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State of the 2022 Cleveland Browns: Beyond Deshaun Watson, core is loaded with talent

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2022? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Browns' organization, Browns fans around the world and those who really want to love a team that sometimes just makes it so difficult:

2021 was a tough year for the Browns, who entered with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations for seemingly the first time since the Bill Belichick era, then floundered to an 8-9 finish and missed the postseason completely. At least the organization didn't relocate again. What's in store for 2022? Let's take a look.

2021 rewind

One high from last season: Myles Garrett's quarterback graveyard. I know this probably wasn't everyone's cup of tea, but I loved the Halloween display Garrett put together marking the quarterbacks he had sacked (and some he was still planning to sack) in 2021. It was fun.

One low from last season: The video. When receiver Odell Beckham Jr.'s dad shared a video online that showed Baker Mayfield continually missing an open Beckham in games, it pretty much marked the deflating end of Beckham's largely disappointing time in Cleveland. The thesis of that video might have been 100 percent accurate, but it was still unfortunate.

2022 VIPs

Head coach: Kevin Stefanski. I'm a fan. But last season should serve as a reminder of how quickly things can change in the NFL. Stefanski won Coach of the Year honors in 2020, when he led the Browns to their first playoff trip since 2002 -- and their first playoff win, against the Steelers, no less, since the 1994 season! -- in his first season on the job. And then he finished 2021 with just eight wins, and Cleveland again missed the postseason.

I would like to point out that winning even that much last season -- given everything that went on, including the Beckham drama and injuries to key players like Baker Mayfield, Kareem Hunt and Jarvis Landry -- is almost more impressive than what he accomplished in 2020. Almost. The bottom line now is, his record after two seasons stands at 19-14. It isn't too far-fetched to imagine him ending up on the hot seat, at least among the football pundit class, should Cleveland struggle again. And he's sure to have plenty more obstacles to navigate.

One other thing I'd like to note: To my mind, the Browns have never been the same since Stefanski refused to go for it on fourth-and-9 in an attempt to extend what ended up being their last possession against the Chiefs in their Divisional Round matchup in the 2020 playoffs. Stefanski seemed to get scared after being so bold during the regular season. I'm not saying that one play led the Browns down the bumpy road they ended up on last year. I'm also not not saying that.

Quarterback: Deshaun Watson. Regarding the Browns' acquisition of Watson this offseason, I'm just going to state the facts as we know them right now:

In March, Cleveland shipped multiple first-round picks to the Texans in a trade for Watson, whom they signed to a five-year, fully guaranteed $230 million contract. At the time the trade was made, the NFL had not yet concluded whether Watson, who has been accused via civil litigation of sexual assault and misconduct, had violated the league's personal-conduct policy. Watson was not indicted by two Texas grand juries. He has since settled with 20 of the 24 women who have filed civil lawsuits accusing him of sexual misconduct. A disciplinary hearing for Watson is set to begin Tuesday, with NFL Network's Tom Pelissero reporting the league is expected to argue for an indefinite suspension of at least one year.

I also know that Watson led the NFL with 4,823 passing yards in 2020. But that Texans team he was on finished with four wins. And because of that, Watson became the first quarterback in NFL history to record a passer rating above 110 on a losing team.

That's what I know right now.

Projected 2022 MVP: Myles Garrett, defensive end. Regardless of the quarterback situation, Garrett will surely be key to winning in 2022, especially when the Browns are tasked with slowing stars like Justin Herbert, Josh Allen, Tom Brady or division rivals Joe Burrow and Lamar Jackson. In 2021, Garrett set a single-season Browns record with 16 sacks (it only felt like all of those came against Justin Fields). With just four more sacks, he'll pass Clay Matthews (62) to become the all-time franchise leader in the category. He's one of the best to do it.

New face to know: Amari Cooper, receiver. Cleveland's trade for Cooper in March seemed to kind of fly under the radar amid all the swaps and signings involving big-name receivers this offseason, but this move was significant. I was skeptical when the Cowboys acquired Cooper from the Raiders back in 2018, because I felt like Dallas, who gave up a first-round pick, overspent. But then he played a big role in Dak Prescott's development. The Browns surrendered barely any capital (giving up a fifth-round pick and swapping sixth-rounders) for a receiver who had at least 1,000 receiving yards in five of his seven seasons since being drafted in 2015; Cleveland receivers have hit that mark precisely four times in that span. He's one of seven players in NFL history to have 7,000 receiving yards and 40 or more receiving touchdowns through his age-27 season.

