To say the 2023 campaign was a disappointment for the Cleveland Browns would be an understatement. After making the playoffs in the first season under head coach Kevin Stefanski, they have left more questions than answers on the field over the past two seasons. To get back into the playoffs in 2023, the Browns will need big leaps out of players like quarterback Deshaun Watson, left tackle Jedrick Wills, and more.
There are no excuses left in 2023, and this current regime knows it. They had their best assistant sign an extension rather than jump ship, and they landed a top-tier defensive coordinator in Jim Schwartz. The belief in the building should be high, but the Browns need a big leap out of these five players next season.
QB Deshaun Watson
Browns QB Deshaun Watson. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports
The expectations for Watson were high in 2022, and a 3-3 record and subpar quarterback play did not meet them over the last six games. Watson and Stefanski will sit down and hash out an offensive plan to install, and they have a full offseason and camp in the building and on the field together.
Point blank: Watson is making way too much money, and the Browns gave up way too many assets to acquire him for the level of play they got this season. Their 2023 season will revolve around the success of their high-profile and highly volatile quarterback. They will look to get more explosive in the passing game and live out of the shotgun as they look to cater to his strengths, so Watson needs to meet three-quarters of the way there.
LT Jedrick Wills
Browns LT Jedrick Wills. (AP Photo/Kirk Irwin)
The Browns have invested a ton of money into their offensive line after extending right tackle Jack Conklin. They also have significant interest in bringing back center Ethan Pocic. This is telling that they want continuity upfront as they look to capitalize on the next two or three years so they can keep their offensive unit together. It also likely means they will see Wills through his rookie contract.
Wills has put the Browns in a peculiar position, however, as they have a decision to make regarding his fifth-year option this offseason. Regardless of whether they decide to pick it up or not, the Browns will likely see Wills through his rookie contract, whether it is this year or next.
The former 10th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, however, needs for his play to reach a level of consistency. There are weeks on end where he will grade out as a high-end pass blocker, then weeks where his play will bottom out. To this point in his career, the highs have been high, but the lows have been low. The Browns need more out of him next season.
DE Alex Wright
Browns DE Alex Wright. (Winslow Townson/AP Images for Panini)
The Browns drafted Alex Wright in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft, and he was rushed into significant playing time sooner than anticipated. While he was a rotational piece early in his season, the injury to Jadeveon Clowney in the second week of the season thrust Wright into the starting lineup from a Group of Five program way too soon.
His rookie season did not go to plan. Wright did not record a sack, and while he flashed a bit in run support, needs to take a big step as three edge rushers are set for free agency with little hope of returning. No more Jadeveon Clowney, no more Chase Winovich, no more Stephen Weatherly (who suffered a season-ending injury in training camp), Wright may be thrust back into the starting lineup in 2023.
DT Perrion Winfrey
Browns DT Perrion Winfrey. Brownspregame 4
The Browns are going to overhaul their defensive tackle room this offseason, but seeing a significant leap out of fourth rounder Perrion Winfrey would soften the blow of the turnover. Multiple free agents and another drafted rookie will likely enter the room, but Winfrey will be given every opportunity to maintain his rotational role upfront.
After a rough start to his rookie season that included multiple discipline issues and healthy scratches on gameday, Winfrey finally solidified a significant chunk of snaps down the stretch for the Browns. Expect him to keep those snaps, but they need him to become a playmaker when he is on the field rather than just a bare minimum body.
K Cade York
Browns K Cade York. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
It is rare to see a team invest so highly in a special teamer. But the Browns used a fourth round pick to select kicker Cade York out of LSU. And while his career started well for the Browns, including a 58-yard game-winning bomb in Week 1 against the Carolina Panthers, York suffered significant lows in 2023 as well.
While he only missed two extra points in 2022, and none after Week 3, York missed six field goals over an eight-game stretch from Weeks 7 through 15 this season. If York struggles like that again in 2023, the Browns will certainly bring in competition at the kicker position midway through next season and into 2024.