The Cleveland Browns are the worst team in the NFL. Even in a league where teams can surprise everyone and become legitimate contenders (looking at you Philadelphia), the only thing the Browns have managed to do is surprise everyone by somehow getting worse after a 1-15 finish in 2016-17 turned into an 0-16 nightmare last season. Even now, at a time when nearly every team feels optimistic about next season, it honestly feels like general manager John Dorsey is just sitting in his office practicing his speech for when the team fires Hue Jackson in mid-October (my money is on the classic, “After much deliberation, we have decided to part ways. We wish Hue luck in his future endeavors”.)
With that said, there is slight reason for hope in Cleveland. Armed with the most cap space in the NFL, the No. 1 and No. 4 overall selections in the NFL Draft, and an all-star front office that includes Dorsey and former Washington GM Scot McCloughan, the Browns could theoretically dominate the off-season and come back next season as a much improved team. Wondering what exactly Cleveland needs to do to turn those dreams of respectability into reality? Look no further as we take a look at the best way to fix the Cleveland Browns.
Unless you have been living under a rock for the past few months, you may have heard that Kirk Cousins is going to hit unrestricted free agency. It’s incredibly rare for a quarterback like Cousins to hit the open market during his prime, and given the lack of talent at the position in the current NFL, there’s no doubt Cousins is about to make some serious cash.
Given that the Browns own $100 million (!) in cap room, it only makes sense for the team to target Cousins, especially given the never-ending mediocrity that has plagued the team at that position, right? Wrong! Listen, Cousins is a fine quarterback, absolutely a solid starter and a guy that can provide solid production, but he’s also a guy that should have a solid supporting cast and is unlikely to put a team over the top. I understand that acquiring even a decent starter is something most Browns fans dream of, but Cousins would likely prove to be an investment that yields mediocre-at-best results.
That’s not to say the Browns should just sit on their massive amount of cap space and do nothing however. This is a team with holes throughout the roster that can be filled through shrewd signings and a good free agency plan. With that in mind, I believe the following five players would fit the bill as wise investments that can help the team improve immediately while remaining valuable in the years to come.
Terrelle Pryor, WR
As you may know, Terrelle played for the Browns Pryor (get it?) to joining the Washington Redskins last off-season as a free agent. Unfortunately for the former-quarterback-turned-receiver, he failed to make much of an impact with his new team, finishing the season with just 240 receiving yards on 20 receptions. That said, he is just one season removed from a 1000 yard campaign, and at 28 years old, remains in his athletic prime. It would be foolish to break the bank for Pryor, but a one-year, prove-it deal would make a lot of sense for a team that could certainly use a talent like Pryor.
Carlos Hyde, RB
Isaiah Crowell is a free agent, and though he’s been a solid player for Cleveland, I think the best thing for the Browns is to move on and acquire a running back with a higher ceiling. Carlos Hyde has proven to be an exceptional talent when healthy but is a poor fit in San Francisco’s rushing scheme. No matter who ends up throwing the ball for the Browns, having Hyde would make things a lot easier.
Marcus Smith, DE
The best way for a team like the Browns to improve without getting locked into long-term deals that will ultimately end up as albatrosses is to acquire former high draft picks that haven’t lived up to expectations but still possess the talent necessary to succeed. Marcus Smith flamed out after being a first round pick in 2014, but he’s still just 26 years old with the athletic tools you want. If he develops into an above-average pass-rusher then the Browns have a viable player opposite Myles Garrett, if he fails to become anything more than the rotational lineman he is now, then at least the team didn’t invest too much. It’s a move worth the potential upside.
Lamarcus Joyner, S
The Browns actually have some talented players at the safety position between Jabrill Peppers, Derrick Kindred, and Kai Nacua, but the problem is each of those players possesses the same skill set. Ultimately, those three players are at their best when acting as more of a linebacker/safety hybrid, leaving Cleveland without a guy at the position who can really stand out in coverage. Enter Lamarcus Joyner, a guy who is coming off a true breakout season in which he showed the exact type of talent in coverage that the Browns need. He won’t come cheap, but Cleveland should absolutely look to secure the services of the 27 year old safety.
A.J. McCarron, QB
This is a popular opinion among many who follow the Browns as McCarron has a history with Hue Jackson and put up a few promising starts a few years ago. Ultimately, I agree that McCarron’s best fit is in Cleveland, however, a big deal for the former Alabama star would be a mistake. McCarron’s ceiling is that of a pre-2017 Alex Smith- good, but incredibly limited. That said, if the Browns can get him on a short-term, incentive-laden deal he could offer a decent temporary solution.
Keeping in mind the free agent signings we went with above, it’s time to move on to the NFL Draft, inarguably the most important event of the off-season for Cleveland. The best teams are built through the draft, and luckily for Cleveland, the team has two top five picks in what is a very talented class. That said, here is how I would approach the draft if put in charge of the Browns.
