As teams head to training camp and the NFL season approaches, The 33rd Team asks its experts to preview every team’s outlook for the 2023 season. In this installment, Eric Mangini takes a deep dive into the Cleveland Browns.
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What to Know: Offense
The biggest storyline is easily Deshaun Watson. There’s so much conversation about Aaron Rodgers, who’s 39 years old, and Russell Wilson, who’s 35, and little talk about Watson, who will be 28 during the season. They’re all in the same bucket. They’re veteran quarterbacks who have had incredible success in the past and are trying to get back to that form.
The great thing for Watson is where he falls in this discussion. He’s not part of it. He doesn’t have the same pressure the other two guys have. When you look at what he did during his last year in Houston — his last time as a full-time starter — he had a 112 quarterback rating. He had 33 touchdowns, seven interceptions and a 70 percent completion rate, which are amazing numbers.
Now, he’s had six games with the Browns. Watson got to play through the system late in the 2022 season. He’s had an entire offseason. He’s a year removed from all of his off-the-field problems, and he has limited expectations, which positions him to be in the best spot of those three guys to make a huge jump.
What to Know: Defense
The biggest storyline is the addition of Jim Schwartz as the defensive coordinator. We got our start together in Cleveland a long, long time ago. What I can tell you about him is he’s incredibly smart. He’s detailed, and he’s got a wealth of experience. He’s got 14 years as a defensive coordinator and five years as a head coach with a long track record of success.
The defense was missing some pieces, but maybe it wasn’t all about the pieces. Maybe it was a little bit more about the scheme. With his leadership and the things that he’s done historically, they have a really good chance to make huge strides defensively.
Biggest Off-Field Storyline
It’s the start of the season. Cleveland has four of the five first games at home, and they have a bye week after their fourth game. So that should be a huge edge for them.
But more importantly, it’s who they play. They play all the AFC North opponents. They start with the Bengals, then move to Pittsburgh, which is their only away game. Then they finish up with Baltimore at home.
So we’ll get a great picture of where the Browns stand versus their division opponents early in the season. They will have the edge of playing those games at home. I would imagine after those four games, we’re going to be looking at the Browns a lot differently in terms of expectations and the noise they can make in the division.
Breakout Player Prediction
This isn’t an offensive player who will touch the ball or a defensive end or corner. It’s an offensive lineman who’s hard to miss. It’s Dawand Jones. He’s 6-foot-8, 374 pounds — a fourth-round draft pick out of Ohio State — who got some action in the first preseason game and did some positive things.
What I like about him is who he’s paired up with. He’s got a bunch of veteran offensive linemen that can teach him how to be successful. He’s going to learn from them in the locker room. Plus, he’s got Bill Callahan, who’s arguably the best offensive line coach in the NFL.
Even though he’s not going to start right now, the Browns have historically had a lot of injuries on the offensive line, and guys have missed a significant amount of playing time. I see him getting an opportunity to play. Not only that but getting the opportunity to excel and prove his technique. When you improve technique, excel in it and have leadership like he has around him, you’ve got a chance to do something special long term.
Move the Browns Should Make
One area where the Browns need to be on the lookout to make a move potentially is obtaining a backup running back. They’ve got Nick Chubb, who can carry the load just like he did last season with his 300-plus carries, 1,500 yards and 5.05 average. He’s still one of the best in the league.
But the problem is after him, there are no candidates with significant experience. Kareem Hunt gave that to Cleveland last year, providing more than 100 carries. The four guys in that room not named Chubb have a combined nine carries for a total net yards of eight. That’s a little bit scary from a coaching perspective to go into the season with so many unknowns.
There are great candidates in Jerome Ford and Demetric Felton who could all work out. But you better be ready to potentially get a veteran running back if those guys, especially early in the season, don’t pan out the way you think.
2023 Season Expectations
My expectation for the Browns is probably a little bit higher than most. The Browns are legitimately a playoff contender and could potentially surprise and win the division. They were 7-10 last year. They were 2-4 in one-score games. If they can switch that around and win those close games, that puts them in a position to make the playoffs.
If Watson gets anywhere near the form he had his last year in Houston, which he’s got a great opportunity to do, then we could be talking about Cleveland late in the season, winning the division.
Eric Mangini is a former NFL Head Coach and won three Super Bowls as the defensive backs coach of the New England Patriots. In 2006, he became the then-youngest head coach in the NFL with the New York Jets.