Q: Do you believe the Browns’ brain trust feels Baker Mayfield’s down year was due to injuries or do they think he has reached his ceiling when it comes to performance?
A: You’ve asked the million-dollar question. And I’m not sure there’s a consensus within the organization.
I don’t think there’s any doubt the injuries affected Mayfield’s performance this season. But there’s plenty of room for debate on just how much they explain his regression from last season. Until last week, the organization and coaches had downplayed the impact of the injuries, insisting Mayfield threw well in practice and was healthy enough to win. Coordinator Alex Van Pelt changed tone Friday when he said the harness worn to protect the left, non-throwing shoulder “definitely hindered” Mayfield, but coach Kevin Stefanski wouldn’t say it was a huge factor. Perhaps Van Pelt was trying to support his struggling quarterback heading into what could’ve been two huge games, or he just felt the time was right to reveal his true feelings.
If the organization is split on the effects of the injuries, the offseason discussions will be fascinating. Stefanski should have the loudest voice, because if he doesn’t trust Mayfield to execute his play calls, not much else matters.
Q: Who are the unrestricted free agents the #Browns should be looking to keep?
A: The list starts with defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. If you knew he’d basically stay healthy for a second straight season, he’d be worth a raise from the $10 million salary of 2021. He was a strong bookend with Myles Garrett and played his best football later in the season before getting sick with COVID-19. Clowney is powerful in the run game and had more impact than the solid stats of five sacks, 15 quarterback hits and nine tackles for loss.
No. 3 end Takk McKinley would’ve been right up there as a priority, but his ruptured Achilles late in the season adds a lot of uncertainty. Linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. isn’t a difference-maker but he’s great in the locker room, smart and would be a valuable veteran to keep in that room. All these names are dependent on the price tag, especially safety Ronnie Harrison Jr. He’s shown playmaking ability but blew too many coverages early in the season and doesn’t always play smart. Perhaps more importantly, the Browns have committed resources to John Johnson III and Grant Delpit and might not be able to afford three starting-caliber safeties.
Q: Will the Browns draft wide receivers or sign them in free agency?
A: If there’s a signature move — and I expect one — I’d be surprised if it didn’t come in the draft. Recent drafts have been so deep at the position, the talent is there and the price is right.
I could see the Browns bringing in a solid veteran, especially if Jarvis Landry doesn’t return, but would view that as a secondary move to a receiver picked in the first or second round.
Q: Does Kyle Lauletta or Nick Mullens start next week vs Cincy?
A: I doubt it. I get your point of giving a younger guy a look in a “meaningless” game and can’t say I’d be stunned if the decision were made. But if Mayfield wants to play, I’d play him. He’s the starter, let him finish the season he’s fought so hard to play.
If it is Lauletta or Mullens, everyone would have to be careful not to read too much into the performance.
Q: Is analytics smart enough to change a strategy if the data proves they’re probably wrong? Judging by our roster choices during the last five seasons the Browns front office must believe there’s not enough difference between a top 30 kicker and a top 10 kicker to justify the extra salary. Everybody’s focusing the blame this season on our franchise QB, but we’d probably be in control of our destiny if our place-kickers were trustworthy.
— John Palazzo
A: Analytics follows the data. So if the numbers suggest a bigger investment in kicker, I’d expect the Browns to adjust their priorities. But I’d caution that trusted kickers are tough to find and there seems to be a lot of randomness in the year-to-year performance of many kickers, unless you have one of the top five in the league.
The kicking struggles obviously didn’t help this season, but I’m not sure the organization would assign them the same amount of blame as you do.
Q: I really enjoy your articles on the Cleveland sports teams, but I wonder why no one seems to address the “elephant in the room,” which is the terrible job that the officials do when it comes to penalty calls. The Packers game could have gone a whole different way if they had made the obvious pass interference calls against the Packers!
Why are the coaches and owners so afraid to call out these egregious errors? Are they that afraid of the possible repercussions?
I would appreciate hearing your thoughts about this.
— David Roberts, Sheffield Lake
A: I should loop you into the group text with some buddies. There’s plenty of complaining about the officiating on there.
Here are some overall thoughts on the subject:
The officiating across the league was poor this year and something needs to be done. I believe the simplest solution is adding a “sky judge” to immediately fix egregious mistakes. There will still be controversy and debate but much less.
I don’t believe the officials or the NFL are out to get the Browns. The bad calls against your team just stand out more. And it’s necessary to remember it’s a really difficult job.
The NFL is adamant that team officials, coaches and players shouldn’t publicly criticize officials and have a steep fine schedule to punish offenders. The league can’t have its members openly ripping officials, because it would cast doubt on their impartiality.