2022 breakout star: David Njoku, tight end. Dude led the Browns in receiving touchdowns last year. Yes, he only had four, but that, sadly, was enough to pace the team. He did actually average 13.2 yards per reception in 2021, which was the fourth-most among all tight ends with at least 10 receptions. The Browns are betting on a big step up from the 2017 first-rounder, who has averaged 351 receiving yards in his career but inked a four-year, $56.75 million extension in May after being hit with the franchise tag. If you're a fantasy enthusiast, please take note and use a late-round pick on him in your drafts. You won't be sorry. (Unless he flops this season, and you are sorry. Then I will find a way to absolve myself of any of this.)

2022 roadmap

Three key dates:

Will the Browns be able to ...

... field one of the NFL's best defenses? Garrett isn't the only stud on D. Cornerback Denzel Ward, who signed a five-year, $100 million extension this offseason, is one of four players with at least 10 interceptions and 50-plus passes defensed since 2018 (joining J.C. Jackson, Xavien Howard and James Bradberry). Ward is fourth in the NFL with an 89.3 coverage grade from PFF since 2018. The Browns also retained Jadeveon Clowney, who chipped in nine sacks playing opposite Garrett last season, with a one-year, $11 million pact. And youngsters Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Greg Newsome II have promise.

Cleveland ranked fifth in total defense in 2021. Can the Browns post their first pair of consecutive top-five finishes since the 1970 merger? I'm saying yes.

... see the O-line rebound? OK, so the Browns finished within the top 10 in PFF's offensive-line rankings at the end of 2021, but eighth is a bit lower than I would have expected going into the year. They managed to put up a strong run-blocking performance despite Jack Conklin missing half the season with elbow and knee injuries. Guards Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller have two of the three highest grades from PFF among guards since 2020. They are solid. The biggest question might be whether Nick Harris is ready to replace released veteran JC Tretter as the starting center. Harris did look good in Week 16 against the Packers last season, when Tretter was on the reserve/COVID-19 list. That might have been all the Browns needed to see before moving on from Tretter.

One storyline ...

... people shouldn't overthink: The Baker Mayfield situation. It will be interesting to see what happens with Mayfield. The No. 1 overall pick in 2018 is owed $18.9 million guaranteed in the final year of his rookie contract. He's also coming off a rocky 2021 marred by a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder, which required surgery. All of that will complicate the Browns' efforts to trade him, especially with few teams seeking a starting QB at this point in the year. (He's not going to be some kind of high-end luxury backup in Dallas or Tampa Bay, even if that might be the best thing for his career.) But one thing that will almost certainly not happen is Mayfield starting games for Cleveland again, given how that relationship has soured. Whatever happens with Watson, the Browns signed Jacoby Brissett, who has had some success in the NFL previously, and they will presumably turn to him in the interim.

(UPDATE: The Browns agreed to trade Mayfield to the Carolina Panthers in exchange for a 2024 fifth-round pick that can convert to a fourth-rounder based on playing time, NFL Network's Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero reported on July 6.)

... people shouldn't overlook: The Browns' ability to pound the rock. The quarterback position is drawing a lot of attention, but the ground game remains a key strength. Nick Chubb was second to only Jonathan Taylor last year running the football -- and he was also second in yards after contact, with 967, according to PFF. He's averaged 5.3 yards per carry on 908 career carries, and he's the first running back in NFL history to average more than 5 yards per carry in each of his first four seasons (among those with at least 100 carries). Kareem Hunt was also really good before injuries took him off course. The Browns are 13-6 in the Stefanski era when both dudes play.

For 2022 to be a success, the Browns MUST:

  • Show their core is Super Bowl-caliber. The Super Bowl has to be the ultimate goal when making a move like the trade for Watson. And while he is, obviously, key to that push, the rest of Cleveland's core (vets like Garrett, Chubb, Ward, Cooper, Bitonio and Teller are all under contract through at least 2024) must stay on the right track in 2022 -- Stefanski must keep this group cohesive and competitive.

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