2023 Cleveland Browns Offseason Preview
The lottery curse is a phenomenon of lottery winners going broke after winning vast fortunes. The Browns, having won the Deshaun Watson sweepstakes last offseason, can relate. Watson was suspended for the first 11 games of the season, forcing the Browns to start journeyman Jacoby Brissett for over half of the year. To everyone's surprise, Brissett played well, leading the team to a 4-7 record. If Watson was able to hit the ground running, he could have been the spark Cleveland needed to make a last-second march into the playoffs. Instead, the curse of supposed riches struck and Watson played as poorly as one would expect from a quarterback who hadn't started an NFL game in 700 days. The Browns went 3-3 under Watson and scored more than 14 points once. Their failures only furthered the value of the picks they sent to Houston for Watson's subpar services.
Key Offensive Stats
Points per game: 21.2 (18th)
EPA per play: 0.01 (12th)
Dropback EPA per play: 0.02 (17th)
Passing yards per game: 202.6 (22nd)
Rush EPA per play: 0 (5th)
Rush yards per game: 146.5 (6th)
Through 11 games, it looked like Kevin Stefanski and company had created an offense that would explode once Watson was in the driver's seat. They were 10th in the NFL in dropback EPA per play and third in rushing EPA per attempt. Brissett was 11th in EPA per play and third in completion percent over expected. His accuracy fostered a resurgence from Amari Cooper, who finished the year with 1,160 yards and nine touchdowns. Per usual, Nick Chubb was also elite, averaging five yards per carry on over 300 attempts. The problems only started when Watson took over. The former Texan ranked outside the top 30 quarterbacks (min. 200 dropbacks) in EPA per play and CPOE. Pro Football Focus graded him as their No. 37 quarterback.
Key Defensive Stats
Points per game: 22.4 (20th)
EPA per play: 0.03 (25th)
Dropback EPA per play: 0.02 (13th)
Passing yards per game: 196.2 (5th)
Rush EPA per play: 0.05 (32nd)
Rush yards per game: 135.2 (25th)
The Browns have not had the best luck getting defensive talent through the draft recently and the cracks began to show in 2022. They ranked 25th in rushing yards and yards per carry allowed. Their pass defense was primarily carried by none other than Myles Garrett, who tallied 16 sacks and earned PFF's No. 1 EDGE defender grade. Inside linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who excelled as a rookie, took a step back this year, as did Denzel Ward. The good news is the Browns are not lacking potential on defense. Greg Newsome and Martin Emerson, both 22 years old, were both graded as top-40 corners by PFF. Both Ward and JOK have elite seasons on their respective resumes. The Browns, who will have a new defensive coordinator in 2023, just need to unlock the upside within their defense.
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Draft Picks (Top-150)
42nd, 98th, 111th, 128th, 142nd, and 144th
Notable Free Agents
LB Deion Jones, EDGE Jadeveon Clowney, RB Kareem Hunt, QB Jacoby Brissett, DT Taven Bryan, C Ethan Pocic, and OG Hjalte Froholdt
OT Joe Haeg (2$ million), DT Jordan Elliott ($2.7 million), and S Grant Delpit ($1.6 million)
The Browns will have to restructure some contracts to get under the salary cap. The most obvious candidate will be Watson's deal. Cleveland can save $33.7 million by restructuring his contract alone.
Cooper was a steal for the Browns, but he is about to be 29 years old and could be a cap casualty next offseason. His presence allows Cleveland to put off drafting a receiver until Day 2, but more firepower on offense is a necessity.
The Browns are losing loads of starters across their defensive line, but Myles Garrett's dominance on the outside makes finding a new interior defender more pressing. Given that Cleveland ranked dead last in rush EPA allowed, finding a big-bodied tackle who can clog running lanes will be their priority.
John Johnson is a candidate to be cut with a post-June 1 designation based on his poor play during two years with the Browns. Ronnie Harrison, a depth option at safety, is also a free agent. The Browns could even look to replace Grant Delpit, who has been streaky at best through two seasons, though they may not find the resources to do that this year.
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With Watson's contract fully guaranteed and no refunds allowed in trading, they are stuck with him and the bones of their current roster for the near future. The one thing they can easily make changes to is their coaching staff. Known as one of the best offensive line coaches in the league, Bill Callahan was signed to an extension to prevent him from looking at offensive coordinator jobs. Passing game coordinator Chad O'Shea was also retained despite looking for coordinator jobs elsewhere. Quarterbacks coach Drew Petzing was hired away by Arizona. Defensive coordinator Joe Woods suffered a different fate. He was fired and replaced by Titans senior defensive assistant Jim Schwartz.
The Browns had the wildest offseason possible last year by acquiring Watson. Their next few springs will be the opposite. Cleveland is at a cap deficit and will still be feeling the effects of the trade over their next two drafts. The next two offseasons will force them to be shrewd with their money and focus on creating an environment that allows Watson to turn things around. If he can return to the peak form he showed in Houston, the Cleveland offense has the potential to be dominant. Even Cleveland's defense has plenty of hope to rebound. Now it's on the coaches to get the most out of their talent.