2020 Cleveland Browns Preview

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, Myles Garrett

Competency. Consistency. Respect. Qualities the Cleveland Browns organization has hidden from since their return. Never mind winning a division including the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, the Browns haven’t won over seven games since 2007. The 2020 version has talent. As did the 2019 one. But until they establish an identity, an idea of who the Cleveland Browns are, what they do well, and a belief that they’ll do those things when it matters, nothing will change.

This is the task Kevin Stefanski and Andrew Berry must manage if they are to succeed where all others have failed. The ownership is inadequate, and to overcome that is improbable. But Stefanski has shown strong leadership during the off-season dealing with COVID-19 and social justice issues. He’s a rookie coach wrapping up his first training camp without preseason games, however. Given their history, how long a leash will ownership provide him?

The offense is the strength, with the biggest question mark at quarterback. Reports from training camp revealed struggles on most days for Baker Mayfield: inaccurate, interception prone, and indecisive. The last part is most worrisome. Mayfield’s problems occur when he’s in the pocket too long, tapping the ball with his left hand, scanning the field in panic. His height hinders him here. Once pressure collapses the pocket, Baker just isn’t tall enough to see over the bodies. This causes him to bail early to create new throwing lanes, cutting off half the field. He becomes less accurate on the move, another issue that hindered his progress last year. So what can they do?

This play takes too long to develop, and Baker’s indecisiveness has him walking into a sack

Play action. Three-step drops. Slant patterns. Kevin Stefanski’s primary task to resurrect the third year quarterback is a quicker release from Baker. Mayfield’s pocket presence is an issue. Adjust schemes so it isn’t. Smallish QB’s have two options. Russell Wilson is a maestro on the move. Once he leaves the pocket, the wizardy begins. Mayfield doesn’t have that ability. Drew Brees needs to be his guide. Sean Payton helps Brees by calling short routes and play action passes to slow the pass rush. Last year’s offensive coordinator, Todd Monken, preferred deep, slow developing routes to push the ball downfield. For big quarterbacks, such as Jameis Winston or Ben Roethlisberger, that can see down field and take punishment, this style works. But Mayfield toils in those situations. Remember how fast the ball came out during his first appearance, on Thursday night against the Jets during his rookie year? He had one read and threw darts. The ball was out of his hands before the defense could turn their heads. Stefanski has to give Mayfield less to think about.

When Baker hits his back foot on these plays, the ball is out

They’ve stacked the rest of the offense. The Browns have perhaps the best wide receiver duo and the best running back duo in the league. Nick Chubb finished second in the league in rushing yards last season. His vision is exemplary, and he’s quick. But his strength makes him elite. Chubb was third in the league last year, averaging 3 yards per carry after contact, and led all running backs in broken tackles. He’ll threaten to lead the league in rushing again. Former rushing champion Kareem Hunt signed this week to a 2 year, 13.25 million extension. He’ll get 8-10 carries per week and catch passes out of the backfield and in the slot.

The only questions surrounding Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry will revolve around their health. Beckham fought a hamstring injury last season, and Landry needed hip surgery during the off-season. Each has been a top ten receiver since joining the league. Beckham is spectacular downfield, makes impossible catches, and is dynamic running with the ball. Landry is a workhorse, toiling over the middle and in traffic. He’s one of the most dangerous slot guys in the league. If they are and remain healthy, they can dominate opposing secondaries.

Austin Hooper signed in the off-season to strengthen the tight end position, and he and Mayfield developed a strong connection during workouts in Texas over the summer. While his contract is high (4 years, 44 mil), he gives Mayfield a reliable safety valve over the middle of the field. Last year’s most hated fan unit, the offensive line, found reinforcements. Jedrick Willis Jr., a first rounder out of Alabama, will play left tackle, and free agent Jack Conklin signed to line up on the right side. Willis played right tackle in college and may experience setbacks with the switch to a new position, and Conklin is a much better run blocker than in pass protection, but both are upgrades. Add them to Pro Bowler Joel Bitonio, Pro Bowl snub J. C. Tretter, and improving Wyatt Teller, and the line is no longer a weakness. The pieces are in place. If the offense struggles in 2020, the blame will fall on Baker Mayfield.

So, the defense. Myles Garrett is back from suspension. One of the best defenders, in theory, in the league, Garrett enters every year with the goal of winning Defensive Player of the Year. However, injuries and last year’s suspension have held him back. Penalties are blunting his effect on games, too. Unnecessary roughness, late hits, and jumping offsides plagued the former number 1 pick last year. Discipline has become paramount to his development. Helmet smashings aside, Garrett needs to curtail the yellow flags. As a leader of the defense, his maturation will portend their success. They won’t survive without smarter play from Garrett.

