This season is more about small victories than those that show up in the standings.
Owner Jimmy Haslam made that clear when he said he expects the team to be “substantially better” in 2018 or ’19, and executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown drove home the point when he put together a roster that’s the youngest in the league.
The delayed gratification is understandably tough for fans to stomach. Especially if they’re spending big money on tickets and merchandise.
But it’s too late to change Brown’s deliberate plan or fast-track the rebuilding process. With that as the backdrop, this season will count as a success if three things happen.
1. THEY FIND THE ONE
Everyone inside and outside the organization would feel infinitely better about its direction if at the end of the season rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer looks like he’s the long-term answer to the franchise’s decades-long problem.
Philadelphia fans were disappointed the Eagles didn’t make the playoffs last year, but the wailing was muffled because rookie quarterback Carson Wentz looked like the real deal. Raiders fans felt the same way about Derek Carr in 2014, and Buccaneers and Titans fans believe they’ve found their future in Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota.
Kizer has the requisite physical tools with a big body, strong arm and ability to run, and coaches rave about his mental acuity. The questions that need to be answered are how he handles pressure situations and if he can be accurate enough to complement his downfield throwing.
If he can stay healthy, he’ll have a season’s worth of chances to show the necessary improvement and convince the Browns’ decision-makers they can stop the search for their franchise quarterback.
Kizer was the No. 52 pick in the draft, so the Browns aren’t committed to him for the long haul. This will be a pivotal season for him and the organization.
2. SOPHOMORES SURGE
If you’re going to have the youngest roster in the league, the youngsters need to be good in a hurry.
The Browns drafted a staggering 14 players in 2016 in Brown’s first turn at the helm. Ten remain on the roster and will have the opportunity in Year 2 to show they were worth the selections and are building blocks for the future.
Receivers Corey Coleman and Ricardo Louis, right tackle Shon Coleman, tight end Seth DeValve, defensive ends Emmanuel Ogbah and Carl Nassib, middle linebacker Joe Schobert and strong safety Derrick Kindred will either be starters or key backups. If four or five can establish themselves as long-term starters, the Browns will be much closer to where they want to go and can start worrying about adding depth rather than front-line players.
How the second-year players perform will say a lot about the talent-evaluation skills of Brown and Co. If Corey Coleman isn’t a No. 1 wideout, DeValve can’t get open, Schobert can’t withstand the grind of playing inside and Kindred can’t cover, Haslam should start to wonder if Brown can be trusted with the 13 draft picks waiting in 2018.
3. AN INSTANT IMPACT
Myles Garrett’s presence must be felt by the left tackle, quarterback and across the defense. And he must be healthy.
Garrett aspires to be Defensive Rookie of the Year, and will probably need double-digit sacks to snag the award, which won’t be easy as he starts the season sidelined by a high ankle sprain. That would begin to fulfill the expectations that come with being the No. 1 overall pick.
But his potential is so much greater, as is the difference he can make on a Browns defense desperate for decades for a big-time pass rusher. If Garrett plays like he did during training camp and the preseason, he’ll draw extra attention from the offensive line, tight ends and running backs. That should free up the rest of the defense to wreak havoc.
Ends Ogbah, Nassib and Nate Orchard should see consistent one-on-one matchups on the other side. If they can make opponents pay with sacks and pressures, and the secondary can turn hurried passes into interceptions, Garrett’s impact will be jarring.