The Cleveland Browns won their fifth game of the season on Sunday, beating the Carolina Panthers, 26-20. The Browns key players showed up and showed out in the victory, leading the team past the feisty cats. The road to the playoffs is still an uphill battle for this season. But, that is not something to be wary about. Even if the Browns miss the playoffs, the team is trending in the right direction with the building blocks of a future playoff team installed. The cornerstone of the franchise is built on a select few players who will be leading the team and their unit for years to come. These players change the game and the players they play with in their unit. Who are these cornerstone players? Well, here are the players and how I rank them as cornerstones of the Cleveland Browns franchise.
1. Baker Mayfield
The quarterback position is the most important position in all of sports. That paired with the immense talent of Mayfield makes him the easy No. 1 on this list. However Mayfield goes, the team will go. Mayfield has the most power to drive the direction of the franchise. He has the talent and the makeup to be the franchise quarterback. He is just a rookie, but he is already the No. 1 cornerstone player.
2. Myles Garrett
Garrett is a generational talent at a very important position. He is the backbone of the Browns pass rush. He forces offenses to have to gameplan for him in order to slow him down. He opens up opportunities for others on the defense because of the attention he can garner. And he is just beginning his career. You just cannot find a pass rush with his talent.
3. Joel Bitonio
Bitonio is next on the list because of his talent and versatility. He is the Browns best offensive lineman and he is just entering his prime years. I have Bitonio higher up because of his versatility to fill multiple positions on the team. He is probably the best guard and tackle on the team. With Mayfield at quarterback, his protection is vital and Bitonio will be key to protecting Mayfield for years to come.
4. Denzel Ward
Ward has the talent to be a shutdown cornerback. In today’s NFL, that is immensely valuable. He is just a rookie, but he can be that player. His presence in the secondary allows the rest of the depth chart to fall into place. Ward can become the corner who takes care of the opposing No. 1 wide receiver by himself. That is huge for a defensive gameplan.
5. Joe Schobert
Schobert has shown his value to the defense already this season. Without Schobert in the lineup, the defense allowed 26, 33 and 37 points to the opposing offense. He is the heart of the defense with the ability to get the unit into the right position to succeed each play. Schobert can play run and is really talented in coverage. He is still a developing player, but he is already the brains of the defense.
6. Larry Ogunjobi
Ogunjobi may not be the generational talent like Garrett, but Ogunjobi has elite talent to be the centerpiece of the interior defensive line. He has shown throughout his second season that he can be a disruptive force in the middle of the line. And, he is still getting better. The defensive tackle spot is very thin for the Browns, but it does have a cornerstone player in Ogunjobi.
7. Nick Chubb
Chubb has already taken ahold of the running back position to be the Browns franchise running back for years to come. He will be key to balancing the offense and easing the load that Mayfield will have to carry. Chubb is a true playmaker for the offense and he is just a rookie.
8. Kevin Zeitler
Bitonio’s counterpart at right guard, Zeitler is another cornerstone on the offensive line. He is just one year older than Bitonio. He is in the midst of his prime years and has performed to a top tier level so far this season. He may not get a lot of publicity, but his importance is not to be overshadowed.
9. Damarious Randall
When the Browns traded for Randall this offseason, I loved the fit for this defense. His performance and fit has exceeded even my expectations. He allowed the rest of the secondary to fall into place as Randall is by far the best free safety on the roster. He has become a playmaker in the backend of the defense and is the ball hawk the team needed. He is still a young player and this offseason he should get a nice new contract from the Browns.
Players who can get to this level:
Njoku has been up and down throughout his first two seasons in the NFL. He has the talent to be a true playmaker for the offense, but he needs to show most consistency. He is the closest of any player to making this list.
Peppers had an underwhelming rookie season as he was thrust into a role that did not fit his skill set. With Randall at free safety, Peppers is now playing closer to the line of scrimmage where he can play downhill and use his athleticism and versatility. Peppers is improving every week and he can earn his way onto this list.
Before his injury, Mitchell was playing really well. He took the No. 2 corner spot and ran with it. He is a young player who is still developing as he receives more playing experience. He could form a really nice duo with Ward for many years to come.
Avery has shown spurts of what he could be for the Browns defense. He has probably the best edge rushing skills on the team, besides Myles Garrett. But, he is not there yet. As he receives more playing time, he should get better and better. His versatility to fill multiple roles is another valuable asset for him.
Ogbah has the talent to be on the list, but he has yet to produce to the level I expected him to do. I am not sure he will ever be a cornerstone player, but rather a nice starting quality edge rusher. Time will tell.