Q: The Browns have given up 3.4 sacks per game in their losses, compared with just 1.6 sacks per game in their wins. Offensive line is a massive weakness and likely three starting OL spots need to be replaced this offseason. At what point does general manager John Dorsey feel some heat for neglecting such an important position group, and can the Browns realistically improve their OL play next season?
— Dean Schleicher
A: I think Dorsey’s started to feel the heat. Not to the level of coach Freddie Kitchens, but definitely more than in his first year-plus on the job. And the offensive line is the chief reason. I’m sure Dorsey believed he had enough options to withstand injury and poor performance, but he was wrong.
Left tackle Greg Robinson doesn’t always prepare like a professional and was benched for a game at midseason. Right tackle Chris Hubbard is one of the most likable guys on the team but has been average, at best, in his two seasons.
And the team has yet to figure out what to do at right guard. Austin Corbett was a bust and traded. Eric Kush started the first seven games but was benched in favor of Wyatt Teller, who has also been inconsistent.
So the only two spots that have been solid are left guard Joel Bitonio and center JC Tretter.
Having said all that, I don’t think it’s fair to blame the line for all of the offense’s struggles. Plenty of teams overcome average offensive lines with superior game plans and quarterback play. Kitchens and Baker Mayfield have been unable to rescue the line.
And while I agree the tackle spots must be upgraded — Robinson is on a one-year deal — I also believe a line can be better than its individual parts and doesn’t need five Pro Bowlers to excel. So Dorsey should make finding a stud left tackle a priority, then add more competition at right tackle and right guard. I believe he has enough assets to make the significant improvement necessary in the offseason.
Q: Admittedly, we fans cannot hear every question asked during interviews, but why was not Odell Beckham Jr. simply reminded: “With all due respect, Odell, it is a yes/no question: Do you want to be with the Cleveland Browns next season? Do you want to return to the 2020 Browns?”
— Mark Leonard
A: He was.
He was twice given the chance to put a stop to the speculation expected in the offseason and didn’t. And he was asked point-blank: “Do you want to be here in 2020 or do you not care where you are?”
That’s when he gave the answer that got the most play during the week.
“No one knows what the future holds tomorrow,” he said. “I couldn’t tell you what’s going to happen. My locker is right beside one of the men that means the most to me in the world. I think about just being able to come to work and see him every single day and how special this could be.
“I couldn’t sit here and tell you whether I’m going to be here, want to be here, don’t want to be here — this is exactly where I’m at now and I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else. God has a plan. In the offseason, everything will figure itself out. I feel like I’ve been here before, answering questions about the next team when I’m on a team already. That’s just something I’m going to tune out for right now. Catch me in the offseason and we’ll see what happens. I don’t know God’s plan.”
I haven’t suggested Beckham will try to force his way out of town. But I have no doubt he’s frustrated with how his first season with the Browns has gone. He hasn’t been healthy (sports hernia), hasn’t had his usual production and the Browns have fallen well short of expectations. That doesn’t mean he can’t come back for 2020 happy to be here and motivated for a huge year. He’s just not there right now.
Q: Keep Freddie Kitchens, upgrade the offensive tackles, get a reliable tight end, make Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt the focus of the offense and start next season with realistic expectations. And forget this train wreck of a season. Could you get on board with all of that?
I don’t have a big issue with any of your suggestions. The tackles were addressed above, and I would agree the offense should be built around the talented running backs — with the understanding teams don’t win in today’s NFL without being able to throw the ball in critical moments. Fans must remember it’s a high-scoring league and not 1960 anymore. Expectations shouldn’t be a factor, but it certainly felt this season that they weighed down the inexperienced team.
As for Kitchens, I don’t feel as strongly as some that he needs to go. But if I were owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam and general manager John Dorsey, I would sit down at the end of the season and take a comprehensive look at his first year on the job. The most important question for me: Will Kitchens be able to learn from all his rookie mistakes? If the answer’s yes, bring him back. If not, a change must be made.
Q: Is David Nkoku ready to contribute after his comeback from injury?
A: He says yes, and I believe him.
He’ll certainly get the opportunity Sunday vs. the Bengals with Demetrius Harris inactive with a shoulder injury. Njoku is the most talented of the tight end group, and the Browns should use the final four games to evaluate him for the future. He’s failed to live up to his first-round draft status, and GM John Dorsey could decide to upgrade the position in the offseason if Njoku fails to impress in the final month.