Round One, Pick No. 1 – Sam Darnold, QB, USC
For far too long the Browns have tried to get cute when picking quarterbacks in the draft. Whether it’s trading down or trying to pick some kind of “sleeper” in the second round (looking right at you DeShone Kizer), it’s time to stop that nonsense at use the No. 1 pick on a quarterback. Sam Darnold has his flaws, but he also has the accuracy and pocket presence to be the franchise quarterback this team has needed for years. Given a chance to sit behind McCarron for a season, Darnold could improve some of his weaker areas while eventually stepping into the job when he is ready.
Round One, Pick No. 4 – Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama
This seems to be a very popular choice among mock drafts and I won’t disagree. The Browns’ secondary isn’t terrible but Fitzpatrick is the type of talent that could really take it to the next level. Similar to Jalen Ramsey in that he is a versatile player who can dominate at either corner or safety, Fitzpatrick would make a lot of sense as a versatile chess piece in the back-end of Cleveland’s defense. Between Joyner and Fitzpatrick, the Browns make some huge improvements in the defensive backfield.
Round Two, Pick No. 33 – Kolton Miller, OT, UCLA
Joe Thomas is expected to return next season which ensures that the left side of the Browns offensive line remains a strength. The right tackle position however, is a different story. Shon Coleman isn’t the type of lineman you want in the starting lineup and the depth behind him is shaky. By picking up Kolton Miller here, the Browns are getting a high-upside tackle with the strength and build to solidify the right side of the line.
Round Two, Pick No. 35 – Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M
The rebuilding of the Browns offense continues here with the selection of Christian Kirk. Though he lacks elite size, Kirk makes up for it with explosive athleticism and the type of reliable hands that make life easy for any quarterback. With Kirk, Pryor, Josh Gordon, and Cory Coleman rounding out the depth chart, the Browns would have a very deep crowd of receiving options.
Round Two, Pick No. 64 – Jaire Alexander, CB, Louisville
60 picks after picking up Fitzpatrick, the Browns pick up Jaire Alexander here to fill the role of slot corner. Alexander is a smooth athlete and has the awareness needed to succeed in the slot. Fitzpatrick and Alexander would certainly give the Browns a very promising 1-2 punch in the secondary
Round Three, Pick No. 65 – Braden Smith, G, Auburn
Though the Browns have a pair of decent starting guards in Kevin Zeitler and Joel Bitonio, they could stand to add some depth at the position, particularly given Bitonio’s shaky injury history. Braden Smith is a solid blocker, capable of clearing rushing lanes and providing decent pass-protection, but most importantly, he’s durable, starting 40 consecutive games. We are getting into the rounds were adding depth is crucial and Smith is a great start.
Round Four, Pick No. 97 – Derrick Nnadi, DT, Florida State
Danny Shelton has improved since his rough rookie season and Larry Ogunjobi showed promise last season, but in a league where you can never have enough defensive line depth Derrick Nnadi would be a tremendous choice. He’s a bit on the short side, but Nnadi makes up for it with good functional strength and above-average quickness. Nnadi has also shown the ability to consistently generate pressure, something that would be a welcome addition to Cleveland’s line.
Round Four, Pick No. 120 – Josey Jewell, LB, Iowa
Joe Schobert had an excellent season in the middle of Cleveland’s defense last season, but like so many areas throughout the roster, the depth behind him is lacking. Josey Jewell isn’t the most athletic guy, but his production at the college level combined with his instincts and effort make him the type of high-quality backup worthy of this selection.
Round Five, Pick No. 129 – Tanner Lee, QB, Nebraska
I know what you’re thinking, the Browns already added McCarron and drafted Darnold in this projection, so why exactly do they need Tanner Lee? The answer is simple, why not? For a team that has struggled for so long at the position, what’s the worst thing that happens by picking Lee here? Having too much talent at quarterback? That’s a problem the Browns would love to have. Lee isn’t much of an athlete, but he has a decent arm and had a pretty good week at the Senior Bowl. This pick signals the end of DeShone Kizer’s tenure in Cleveland.
Round Five, Pick No. 150 – Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, LB, Oklahoma
Adding talent to the pass-rush should be another priority for the Browns, and with the pick of Okoronkwo here, the team has a potential steal. Okoronkwo probably won’t ever be an every-down player but he provides a versatile skill set and the speed to get by less-athletic linemen. For a fifth-rounder, Okoronkwo could offer surprising production in the right role.
Round Six, Pick No. 161 – Tony Adams, C, N.C. State
A guard at N.C. State, Tony Adams is likely to move to center due to his below-average length, but make no mistake, he’s a solid prospect at a backup lineman. Adams has exceptional strength and as a pass-rusher he was outstanding during his college career. JC Tretter is entrenched as Cleveland’s starter at the position but Adams would provide a solid insurance plan.
Round Seven, Pick No. 193 – Quadree Henderson, WR, Pitt
Quadree Henderson is listed as a receiver, but in the NFL his role is more likely that of return specialist and gadget player on offense. That said, getting an explosive return man and somebody with big-play potential is no small prize, particularly this late in the draft.
The Browns have a ton of work to do, but by focusing on making wise free agency decisions and finding value with each draft pick, this team could take a big leap forward next season. What the team ultimately will choose to do this off-season remains a mystery, but following a blueprint similar to the one laid out here may just lead to something better than what we’ve seen from Cleveland the past two years.