Browns, WWW

Cautiously optimistic about the 2017 Browns: While We’re Waiting

I was called out last week in the comments of Rational, Snark, or Conspiracy! for leaning too far onto #TeamSunnyside in the rational portions of the article. The issue though is that when evaluating the offseason moves the Browns made, the rational portion of my brain sees the individual and net positives of the decisions. So, don’t expect me to back down from those assertions.

Gregg Williams is better than Ray Horton, re-signing Jamie Collins and Christian Kirksey was a welcome reprieve to the turmoil the Browns usually find in free agency (see Terrelle Pryor adding some normalcy there), and the lack of suspensions, arrests, and off the field injuries is unheard of for a Browns team between January and August.

Let’s be clear though, the bar on being positive about the Browns is set awful low because of the past 22 years of Browns fandom. Competing for the playoffs would not be the mark of a successful 2017 season but that of a miraculous one. ESPN might film a 30-for-30 on the spot should it happen. The rational take is that the Browns are slowly building the foundation and might go from one win in 2016 to somewhere between four and six wins this year. Maybe.

The positive affirmations should therefore be taken within that context of being items that will move the Browns in the correct direction. A journey of a thousands steps being broken up into individual strides. Still, there are several areas where it could be or perhaps even should be exciting to watch the Browns play football this fall.

Line of Scrimmage

I am one who desires a football team built from the line of scrimmage first, then outward to the skill positions. Anyone who doesn’t think the modern NFL still supports that model should take a closer look at the Oakland Raiders and Dallas Cowboys. Skill positions are needed for a winning team, of course, but they will not, can not have room to operate without the big guys up front doing their job.

The Browns upgraded their talent upon the line of scrimmage as much or more than any team in the NFL compared to the end of last season.

Offensive Line

It does not matter if the current front office, the tumultuous seasons, personal preference for a different location, or the instability of the franchise in general were the reasons that Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz no longer don the brown and orange. The fact remains that the NFL is setup for franchises to retain the services of their most valued players, and the Browns did not retain their services.

The result was gaping holes on the offensive line in 2016, and not the types of holes that Trent Richardson would refuse to run through. Offensive line coach Hal Hunter did his best to mask the deficiencies by placing an emphasis on run-blockers (easier to find on the scrap heaps), but injuries to Joel Bitonio and John Greco (and also backup center Austin Reiter) left the unit even more depleted. Perhaps unfairly, Hunter lost his position as a result.

Bob Wylie takes over coaching the offensive line in 2017 that is in a much different situation.1 Bitonio and Greco are both practicing despite rehabilitation timetables that would normally place them into returns during the season (or, in Greco’s case, not at all). The front office also made the biggest free agency splashes by signing guard Kevin Zeitler and center J.C. Tretter. There is an open question to if second-year tackle Shon Coleman or third-year utility OL Cameron Erving can handle the starting right tackle position, but it is not as if Austin Pasztor was a phenom there.

Defensive Line

The biggest benefit of the disastrous 2016 campaign is that it did exactly what it needed to do. If Pryor is not called for a taunting penalty against the Baltimore Ravens, if the Browns can make a kick against the Miami Dolphins, then there is a decent chance the fourth best quarterback in the 2017 NFL Draft would have still been selected No. 2 overall, but we would all be trying to rationalize why it is OK that he is fumbling half of his snaps on his first day of practice and looking overwhelmed by the jump to this level.2 Instead, the Browns secured the No. 1 overall pick and took the best overall player, defensive end Myles Garrett.

The Browns added to their depth by also using a Day 2 pick on Larry Ogunjobi and risking a late-round pick on Caleb Brantley, who was considered a Day 2 talent before an assault accusation was levied against him just before the draft (all charges have been dropped). Desmond Bryant is returning from injury (again), Emmanual Ogbah no longer has to attempt to be more than he is, and Danny Shelton is receiving the “best shape of his life” puff pieces. We’ll have to actually see if Shelton has renewed energy and if Des Bryant can remain on the field when the games begin, but there should be no question that the Browns are an improved group up front.

Quarterback room

Here we need to tap the brakes a bit. Or slam onto them as the media craze on DeShone Kizer is getting a bit out of control. The benefit Kizer has had of a completely false perception that he had character red flags going into the NFL Draft is that it was easy to knock those down through his impeccable work ethic and maturity. He deserves to have that myth buried but the fawning over him walking onto the practice field a few minutes before other players and staying on the field after practice has been a bit much. These are simply things that rookie quarterbacks must do to have any chance of early success- they do not guarantee it.

Kizer still has inconsistent mechanics and footwork that leads to some inaccurate throws; particularly on shorter routes. His arm is far superior to Kessler and Brock Osweiler, so expect to see some clips that demonstrate his potential. Just realize that it is potential- for now. Perhaps he can overtake Kessler by the end of Training Camp, but it is doubtful he is there yet. Be patient. Of course, having multiple teammates state their belief of Kizer becoming a franchise quarterback only cuts the brake lines.

Regardless, the quarterback room is a vast improvement from the 2016 one that had Robert Griffin, Josh McCown, and rookie Kessler as the options. The buzz for Kizer is also somehow more muted than the ridiculous notions that Deshaun Watson is already Warren Moon or that he is “ahead of any rookie quarterback” that head coach O’Brien has ever been around without noting the context that Tom Savage is probably the best other rookie he has seen.

Anticipating the fun

There are going to be some frustrating plays, series, and games throughout the 2017 season. Even good teams have each of those, so expecting anything more from a bad team would be an act of folly. The expectation and demand should be to have some fun while spending three plus hours of our Sundays3 watching players demonstrate actual skill on the field.

Focusing the first round of the draft on athletic playmakers in Garrett, Jabrill Peppers, and David Njoku helps. Njoku is going to miss some blocks, he will drop some passes, but he needs to also catch some touchdowns and add some yards after catch that make us double-take. There will be times when the rookie defenders are over-aggressive and made to look foolish by baiting offenses, but there needs to be some plays mixed in that will get us to jump from our seat too. GIFs of Myles and Jabrill using their speed to set the edge, to create chaos, and to invoke harm on the opposition need to be plentiful.

The offense has their own playmakers. Corey Coleman, Duke Johnson, and Isaiah Crowell are each known for their explosive potential and capabilities. We need to see that potential shown as capability more often in 2017 with big plays and touchdowns. The offensive line has been bolstered, the quarterbacking should be capable enough, so let’s make some plays even if the offense is likely to young to sustain the attack every drive or even every week. We need to see enough excitement from the offense to believe Hue has this thing headed in the correct direction.

The same holds for Gregg William’s defense. Kirksey, Collins, Ogbah, and Shelton return to add into the playmaking of the first round rookies. So, the front seven better make life miserable for the other team. There are going to be issues in the secondary. Oh man, there are going to be some headaches there. So, setting the edge, stopping the run, and getting to the quarterback to minimize it will be essential.

The Browns don’t need to be a playoff team for me to be positive about this season. They just need to take the next step and start weaponizing the athleticism they have been acquiring. 2016 was the season of the tank. 2017 needs to be a foundation builder and a showcase for what they will become.

  1. Wylie has bounced between the CFL and NFL over the past couple of decades and coached with Hue Jackson on the Oakland Raiders in 2011. []
  2. Mitchell Trubisky is currently behind both Mike Glennon and Mark Sanchez and has had some rather poor initial reviews of his play. It is early though. []
  3. or early Monday mornings []