The starting defensive line returns from last year, a unit that ranked 8th in the league in quarterback pressure percentage until Garrett’s suspension. Garrett, Larry Ogunjobi, Sheldon Richardson, and Olivier Vernon represent the only grouping on the defense with proven success. Ogunjobi and Richardson had stellar 2019 seasons, especially after Garrett’s departure, and Vernon, while struggling early, began affecting games until injuries cut his season short. The linemen must dominate in 2020. Pressure is the key component to disrupting opposing quarterbacks. It’s the only problem a defense can present that offenses cannot overcome. If the Browns are to stay in games, these guys are key.

Behind them, it’s dicey. The linebackers are unproven. Mack Wilson flashed in his rookie year, but will miss some time with injury. B.J. Goodson, signed in the off-season from Green Bay, started 9 games and recorded 37 tackles last season. Sione Takitaki, drafted by John Dorsey in the 3rd round a year ago, barely saw the field during his rookie year. Jacob Phillips, a rookie from LSU, will start for Wilson, and showed promise in training camp, but this unit is uninspiring. Quick, athletic linebackers are a must given that they face Baltimore twice a year. Phillips is that, but must prove he deserves field time. And with Joe Schobert gone to Jacksonville as a free agent, Cleveland lost their defensive play caller and quarterback. Who steps into his role? Expect teams to run at the inexperience in the middle of the defense and pressure them with throws to tight ends. If this unit struggles, so will the defense.

Further back, the secondary arouses little confidence either. Denzel Ward, a Pro Bowler as a rookie, took leaps backward last year. Teams picked on him deep. He needs a return to All-Star form to stabilize this unit. His opposite corner, Greedy Williams, was okay as a rookie, but is hurt and questionable for Sunday. At safety, free agent signings Karl Joseph and Andrew Sendejo will start, while Ronnie Harrison, acquired via a 5th round 2021 draft pick from Jacksonville, is still learning the scheme. The hope was for rookie Grant Delpit to snag a starting spot, but suffered a torn Achilles during training camp and is out for the season. Holes abound in the secondary.

No one behind the defensive line has been a consistent NFL player in their career. Defensive coordinator Joe Woods brings expectations because of his work with San Francisco’s defensive backs last year and an impressive stint as Denver’s defensive coordinator in 2017 (3rd in the league in total defense). The problem remains the talent level he has to work with.

Kevin Stefanski wants to run the ball on offense, controlling clock and field position. Running teams win games 17-13. To win with a dominant rushing attack, stout defense is a must-have. This defense isn’t good enough to support a run heavy offense. For the Browns, or any NFL team in 2020, the recipe for victories is to throw to get the lead, then run to keep it. Wins are contingent on quarterback play. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are good enough to win 6-7 games. Anything higher rests on Baker Mayfield. The holes on defense are too large to count on them to stifle opposing offenses. The firepower possessed by the Browns is capable of scoring 27-30 a game, provided Mayfield returns to his rookie year form. If his completion percentage rises and the interceptions fall, Cleveland can compete. So, how much do you trust Baker Mayfield? It’s a question for the fans, but also for Kevin Stefanski. We’ll know early what he thinks of his quarterback. If his game plans are conservative, the head coach knows Mayfield isn’t the future of the franchise.

Ownership must trust Stefanski to mold the Cleveland franchise into his image. Paul DePodesta, the chief strategy officer, wanted him in 2019. DePodesta seems to be the current Jimmy Haslam ear holder. It’s imperative to give Stefanski time. He’s going to miss challenges, make wrong 4th down decisions, and his team may look unprepared. Young coaches in the NFL are green. The skills needed to run a team on the sideline during a game are daunting. Minus guys with older Hall of Fame type quarterbacks (see Matt LaFleur with Aaron Rodgers), most struggle. But DePodesta and Haslam hired Stefanski to save themselves from squandering the most talented Cleveland roster since 1994. If ownership hasn’t learned patience yet, they never will.

The other franchises in the division, minus Cincinnati, are the model. They develop talent and change schemes to maximize the roster. But it takes a commitment and belief in yourself and the people you’ve hired to see the program through. What organization, in any sport, that changes coaches and general managers on a dime, prospers? None. The rest of the league is too good at exposing weaknesses. Stefanski and Berry are smart. Smart people fail, yet learn from their failures. Allow your young brain trust to fail.

