Browns look to use 2017 as a stepping stone to respectability

Browns QB DeShone Kizer looked the part in his NFL debut.

The Cleveland Browns aren’t trying to win this year. After a 1-15 campaign in 2016, the Browns will probably only get slightly better this season. A tank job was the best way to revive this desolate franchise. And a year into Sashi Brown’s tenure as general manager, things look pretty great for the long term.

With the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft, Cleveland took Myles Garrett. Garrett was the obvious pick in pretty much every way. He was the best pass rusher in the draft in a landslide, with pretty much no weaknesses in the area.

Myles Garrett should help the Browns' defense big time as a rookie.

Garrett played through an injury last season at Texas A&M and still displayed great burst. There’s some development left for him as a run defender, but Garrett is going to draw double-teams in the NFL, even in his rookie year.

Unfortunately, part of that will be due to his teammates on Cleveland’s defensive line. On the opposite edge, Emmanuel Ogbah had a paltry 68 percent run stop rate last season, per Football Outsiders’ Almanac. While he posted decent pass-rushing numbers — 5.5 sacks, 11 hits and 22 hurries, per FOA — Ogbah had an abysmal 47.6 PFF grade.

On the interior, Jamie Meder wasn’t much better, with a 49.4 mark. Meder’s run stop rate was even worse than Ogbah’s at 65 percent, which ranked 77th at his position, per FOA. Danny Shelton is the exception to this rule. The 24-year old had an 87 percent run stop rate last season, top-20 among defensive tackles according to FOA. Shelton’s 85.2 PFF grade was also 15th among interior defenders. He and Garrett are probably the only two defensive linemen who will be there when the Browns are competitive.

The linebacker position is the only one on defense at which the Browns have spent anything beyond draft capital since beginning to tank. Cleveland traded a third rounder to the New England Patriots for Jamie Collins in the middle of last season. Though Collins wasn’t quite himself after joining the Browns, it’s hard to knock them for this deal.

They got one of the best linebackers in football for a third rounder, so what if he had trouble jumping into a new system during the middle of the season? Going through training camp with new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and playing in the same system all year should precede a return to form for Collins.

Alongside him, Christian Kirksey is one of Cleveland’s better defenders, a fairly low bar. Kirksey was 21st among linebackers in run stop rate last season, per FOA. However, he had an abysmal 41 percent success rate in coverage. Joe Schobert, a 2016 fourth rounder, played just 246 snaps last season and struggled. Despite that, he will probably see a fair amount of time this season as the Browns try to develop some of their younger players.

Can Jabrill peppers go from athlete to football player?

This is the part of the preview where we talk about Jabrill Peppers — one of the most interesting players in this rookie class. Peppers, who was selected 25th overall in the draft by the Browns, could get snaps at linebacker. He could also get snaps at safety, or in the wildcat on offense. There’s a good chance he’ll return punts as well, on the rare occasion this defense gets a stop. We use the word “could” here because we don’t know what position he’ll play in the long term and neither do the Browns, really.

For this writer’s money, Peppers will end up playing a version of Deone Bucannon’s money-backer position. But right now, Peppers is a very athletic something with tweener size and ability in a lot of different areas. Watching exactly how Cleveland deploys him is going to be fascinating.

The secondary may be the best part of the defense, but we are talking about the defense that was 31st in DVOA last season. Jamar Taylor is solid at corner, giving up just 6.4 adjusted yards per target last season, according to FOA. Alongside him, Joe Haden has struggled for the past two years.

It was easy to blame that on an injury that saw him play just five games in 2015, however, the struggles continued on into last season. Haden gave up an abysmal 9.2 adjusted yards per target last season, according to FOA, and had a 46.0 PFF grade. Bringing in Jason McCourty was a good, low-cost move at the position. The 30-year old had a 52 percent success rate in Tennessee last year, per FOA, and should be an upgrade for the Browns.

At safety, Ed Reynolds is fairly average. He had a 75.2 PFF grade last season along with a 49 percent success rate, per FOA. Calvin Pryor is expected to get the bulk of the snaps alongside him, which could go badly. Pryor’s 44.4 PFF grade was 83rd among safeties last season. If you’re wondering about backups, Derrick Kindred and Ibraheim Campbell’s PFF grades in 2016 ranked 84th and 85th among safeties. This is also an area to watch for Peppers.

