece Tony Fields II to fill in, which they did, albeit not nearly as effectively. The interior was a mess, as the Browns lost MLB Jacob Phillips to a torn pectoral muscle in Week 7 and never established a solid tackling presence afterward. Veteran Deion Jones did his best after being signed late, but was clearly challenged to replace Phillips and original starter Anthony Walker, who was placed on IR Week 3 with a quad tear.
The busy secondary may have been Cleveland’s best unit, as S Grant Delpit recorded career highs in every statistical category, including tackles (a team-leading 105) and interceptions (a team-leading four) while staying healthy for the entire season. Fellow S John Johnson III added 101 tackles, and CB Denzel Ward posted three interceptions in a mostly healthy (for him, anyway) season. CB Greg Newsome II was solid if unspectacular, with 31 tackles and six passes defensed.
Kicker Cade York wasn’t good in 2022, posting a 75% FG percentage, adding further angst to an offensively-challenged team. The Browns have cycled through several kickers the last few years, and it appears that search may continue. Punter Corey Bojorquez was adequate and entirely too busy, while punt returner Donovan Peoples-Jones added a punt return TD in the midst of a mostly-good special teams season.
Fuzzy. Almost everything depends on the success of Watson, who will surely benefit from an offseason (hopefully) without controversy. The Browns still have solid pieces in place; with some depth, they could be truly formidable in 2023 as long as they can avoid the swaths of injuries that hampered them in 2022.