The Cleveland Browns are considered a Super Bowl contender for the 2021 NFL season, but how long can their championship window realistically remain open?
With several contract extensions coming down the pipeline, uncertainty surrounding the futures of certain star players and the historic futility of this franchise before last year’s 11-5 record and playoff win, there’s no telling what’s in store for the Browns.
But let’s look at some viable strategies Cleveland general manager Andrew Berry could execute to optimize the Browns’ chances of longer-term success.
Contract extensions for Baker Mayfield & Nick Chubb
Considering how crazy the quarterback market is, Baker Mayfield is likely to earn a huge payday whenever Cleveland decides to ink him to his next contract. That’ll happen either before training camp or next offseason.
Mayfield isn’t being pushy about getting a new deal done, which is nice. That said, it’s the biggest move on the horizon for the Browns. The former No. 1 overall pick has been up and down in his career to date, yet may finally have a stable situation under reigning NFL Coach of the Year Kevin Stefanski.
If he can build on his success in 2020 and capitalize on the continuity facilitated by Stefanski, Mayfield has the makings of a championship-caliber QB.
As for Nick Chubb, running backs aren’t the most advisable position to invest a lot of money in. Nevertheless, the dynamic tailback is all about ball, all the time. Chubb is the perfect embodiment of Cleveland’s blue-collar mentality, and deserves a multi-year extension as he enters a contract year.
Because of the yards Chubb can create after contact and how valuable he is to Stefanski’s run-first, play-action heavy scheme, the Browns would do themselves a disservice to let the 25-year-old star go to another team.
Maintain a quality offensive line by any means necessary
To piggyback off that last point on Chubb, his knack for making defenders miss or just flat-out running over them is going to be key in the coming years. Cleveland’s offensive line was ranked No. 1 by Pro Football Focus in 2020, and that unit isn’t going to last forever.
The Browns got absolutely elite play from right guard Wyatt Teller, to the point where he may be worth his own lucrative extension. They’ve already invested heavily in right tackle Jack Conklin.
Depending on how Cleveland approaches the salary cap in 2022, veterans JC Tretter and Joel Bitonio are potential cap casualty candidates who’d save the team over $18 million combined.
Bill Callahan is one of the elite offensive line coaches in the business, so as long as the Browns retain him, that’ll help the cause a lot.
Berry has also been smart about building o-line depth through the draft of late. Nick Harris was in line to start at center while Tretter worked through an injury leading up to the 2020 campaign. Rookie James Hudson is a tackle who’s being “cross-trained” inside at guard and could be a fit there eventually.
It’s reasonable to suggest Teller, Tretter or Bitonio won’t be on the team in 2022. This is something Cleveland really needs to be careful with, because Mayfield flopped behind a bad o-line as an NFL sophomore.
Alleged Odell Beckham Jr. dilemma is a win-win the Browns can’t botch
Everyone wants to make a big deal out of the Odell Beckham Jr. situation. Let’s recap, shall we?
- Beckham joined the Browns before the 2019 season. They were a chaotic mess under Freddie Kitchens. The coach was fired after one season. OBJ played through injuries the entire year and needed offseason surgery.
- Learning an entirely new offense during a truncated offseason program while rehabbing made it difficult for OBJ to get on the same page with Mayfield. He then tore his ACL in the middle of the season.
To say Beckham hasn’t had a really fair shot to show what he can do for the Browns is a massive understatement.
What’s great about Beckham’s contract, too, is that he wouldn’t cost Cleveland anything in 2022 if the team trades or releases him. The Browns wouldn’t be on the hook for any of his $15 million cap hit, so OBJ presents a huge cap relief option if he doesn’t meet expectations in 2021.
At this point, it’s easy to argue Beckham is a luxury for Cleveland’s offense. Mayfield can clearly thrive with Jarvis Landry and other unheralded players at the wide receiver position.
Imagine if OBJ shows off the dominant form he displayed for the New York Giants, though. Then he’d be well worth the price tag and the prolonged wait for him to make a superstar impact in a Browns uniform. Oh, and his trade value, which is low right now, would go through the roof.
The only way things go south and Beckham becomes a headache is if Cleveland loses a lot and he’s phased out of the offense. Neither of these outcomes seems likely, at least for the upcoming season. So for now, the Browns can embrace Beckham and welcome his production as an X-factor that could lead to a Lombardi Trophy.
Defensive line and secondary are obvious positions to target in next two drafts
One notable omission to the players who could be in line for contract extensions is Denzel Ward. He’s the Browns’ No. 1 cornerback and has proven himself as one of the better players at the position in the sport.
But Ward has also been prone to injuries during his three NFL seasons, missing three games as a rookie and four in each of the last two years.
Northwestern cornerback Greg Newsome II was Cleveland’s latest first-round pick, and the team is also getting back former second-rounder Greedy Williams after a freakish shoulder nerve injury kept him out for 2020.
Say Newsome lives up to his billing and balls out as the starter opposite Ward, and Williams lives up to the promise he showed coming out of the ultimate defensive back factory at LSU. Suddenly, Ward could become a valuable trade chip.
You can never have enough good cornerbacks in the NFL. Let’s see how 2021 goes before giving Ward a lucrative contract. With so many other areas of strength on the Browns’ roster, they can just keep pounding the cornerback spot early in the draft to get cost-effective, quality players at that position.
As for the defensive line, Cleveland has put Band-Aids over this underwhelming unit in recent years. Myles Garrett is the only long-term cornerstone who can be counted on. Any help Berry can acquire for Garrett in the form of early draft picks who hit will be a big boon to this Browns defense.
Cleveland Browns are situated well for long-term success
There’s viable depth at just about every position on this Cleveland Browns roster aside from the defensive line. look at every position, and you’ll see quality pieces everywhere.
Cleveland has built a solid core of players rife with talent all the while being smart about not spending too much. It’s pretty obvious how the Browns need to go about building their team going forward.
As long as they don’t mess it up — and under Berry’s front office leadership, it doesn’t seem like they will — the Dawg Pound should be alive and well and enjoying consistent playoff appearances for years to come.