Offensively, Cleveland is likely to find their quarterback in the draft next season. However, it’s hard to dislike what they did in taking DeShone Kizer in the second round this year. The Notre Dame product was generally considered to be a grade below Mitch Trubisky and Deshaun Watson.

However, Kizer has first-round talent. At his best — in particular, against Texas in the first game of last season — he might have been better than either one. Kizer can step up in the pocket and throw deep with accuracy. He makes good decisions and full-field reads, hitting tight windows with good arm strength. Kizer can also break the pocket and run, or add zone read action to the Browns’ playbook.

The problem is consistency. The deep ball is occasionally overthrown. There are bad decisions once in a while. Hesitation when making reads brings in pressure, under which Kizer buckles. To his credit, he rarely forces throws in those situations, but does tend to take bad sacks. Footwork is also a continual issue that costs him accuracy too often.

Kizer isn’t guaranteed to start in Week 1, but with Brock Osweiler reportedly on the trade block, it’s hard to believe he won’t start most of Cleveland’s games. Cody Kessler is a dead end and Kizer has some potential. He may not be the savior, but if nothing else, he’s probably one of the better backups in the league and/or a trade chip after Cleveland drafts Sam Darnold or Josh Allen. The potential for Kizer to be a good starter is certainly there. It’s mostly a matter of consistency.

It’s easy to get excited about Kizer, but it’s hard to say the same for the supporting cast. Corey Coleman played just 10 games in his rookie year and had a rough go of it. The former Baylor standout ranked 87th among receivers in DYAR and had an abysmal 45 percent catch rate. Obviously some of that blame goes to Cleveland’s carousel of quarterbacks, but the fact is that Coleman didn’t do much last season.

The Browns also brought in Kenny Britt, who could be accurately described as the least-exciting 1,000-yard receiver in football last season. Despite wearing that title, Britt did hit that 1,000-yard benchmark last season on a 61 percent catch rate. Having spent his career with the Titans and Rams, it’s also plausible that Kizer is instantly one of the best three quarterbacks Britt has ever had. (Currently top of the list: Vince Young with the 2009 Titans. Poor Kenny Britt.)

The problem in the receiving corps is going to be depth. Rashard Higgins is currently slotted as the third wideout. If you aren’t familiar with the name, Higgins had six catches last season on 12 targets. Ricardo Louis, an eternal excuse to go watch one of the most improbable football plays ever, wasn’t much better with just 18 receptions last season.

Rookie tight end David Njoku could make up for some of the lack of depth, but he may not immediately be a down-field threat. At Miami last season, Njoku largely got by on physical ability, as the Hurricanes used largely utilized him with screens. He was a poor route runner downfield and ran a limited tree. It’s also hard to see Njoku being on the field for early downs given how poor he was at run blocking.

Duke Johnson and Isaiah Crowell are both interesting players for the long-term at running back. Johnson’s eventual role is probably as a third-down back. He had 53 catches for 514 yards last season — more yardage than he gained on the ground.

As for Crowell, he quietly went for nearly 1,000 yards and was top-10 in DVOA among running backs. This year is more or less an audition for him to be Cleveland’s long-term answer at the position, so it should be fun to see what he does with it.

One advantage for Crowell will be an improved offensive line. Finally, future Hall of Fame left tackle Joe Thomas will be surrounded with talent as the Browns spent to improve the unit during the offseason.

The team brought in right guard Kevin Zeitler and center J.C. Tretter during free agency, a huge improvement over last season. Zeitler, one of the best guards in football, ranked seventh at the position with an 86.5 PFF grade in 2016. He also allowed just one sack, per FOA.

As for Tretter, the 26-year old is more unproven, having been Corey Linsley’s backup in Green Bay the past three seasons. However, in seven starts last season, Tretter impressed. He had an 81.4 PFF grade, ninth among centers, in those seven starts. A healthy Joel Bitonio — though the left guard could still miss Week 1 with the same injury that’s sidelined him since last season — would give the Browns a solid interior for the next few seasons.

Right tackle is still a question mark, however. Cam Erving was terrible at center last season and it’s hard to believe moving him outside is the answer. It’s unlikely Matt McCants, a career backup, will provide much help either.

For the immediate future, however, parsing through problems at right tackle does the Browns little good. This franchise has long-term aspirations; 2017 is only a stepping stone.

Come December, Cleveland will likely be long out of playoff contention, playing meaningless games in a freezing-cold, empty stadium for the umpteenth year in a row. But if the young players progress, that pattern could change sooner rather than later.