BEREA, Ohio -- The Cleveland Browns were among the NFL’s biggest disappointments in 2021. Can they bounce back in 2022?
That figures to hinge heavily on the upcoming offseason.
The Browns still boast a talented roster, highlighted by several star players who remain under contract, including Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb, guard Joel Bitonio and defensive end Myles Garrett.
But clearly, as this past season underscored, Cleveland has more roster building and revamping ahead to become a true contender.
Here are the three burning questions the Browns face this offseason:
Will the Browns stick with Baker Mayfield at quarterback?
Both general manager Andrew Berry and coach Kevin Stefanski declared last week that they “fully expect” Baker Mayfield to be their starter and “bounce back” in 2022.
“It’s easy to forget. ... what we’ve seen with Baker over the past several years,” Berry said. “Obviously he had his most productive season in this offense under Kevin [in 2020].
“We’ve been with Baker for a long period of time. We know his work ethic, we know his drive and we [see] him as a talented passer in this league.”
On Wednesday, Mayfield underwent surgery in California to have the torn labrum in his non-throwing left shoulder repaired. The hope is Mayfield will be cleared in time to participate in OTAs in May, or at least by June for minicamp, according to sources.
Whatever they might be saying publicly, the Browns will have to determine internally how much they believe the injury affected Mayfield’s performance this season, and whether, with a healthy shoulder, he can return to being the quarterback that both propelled the Browns to the playoffs in 2020 and finished in the top 10 in QBR.
Off that, they’ll have three options: 1. Bring back Mayfield as the starter; 2. Acquire another quarterback to compete with him; 3. Jettison him to another team while trading for another starter.
The Browns might not have the draft capital (unless they included one of their own stars in a deal) to trade for Russell Wilson or Aaron Rodgers, who, by the way, would both have to waive their no-trade clauses to come to Cleveland. Derek Carr and Jimmy Garoppolo, coming off playoff runs, might not be so readily available anymore. Deshaun Watson has 22 civil lawsuits alleging sexual assault and inappropriate behavior pending against him. And Kirk Cousins is set to make $35 million next season, almost $17 million more than what Mayfield’s fifth-year option will pay him in 2022.
That’s why bringing Mayfield back as the starter seems to be the most likely outcome. But what the Browns ultimately decide will be one of the dominant storylines of this NFL offseason.
Whoever the QB, can Browns upgrade their pass-catching weapons?
Cleveland did not have a pass-catcher top 600 receiving yards this season. And after Jarvis Landry, no Browns player had more than 38 catches. Mayfield’s struggles had much to do with that. But it was hardly all on him.
The Browns ranked 25th in yards after the catch, coupled with the seventh-highest drop rate (4.4%) in the league. Only the Patriots and Falcons had fewer 40-yard receptions than Cleveland, which had five such passing plays all season.
Landry has no guaranteed money left on his deal to go with a $15.1 million cap hit. It feels like he has played his last snap with the Browns.
“Everybody knows how much respect we have for Jarvis Landry and really what he’s meant for our team and organization over the past several years,” Berry said last week, when asked directly about Landry coming back. “He’s been a productive player for us since the day that we traded for him, and he has been a key piece in terms of how the team and organization has evolved over the last several years.”
Assuming that Landry and free agent Rashard Higgins (who made three starts even after Odell Beckham Jr. was released midseason) end up elsewhere, Cleveland’s top four returning receivers would be Donovan Peoples-Jones, Anthony Schwartz, Demetric Felton and Ja'Marcus Bradley. That’s why the Browns are sure to target a receiver with the No. 13 overall pick (Mel Kiper Jr. has them taking Ohio State’s Garrett Wilson in his first mock draft, which dropped this week). Signing a veteran to help replace Landry would help, as well, although convincing any receiver to come play in Stefanski’s run-heavy scheme might not prove easy.
The Browns also have decisions at tight end, a position that hasn't produced enough explosive plays. David Njoku has expressed an interest in coming back, though he’ll need to be re-signed. Cleveland could get out from under Austin Hooper’s contract (he has no guaranteed money left) if it wanted to, but that would leave a sizable hole.
On the whole, Browns pass-catchers have to put more pressure on opposing defenses than they did in 2021.
Will the Browns have to rebuild the DL?
The Browns feature one of the top overall defensive players in the league in Garrett. But after him, Cleveland’s entire defensive line seems to be in flux.
Defensive tackle Malik McDowell almost certainly won’t be back in the wake of his arrest in Florida this week on charges of aggravated battery on a law enforcement officer, resisting arrest with violence and public exposure. Malik Jackson, Cleveland’s other starting defensive tackle this season, is 32 and a free agent. Though the Browns have a couple of promising prospects in Tommy Togiai and Jordan Elliott, defensive tackle suddenly looks like a major concern.
The same would go for edge rusher if the Browns are unable to bring back Jadeveon Clowney, who is coming off a banner season playing opposite Garrett. Clowney has said he’d like to return to Cleveland, but also suggested money would be the biggest factor in where he ends up next.
Defensively, re-signing Clowney figures to be priority No. 1 for the Browns in what is shaping up to be a critical offseason for their future.