How awesome is it to write a Cleveland Browns offseason plan and not have to worry about the quarterback position one bit? Not nearly as awesome as it is for the fans in Cleveland to not have to read about one, I'm sure.
Under the guidance of Baker Mayfield and loosed from the shackles of Hue Jackson's tyranny, the Browns are in full-fledged turnaround mode, looking like a different team over the second half of the season. Still, holes remain on the roster and one of the more critical head coaching hires in the last 20 years looms for general manager John Dorsey. If I were the Browns' front office, here's how I would address the offseason.
Two options for head coach, neither are Gregg Williams or Bruce Arians
I'm not saying Williams has done everything poorly, he hasn't. I don't agree with much of what he does, or his way of coaching/teaching, but the Browns have undoubtedly seen some improvements since he took over. Having said that, I don't believe Williams is the coach to lead the Browns into the future, nor do I believe that Dorsey will think that.
The Browns are in a weird spot, as the current coaching situation is so obviously better than the disaster that was Hue Jackson, making it tougher to see the cracks that still may be there. Freddie Kitchens has done some really good things offensively, but a new head coach is going to want to bring in his own staff, and Cleveland desperately needs that fresh start in leadership.
I don't typically advocate for head coaches due to the plethora of things they need to do well that I have no idea whether they'll be good at or not, but we've seen what Lincoln Riley can do with Mayfield, and we know what a creative offensive mind he possesses. With Dallas undoubtedly riding with Jason Garrett for at least another year, I believe Riley would consider the Browns' opening and a chance to reunite with Mayfield.
The question then becomes, are the Browns ok with moving on from Kitchens? He's been the OC for just a handful of games, but he has been impressive, from his creativity to his usage of more Mayfield-friendly concepts.
Could Riley and Kitchens co-exist? I have no idea. Will Kitchens depart for another gig? No clue. But if Kitchens is the guy for Cleveland, that may mean hiring a defensive head coach and letting him have control of the offense. If they opt to go with an offensive head coach, I think you have to at least inquire about Riley. If you're moving on from Kitchens, gotta be for an option you have a ton of faith in.
Personally, I would feel a lot more comfortable knowing the Browns team was in the hands of a young offensive-minded head coach, which may not leave room for Kitchens to stay, good as he's been.
For the life of me, I can't understand the attraction to Bruce Arians. I love Arians and his aggressive mindset, but a Coryell offense with deep drops for the quarterback and tons of vertical concepts is a poor fit for Cleveland. I would love for the Browns' offense (every offense really) to offer some of what Arians has in his playbook, but I don't believe implementing his full system, which possesses very little of what Mayfield ran in college, is a good idea for the Browns.
Arians can also be stubborn and temperamental, taking years to adjust even minor things that weren't working in his past offenses. He's ignored running the ball over the course of his career, which I'm more ok with, but if you do that you have to emphasize the short passing game more than Arians does. Mayfield is terrific in the short-intermediate game. Build your offense around your quarterback, not your new head coach's system of preference.
Identify the cornerstones
The biggest difference between this and every other offseason since the Cleveland Browns franchise returned to the NFL is this: there is no doubt in the world that they have their quarterback of the present and the future. With Mayfield as the chief cornerstone to build around offensively, and Myles Garrett becoming a star on the other side of the ball, the Browns have two key positions nailed down.
In addition to Mayfield, the Browns are set on the interior offensive line, where J.C. Tretter, Kevin Zeitler and Joel Bitonio lock things down with Austin Corbett waiting in the wings. Jarvis Landry will be one starter at wide receiver with David Njoku at tight end, while Antonio Callaway will likely get another chance to be in the top three if he stays on the straight and narrow this offseason. Duke Johnson and Nick Chubb will hold down the backfield for the foreseeable future.
Defensively there are more holes, but still plenty of building blocks. Garrett, Emmanuel Ogbah, Larry Ogunjobi and Genard Avery represent four of your future top five defensive linemen, with Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey anchoring the second level behind them.
Damarious Randall has been good at free safety while Jabrill Peppers is an adequate starter who they've obviously invested in being there long term. At cornerback, Denzel Ward solves one problem, but the other spots could use a significant upgrade.
Don't enter the draft with four major holes
The Browns have four key needs that must be filled this offseason: offensive tackle, outside cornerback, wide receiver and interior defensive line. Looking at each position group on their current roster and who is available in free agency, it becomes clear where they should look to fill each hole.
1. Sign Trenton Brown
At offensive tackle, the team currently starts Greg Robinson and Chris Hubbard, while hoping Desmond Harrison becomes the future successor to Joe Thomas on the left side. That transition didn't look promising when Harrison struggled through a handful of starts to begin the season before being benched, but his development should always have been a long-term outlook, so now is not the time to panic.