It’s the only way, the only path the organization hasn’t followed. The Browns and their fans have to be alright with mediocrity for the sake of growth. Myles Garrett reached the lowest depths of his professional career a year ago. The noise, disdain, and venom he lived through will either launch his career, or break him. Expect him to have a monster season. Failure causes reflection, leading to revision, conveying to success. Only the Browns try to skip steps. Disappointing seasons in the past lead to firings and overhauls. It can’t happen anymore in Cleveland. If anyone in the organization is interested in actual success, they’ll take whatever this season brings, ignore any drama, and allow the men they’ve hired to learn, and fail.

The Heart of Jarvis

Cleveland Browns, Jarvis landry, NFL

The fans received their first glimpse of Jarvis Landry as a leader last year on HBO’s Hard Knocks. The newly acquired receiver, fed up early in training camp with the practice habits of his teammates, went on a F-bomb laced tirade in a position meeting, letting them know the shoddy habits built during the previous seasons were no longer acceptable. It was a tongue lashing long overdue.


Landry is the heart and soul of this club. Every team needs a leader, a respected veteran who commands attention and forces others to do things the right way. Jarvis wants to win; you can see it in his eyes and feel it in his words. He knows the opportunity that exists and refuses to let his teammates take it for granted. He is what champions are made of.


Because of his slow start to the season and being overshadowed by Odell Beckham, the importance of Landry was forgotten. No longer. Jarvis’ leadership shone on Sunday, alongside his extreme talent. The Browns had every opportunity to fold in Baltimore. Playing in a stadium they had won only four times in their history and facing the heat of the national media for unmet expectations, the young Browns needed guidance. Jarvis Landry led the way.

John Dorsey has made excellent moves since taking over as general manager of the Browns, yet, other than the drafting of Baker, none have been as important as the Landry trade. Acquired from the Dolphins for a 4th and 7th round pick, he has forced the organization to shed their loser’s habits. The stench of 1-31 doesn’t disappear by firing a coach or replacing front office members. Winning requires strong habits, work ethic, and discipline. Beyond his extraordinary talent, Jarvis Landry has instilled these qualities in his teammates.

Sunday marked the first time in the 2019 season the team looked as the fans expected. The Baker Mayfield from 2018 returned, throwing darts, controlling the offense, and playing with confidence. Nick Chubb dissected the Ravens as few running backs have. Twenty rushes for 165 yards and three touchdowns are staggering numbers to hang in Baltimore. Ricky Seals-Jones was a welcome addition to the game plan this week. A wide receiver in college, the tight end’s large frame and speed makes him a tough cover for opposing linebackers. With David Njoku out until at least Week 11, Seals-Jones provides a dangerous safety valve for Mayfield. Given Njoku’s tendency to catch a case of the drops, Seals-Jones may be an upgrade.


The defense, for the third week in a row, was outstanding. The strength of the team to this point, they’ve allowed the offense time to find a groove. They contained Lamar Jackson, sacking him four times and kept him in the pocket as well as can be expected, forcing him to use his arm. Joe Schobert recorded 17 tackles and a sack; he is pushing Myles Garrett for defensive team MVP to this point in the season. Plagued by missed tackles a year ago, Schobert has recovered and is quarterbacking this defense impressively.


Overlooked by the star power surrounding him, Larry Ogunjobi has been stellar the last two weeks, recording a sack in each game and standing up opposing running backs. A third-round pick in the 2017 draft, he is one of the few picks Sashi Brown got right.


Old Browns teams would have wilted on Sunday, unable to live up to expectations. Landry has preached patience and belief in his teammates, vowing the offense would begin making plays. He led by example Sunday, enforcing his will on the game and the Ravens. Leaders know when to disengage and allow their teammates to learn lessons, just as they know when to grab a game by the throat and take it. Jarvis Landry did that against Baltimore, and it’s the reason the Browns look like the team we expected.

Back under the lights Monday night, the Browns head to San Francisco to face an undefeated 49ers team. Landry sustained a concussion on Sunday, leaving his availability in doubt. Antonio Callaway will return from a four game drug suspension, yet it’s difficult to pinpoint what he will bring to the offense. Showing up out of shape to training camp, Callaway is a fantastic talent but needs to prove he wants and deserves to be a member of this team. If he worked his way into shape during his suspension, there will be a role for him. Rashard Higgins has missed three straight games, and it’s anyone’s guess if he’ll be able to suit up Monday. The Browns receiving core will need Callaway this week, not a comforting thought.


