While the season did not end the way the Browns would have dreamt it up, losing to the Houston Texans in the Wild Card round, they over-achieved this season given that 26 percent of their starting lineup ended up on Injured Reserve this season. They took a true “next man up” mentality into the season and showed a tremendous amount of resilience to grind out tough wins.
This would not have been possible without players stepping up, players we might not have imagined would step up when their number was called. Rookies had to start, quarterbacks were signed off the couch, and kickers were traded for right at the end of training camp.
Here are four players who stood out the most and exceeded expectations for the Browns this season.
K Dustin Hopkins
The Browns gave former fourth round kicker Cade York every opportunity. They did not bring another kicker into training camp to give him every last rep in practice to work through his struggles.
However, that just did not pan out for York as the Browns moved on from him after a tumultuous preseason. They then got on the phone with the Los Angeles Chargers and worked out a deal to acquire kicker Dustin Hopkins from them for just the cost of a seventh round pick in the 2025 NFL draft.
And Hopkins rewarded them with clutch kick after clutch kick. He knocked through game-winners against the Baltimore Ravens, and Pittsburgh Steelers, and a kick that made it a two-score game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. All-in-all, Hopkins drilled a whopping 92 percent of his kicks (going eight-for-eight on kicks over 50 yards!) in Cleveland this year, breaking Phil Dawson’s record for most field goals in a single season.
And he is under contract for another year, so he will return to the Browns in 2024.
OT Dawand Jones
The Browns drafted the big man, Dawand Jones, out of Ohio State in the fourth round of the 2023 NFL draft.
Little did he or the Browns know that he would be thrust into the starting lineup in Week 1 against the Cincinnati Bengals. Starting right tackle Jack Conklin suffered another season-ending injury right off the bat this season, and the rookie jumped right in at right tackle and did not skip a beat.
His large 6-foot-8 and 370-pound frame provided a wall of protection for the various quarterbacks he blocked for this season. He was top-20 in pass-blocking efficiency as a rookie, finding his name in the same category as Christian Darrisaw of the Minnesota Vikings and Lane Johnson of the Philadelphia Eagles.
While Jones’ season was cut short with a knee injury, it is wildly apparent the Browns have a right tackle of the future in Jones. Who knows? After a full offseason of work, we could see him at left tackle as well.
LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah
For the record, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah has been a good player since he stepped onto the field for the Browns as a second round pick in 2021.
However, his first two seasons ended in injuries, and the Browns did not have the defensive tackles in front of the second level for them to make much of a dent in the run game. The Browns corrected the interior of their offensive line, and there was no bigger benefactor than Owusu-Koramoah.
He led all linebackers in tackles behind the line of scrimmage, picked off two passes this year, and was a flash of lightning on the field for all 17 games. As a result, Owusu-Koramoah is heading to his first Pro Bowl and will likely see a new contract offered to him this offseason.
QB Joe Flacco
Who would have guessed that the 38-year-old veteran quarterback Joe Flacco would have emerged from his couch just to throw for four straight 1,600-yard games? Flacco went 4-1 as the starting quarterback for the Browns down the stretch, and while he returned to earth in the playoffs, he took their passing game to heights it had never seen before.
Flacco has done nothing but rave about the culture and leadership in Berea this offseason as he gets set for free agency. The veteran wants to continue to play football but will weigh his options this offseason as he is likely to have many suitors after how he played down the stretch this season.
Returning to Cleveland is not off the table for Flacco either as he would make a tremendous backup to Deshaun Watson in 2024.
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