It is however, time to find a plug-and-play left tackle to protect your franchise quarterback's blindside. The draft could offer some interesting possibilities, particularly if Jonah Williams does fall, but outside of the Alabama star I don't see a sure thing at the position just yet.
Free agency isn't exactly bursting with options either, but one fit does intrigue me. Trenton Brown is 26, playing really well and slated to be a free agent this offseason. Maybe New England brings him back, but they often let players walk in surprising fashion, and remember they drafted Isaiah Wynn in the first round last year. Brown would be an instant starter for Cleveland and a big upgrade over their current situation.
2. Fill out the depth of the roster
A) Malcom Brown is about to hit free agency after falling out of favor in New England. He's a quality run stuffer who will likely come very cheap given the market for that type of player over the past few years. I would love to see Cleveland bring him in on a short contract to play a handful of snaps every game.
B) Looking for a splash at corner, there are two names that interest me for Cleveland. I have no idea what the market will be for them, but I would imagine Jason Verrett would come extremely cheap and would be a perfect scheme fit if by some act of God he could finally stay healthy. Given his price, he's worth the affordable risk for what he can be at his peak.
The other corner to look at is Darqueze Dennard as a nickel option if the Bengals don't bring him back. He's not a great player, but he's a capable starter with a well-rounded skill set if he comes affordably and the Browns can't land a better option in the draft.
C) I'm never opposed to making a splash by signing more pass rush, and the Browns certainly have the space to do it. As much as I like Avery, if Cleveland gets a chance to bring in Trey Flowers or (less likely) Demarcus Lawrence, do it. Avery can be the no. 3 rusher and Ogbah can play inside situationally and you're 4-deep and formidable at the most important non-quarterback position in the NFL.
Maximize your spending/roster space
Being bold in free agency doesn't mean spending frivolously however, regardless of the ridiculous cap space the Browns will have available. No, in fact the first step will be for Cleveland to look at their current roster and trim the fat. Cutting Jamie Collins is an obvious move, but Travis Carrie isn't worth the almost $9 million he's owed next season either. Bring back Tyrod Taylor if you want, but make sure it is at an affordable rate, because he's nothing more than a decent backup, and those guys are replaceable.
The Browns have the space to make mistakes in free agency, but with contract decisions coming regarding Randall, Schobert and Ogunjobi over the next two years, they would be wise to not lock themselves into overpaying for players not worth the price in free agency.
Draft an impact wide receiver (or two)
If the Browns can address left tackle in free agency while finding some capable options at cornerback and interior defensive line, that will allow them to focus heavily on wide receiver if a high-end one becomes available.
Don't get me wrong, if the pre-draft process indicates that receivers will slide, no problem. I'm not suggesting they reach beyond better players at positions of relative need for a worse prospect that fills a critical hole, but wide receiver should be the top priority heading into the draft.
The Browns currently have an effective slot in Landry and a potential deep threat in Callaway. I think finding another speedster and a bigger outside receiver that can be a red zone weapon should be the priority in this draft. The latter is a role that could be filled by several prospects, including Georgia's Riley Ridley, Ole Miss' D.K. Metcalf or Arizona State's N'Keal Harry, although the latter two will need more development.
On day two, options like Mayfield's old teammate Marquise Brown, Missouri's Emanuel Hall, Ole Miss' DaMarkus Lodge and Georgia's Mecole Hardman should all be available. Ending up with two playmakers to pair with Landry and whatever Callaway is able to offer could be huge for Cleveland.
P.S. If a receiver doesn't make sense in Round 1, draft Washington's Byron Murphy and come back on day two and load up on receivers. Murphy is an immediate starter if needed, and the versatility he, Ward and Verrett have would allow them all to move around fluidly.
Try this on for size: Murphy in Round 1, Ridley in Round 2, Hall in Round 3, Charles Omenihu with the second Round 3 pick.
1. Lincoln Riley or Freddie Kitchens with a defensive head coach (slim quality options) running the offense next year. Get Bruce Arians and Gregg Williams outta here.
2. Mayfield and Garrett are the chief cornerstones. Build around what those guys offer.
3. Sign Trenton Brown, and stay active in free agency to fill out the rest of the roster. Make a splash with a pass rusher if the opportunity is there.
4. Get Jamie Collins outta here.
5. Wide receiver or cornerback have to be the first round targets. With the depth at receiver, might be able to find two quality options on day two of the draft.
Cleveland Browns fans, you are welcome.