CLEVELAND — The Browns have been forced to watch from home this weekend as rivals such as the Bengals and Steelers play in the Wild Card round, and it prompted Jarvis Landry to tweet on Saturday, “… I wish I was playing today.”
To make matters worse, the Browns know they’re as good as or better than some of the teams in the playoffs and that they should be in the tournament. As guard Joel Bitonio said in his wrap-up press conference, “We had the guys to make the playoffs no matter what” but just didn’t execute.
The Browns are hopeful, however, that a return to the postseason next year is within reach.
Here are five things they need to do to in the offseason:
1. Explore all quarterback possibilities
General manager Andrew Berry said last week that he fully expects Baker Mayfield to be the Browns starting quarterback in 2022 and to bounce back from his poor 2021 season. That’s all well and good, but Berry would be doing himself and his team a disservice if he didn’t explore every possible avenue to upgrade the position. The Browns believe Mayfield will play better next season when healthy and when he has a better supporting cast, but they must approach their QB1 like they do every position, with an eye towards starting the best player they possibly can.
The veteran QB market will begin to heat up once the playoffs are over and the eight new coaches get hired, and the Browns must be open-minded enough to determine if there’s a better option available. With Mayfield heading into 2022 on his fifth-year option salary of $18.86 million, it’s obvious the Browns aren’t sure about him as their long-term answer and must be thinking about Plan B. They hope he’ll rise to the occasion next season and they’ll be set, but they have no choice but to keep their eyes open over the next few months. Some QBs who could become available include Kirk Cousins, Derek Carr, Jimmy Garoppolo and Matt Ryan. Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson could also be on the move, but they’re not as realistic as the others.
2. Bolster the receiving corps
Mayfield didn’t have a Ja’Marr Chase this season like Joe Burrow did, nor a Cooper Kupp like Matt Stafford did. Jarvis Landry was the Browns’ top receiver, and he finished 67th in the NFL with 52 catches for 570 yards and two TDs. Second in receptions among the wideouts was Donovan Peoples-Jones, who finished 132nd in the NFL with 34 for 597 yards and three TDs.
Browns receivers caught only seven TDs, nine if you count the two by hybrid rookie Demetric Felton. If you go by seven, that’s less than half of Kupp’s 16, and almost half of Chase’s 13.
The Browns will add two or three starting-caliber receivers next season, and they should acquire at least one with Pro Bowl ability through free agency, a trade, or the NFL draft. Ohio State’s Garrett Wilson will be on their radar with the No. 13 overall pick, and they’ll have to scour free agency. Atlanta 2020 second-team All-Pro Calvin Ridley could be available in a trade, but he stepped away from the game this season to focus on his mental wellbeing, and the Browns would have to assess how he’s doing.
They’ll also have to decide what to do about Landry, who has a $16.55 million cap hit next season.
3. Address the offensive tackle positions
The Browns’ 26th-ranked passing game struggled largely because All-Pro right tackle Jack Conklin missed most of the season with injuries, and left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. wasn’t himself after suffering an ankle injury in Week 1. Swing tackle Chris Hubbard also suffered a season-ending torn triceps that required surgery, and the Browns were down to their fourth and fifth options at times.
With Conklin undergoing surgery in December to repair a torn patella tendon, the Browns must make other plans at the position if he doesn’t make it back at the start of the season. The recovery can take six months to a year, meaning Conklin can miss most of the season if that’s on the long end. He also suffered a knee injury and dislocated elbow. Wills, the 56th-best tackle in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus, should come back stronger, and could also be tried at right tackle, his college position, to see if he’d fare better. Pro Bowl guard Wyatt Teller has offered to work out with Wills in the offseason and help get him back on track.
In the meantime, the Browns must add some good depth and possibly a new starter in the offseason.
4. Try to re-sign Jadeveon Clowney and replace Takk McKinley
Clowney, signed to a one-year deal worth up to $8 million, exceeded expectations with nine sacks, the most he had since 2018 in Houston and a half-sack shy of his career-high the year before that. He also finished 18th in the NFL with 53 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus, and was a force against the run. The Browns will try to re-sign him, but PFF estimates his market value at $15 million a year, so it won’t be easy. He enjoyed playing here and being paired with Myles Garrett, third in the NFL with 16.0 sacks, but he makes no promises about coming back. Clowney admitted that money is a big factor, but not the only thing. He wants to win.
The Browns must also find a replacement at No. 3 defensive end for Takk McKinley, who also had a good season before suffering a ruptured Achilles in the loss to the Raiders.
5. Extend Denzel Ward
Ward had his second Pro Bowl campaign and became a lockdown corner as the season went along. He’s under contract next season at his fifth-year option salary of $13.294 million, but the Browns will likely try to sign him to a long-term extension and be set on that side of the field for years to come.
A Cleveland native, Ward has established himself as a leader on the team and in the community. Their No. 4 overall pick in 2018, he’s good for the Browns all the way around and fits their “smart, tough, accountable” mantra. He’s also set the tone in the secondary with his relentless work ethic and is a good mentor to young players such as 2021 No. 26 overall pick Greg Newsome II, who can join him in the Pro Bowl next season.
Ward also tied his career-high three interceptions, and had his best career season. Signing him to the blockbuster deal, worth about $19 million a year, would be the feel-good move of the offseason, and send the right message to the team.