BEREA, Ohio -- The Cleveland Browns are entering a crucial season.
By trading three first-round picks to the Houston Texans for quarterback Deshaun Watson before signing him to a record $230 million fully guaranteed deal, the Browns effectively pushed in all their chips to win now.
Problem is, Cleveland finished 7-10 last year, with an underwhelming 3-3 record in six games with Watson as the starter. Watson was suspended the first 11 games for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy by committing sexual assault, as defined by the league, on massage therapists.
Now, the Browns are banking that Watson, with a full offseason in Cleveland, will return to the player he was in 2020, when he led the NFL in passing yards (4,823), yards per attempt (8.9) and yards per completion (12.6) while still with the Texans.
“We are very excited about Deshaun,” Browns general manager Andrew Berry said at the NFL combine. “We’re looking forward to continuing to evolve the offense over the next several months. Obviously having him have a full offseason going into 2023 and [we] certainly expect him to play at a high level.”
Whether Watson can rediscover his Houston form will be the biggest factor in determining whether the Browns can make the playoffs.
But to truly construct a championship-caliber roster, Cleveland has work to do elsewhere, and on limited resources, due to the Watson trade.
The Browns don’t have a first-round pick for the second straight year. And they’re still around $20.7 million over the salary cap, according to Roster Management, due to Watson’s cap hit.
As Berry hinted from the combine, that’s why the team will likely attempt to restructure Watson’s contract, to clear the cap space for a big swing or two in free agency.
“It could be on the table,” Berry said of a Watson restructure, “but there is a lot of flexibility in terms of what we can do from a cap perspective.”
With free agency looming, here’s the state of each offensive position group -- determined by whether the unit is "set," "needs work," or "requiring an overhaul."
Well, mostly set. The Browns will still be on the hunt for a backup quarterback behind Watson. Former Minnesota Vikings third-round pick Kellen Mond is the only other QB on the roster.
During the combine, Browns coach Kevin Stefanski didn’t rule out the possibility of Mond winning the backup job. But far more likely, the Browns will be looking for another veteran to be Watson’s understudy.
“All options are available to us there,” said Stefanski. “Obviously, Kellen hasn’t played in that setting, but we will see how far he comes along.”
The far more important quarterback storyline will be how Watson bounces back after ranking 27th in QBR in his six games with Cleveland, and how effectively Stefanski can revamp his schemes to better suit Watson’s skill set.
“I know we are seeing the game very similarly,” Stefanski said. “I think he’s very excited about what we are going to be doing offensively and what we are going to be doing as a team. ... There’s no shortage to the amount of the offense you can run. It is just a matter of what you can hang your hat on and what you can get good at.”
Running back: Set
While the Browns will be moving on from backup free agent running back Kareem Hunt, the 2023 backfield appears to be in place.
Pro Bowler Nick Chubb will anchor the rushing attack again. Behind him, the Browns will turn to Jerome Ford, who flashed as a rookie in his role as kick returner. The 2021 fifth-round pick has underrated hands and has the potential to man the third-down back role.
“I was very encouraged with Jerome,” Stefanski said. “I know he didn’t have a ton of opportunities, but encouraged by the opportunities he had. As a kick returner, you saw some of his natural ability. You saw speed and you saw vision, and that was something he had never done. I think you see a player who has an upside. Ultimately, it is going to be on him to go earn that [No. 2 RB] role, but I do think he is capable of it, yes.”
With D'Ernest Johnson also a free agent, the Browns could spend another midround pick on a running back if there’s a player available they like. Demetric Felton, who’s bounced around between running back and slot receiver remains under contract, as well.
Wide receiver: Needs work
David Bell had a decent first season as a possession receiver. Fellow rookie Michael Woods II showed why he could develop into a rotation option. Returner Jakeem Grant Sr. is coming back from a season-ending Achilles injury. Former third-round pick Anthony Schwartz has struggled to catch passes, despite his world-class speed.
That’s why the Browns could use their second-round pick on a speedy slot receiver -- Berry called this a “good” wide receiver draft class -- who can stretch the field for Watson alongside Peoples-Jones and Cooper. That element glaringly was missing from Cleveland’s receiving crops last season. And one the Browns will need to address if the offense is to reach its full potential.
Tight end: Set
Cleveland’s gamble to give David Njoku a $54 million extension last offseason paid off, as Njoku delivered the best season of his career. Njoku finished with 58 receptions for 628 yards and four touchdowns, including the game-winning, one-handed grab on fourth-and-goal against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Harrison Bryant has proved to be a solid No. 2 tight end.
Depth at tight end won’t be as paramount going forward, as the Browns transform into a wide open, spread offense around Watson.
Offensive line: Set
The Browns will return four and possibly all five starters up front. The only question is at center. Ethan Pocic filled in spectacularly as the starter after projected starter Nick Harris went down with a season-ending right knee injury in the preseason opener. Pocic ranked fifth in the league among centers in pass block win rate (96.2%) and fourth in run block win rate (74.6%). Pocic, however, is a free agent, and may prove tough to re-sign coming off a banner season. If he doesn’t return, Harris would slot back in as Cleveland’s starting center.
Otherwise, Cleveland’s offensive line is in place with left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr., right tackle Jack Conklin and Pro Bowl guards Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller -- all of whom have started together the last three seasons.