The 49ers have shown a balanced attack on offense. Their two backs, Raheem Mostert and Matt Breida, each average over 5 yards per rush, and Jimmy Garoppolo has been solid yet unspectacular returning from injury at quarterback. Their receivers are a below average outfit. George Kittle is their only threat in the passing game. They must account for him and gang tackle after he catches the ball. He will bulldoze defenders if allowed to gain steam in the open field.


San Francisco’s offense destroyed both Cincinnati’s and Pittsburgh’s defenses, though 5 turnovers in the Steeler game kept it close. The Browns defense must continue to pressure the quarterback, forcing Garoppolo to rush himself in the pocket. He will turn the ball over if he’s uncomfortable.


Offensively, Odell Beckham will need over 2 catches and 20 yards Monday night. Despite the numbers, Beckham was an important part of the offense on Sunday, drawing double coverage and opening space for Landry, Ricky Seals-Jones, and Nick Chubb. If Landry and Higgins miss Monday, however, Beckham will need to be more than a decoy. If Baker and the offense have turned the corner, the Browns should begin a winning streak on Monday night.

Beckham(13) draws double coverage, allowing Seals-Jones(83) to get open

The Whip Around

1. Though Tom Brady and the offense have received most of the praise during their Super Bowl ring collection, this year’s defense may carry the team. They gave up their first touchdown of the year on Sunday and have looked dominant each week. Jamie Collins, back with the team after collecting massive checks from the Browns for subpar play, has been rejuvenated, racking up 3.5 sacks and picking off 3 passes. Brady is being carried by the other side of the ball for the first time since his sophomore year in the league.

2. I’m in love with trips bunch, a set in which three wide receivers line up on the same side of the ball, in a triangle formation. The options are infinite. Already at a disadvantage, defensive backs’ chances of covering all three are nil. Week after week, offenses make huge plays out of these sets. Use it more, offensive coordinators.

Trips Bunch
Landry wide open for a 1st down

3. Another week, another referee complaint. The officials are letting turnover plays go, regardless of what they seen the field, so they can review the play. The problem, once they go to the replay booth, is they rarely overturn what is called on the field. Ezekiel Elliott’s fumble on Sunday night football is a perfect example. While a close play, his elbow was down before the ball popped out. Called a fumble on the field however, the refs decided it was too close to overturn. Forget the “not enough evidence to overturn” nonsense. You have two working eyes, presumably. Get the call right, instead of relying on replay.

4. The Eagles victory at Lambeau Field last Thursday night was impressive for Philadelphia. Torching the improved Green Bay defense, Philly pulled within a game of the division leading Cowboys. Carson Wentz rebounded from a spotty performance against Detroit, throwing three touchdowns, and the Eagles rushing game flexed its muscle, accounting for 176 yards. If Wentz can stay healthy, I believe the Eagles are a threat to play in the Super Bowl.

5. Washington, Cincinnati, Miami, and the Jets have made life easy for anyone in a Survival Pool. The garbage these teams litter NFL fields with each week is an abomination. If you combined their rosters, you still could not construct a decent club.

Daniel Snyder right now……Probably

6. The Cowboys took a chance drafting Jaylon Smith at 34 in the 2016 draft after he tore his ACL and MCL in the Fiesta Bowl, but it is paying dividends now. He’s a tackling machine, tied for fourth in the league, and is the anchor to a superb Dallas defense. If the Cowboys advance in the playoffs, it will be on the back of Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, Robert Quinn, and DeMarcus Lawrence. They will need to carry the water when Dak inevitably struggles in key moments.

7. The hit Marcus Peters took on his pick 6 of Jameis Winston was brutal. No flag thrown? The NFL bends over backward to ensure no quarterback is even looked at cross; flags fly if a receiver brushes pads with a defender. That a defender was crushed, helmet to helmet no less, in that matter is bush league. Donovan Smith should be fined exorbitantly and suspended for a game.

8. What’s left to be said? Gardner Minshew is a magician. Prepare his bust in Canton.

9. Another pet peeve: returners bringing the ball out of the end zone. They rarely get back to the 25 yard line and they’re taking a chance on a turnover or penalty. I’m baffled special teams coordinators aren’t beating it into these guys’ brains to take a knee. The days of returners housing kickoffs are over. Save yourselves the embarrassment, and me the energy I use yelling at the television.

10. Russell Wilson was glorious Thursday night, leading the Seahawks to a huge division victory against the Rams. Wilson, perennially underrated by fans and media members alike, is requiring us to consider him as an early MVP candidate. Overcoming a shoddy defense, Rusty’s Seahawks are inching toward contender status. The quarterback has joined Patrick Mahomes in the “Must See TV” category.