5 moves that defined the Browns’ playoff-bound 2023 season

Coming off of back-to-back losing seasons, the Cleveland Browns needed to make big changes. And whether that was hiring defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz or the late addition of quarterback Joe Flacco, they took the necessary steps to become a winner.

As a result, they won their final four meaningful games, allowing themselves to get some much-needed rest in Week 18 against the Cincinnati Bengals. Finishing 11-6 on the season, the Browns locked down the fifth seed in the AFC and will take on the Houston Texans this weekend as they look to make a Super Bowl run.

What were the most meaningful moves the Browns made, however? We take a look here at the top five moves that have defined Cleveland’s 2023 season.

Honorable Mention: Overhauling the defensive tackle room with Dalvin Tomlinson, Maurice Hurst, Shelby Harris

General manager Andrew Berry and his team made numerous moves that deserve recognition, and sometimes one or two get left out. An honorable mention is in order here, as the additions of Dalvin Tomlinson, Shelby Harris, and Maurice Hurst played a huge role in the overhauling of an abysmal defensive front a year ago.

Tomlinson has been every bit of the player the Browns expected him to be as he is a professional’s professional.

While Jordan Elliott deserves a ton of credit for taking a massive leap forward this season, having the rotational depth of Harris and Hurst gave the Browns an undeniable force up front.

OT Dawand Jones drafted in the 4th round of the 2023 NFL draft

Browns Joe Flacco Jim Schwartz
(Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images)

The Browns lost starting right tackle Jack Conklin in the first game of the season and did not skip a beat. And that was due to the immediate success of rookie tackle Dawand Jones.

Finishing top-15 in pass blocking efficiency on true pass sets, Jones became a stalwart for the Browns from his right tackle post. And while his season ended early, there is no doubt who the right tackle of the future is in Cleveland.

The big task for Jones now, however, will be staying locked in this offseason as the big concern this draft cycle was his ability to maintain his weight and his commitment to the game.

For now, Jones looks like one of the premier steals of the 2023 NFL draft.

Browns trade two fifth round picks to Vikings for Za'Darius Smith, a sixth rounder, and a seventh rounder

Browns Joe Flacco Jim Schwartz
(Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images)

Adding three defensive tackles in free agency was not the only move that Berry made to overhaul his defensive front. He then went out and made a blockbuster trade for star pass rusher Za’Darius Smith, acquiring him for a couple of Day 3 pick swaps.

Coming off of a season finishing near the top of the league in pass rush win rate, Smith once again finished in that top 10 of that metric on the opposite side of Myles Garrett. While the sack numbers (recording 5.5 this season) are not high, the impact of Smith has been seen every week.

The Browns have a top-shelf defense for a reason, and that is because of the work of the pass rushers up front. Not to mention the addition of designated pass rusher Ogbo Okoronkwo as well…

Trading a 2025 7th round pick for K Dustin Hopkins

Browns Joe Flacco Jim Schwartz
Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The Cade York experiment had to end. The Browns did not bring in competition to camp to give York every single opportunity to prove himself. And he could not.

They then traded a seventh round pick two years from the start of the season to the Los Angeles Chargers for Dustin Hopkins. Robbed of a deserving Pro Bowl nod, Hopkins has been nothing but nails for the Browns this season.

Hitting on a multitude of go-ahead and game-winning kicks, Hopkins has been a perfect 8-for-8 on kicks of 50 yards or more this season for the Browns. All-in-all, Hopkins has missed just three kicks, elevating his field goal percentage to a massive 91.7 percent this season.

As he has sat out the last two weeks with a hamstring injury, the Browns are hopeful to get their mightily consistent kicker back for their playoff run.

Signing Joe Flacco on 11/20

Browns Joe Flacco Jim Schwartz
Mandatory Credit: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

The quarterback situation in Cleveland has been, well, quite bad this year. From the shoulder injury to Deshaun Watson to his return (where he was playing quite well!) to the abrupt announcement that he was out for the season, to starting P.J. Walker and Dorian Thompson-Robinson, the waters were high.

And then the Browns signed 38-year-old veteran Joe Flacco to the practice squad. And then Thompson-Robinson went down with a concussion. And then Flacco was inserted into the starting lineup. And then the rest was history.

Flacco has been on a historic run with the Browns, throwing for over 300 yards in four straight games and leading the team through a four-game win streak to lock down the top Wild Card spot.

Can the Flacco Fever continue as the Browns take on the Texans and hopefully beyond?

Hiring Jim Schwartz as defensive coordinator

Browns Joe Flacco Jim Schwartz
(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Is this even a question? After moving on from former defensive coordinator exactly a calendar year ago today, the Browns have seen night-and-day results from their defensive players.

While some of that has to do with the overhaul of the defensive line previously mentioned, much has to do with coaching as well.

The Browns returned all of their linebackers, and four of their five starters in the secondary as well. Players like linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, cornerback Greg Newsome II, and safety Grant Delpit all saw a massive leap in the first year of the Schwartz era.

Cornerback Denzel Ward returned to Pro Bowl form, and second-year player Martin Emerson Jr. built upon his successful rookie season. Schwartz and his staff found a way to minimize the amount of thinking on the field and took their players off of leashes to let them be football players.

And you won’t find a better defensive unit as a result. As Schwartz is likely to get interview requests, the Browns now might have to prepare for the inevitability that they may have to find another defensive coordinator next year.

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Story originally appeared on Browns Wire