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Mailbag: How long can Browns survive without Deshaun Watson and still win AFC North?

Q: How many games can the Browns overcome and still win the division if Deshaun Watson gets suspended?

— @GregSopko

A: Getting right to the heart of the matter in the long-awaited (by some?) return of the mailbag.

With the first four games the softest part of the Browns’ schedule, I believe they’d be fine if Watson were suspended for only six games. I’d expect backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett to go at least 3-3, which would keep the team in the race in the difficult AFC North.

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Things get trickier if the suspension stretches to eight games, with Week 7 at Baltimore and Week 8 at home vs. the Bengals. Watson would miss three North games (the Steelers visit Cleveland in Week 3) and nearly half the season, and the Ravens and Bengals are the biggest obstacles within the division. I wouldn’t rule out a division title with an eight-game suspension — Brissett, or whoever is filling in for Watson, could go 4-4 or 3-5 — but the pressure on Watson to win big when he returned would be immense. And he wouldn’t have played since the end of the 2020 season.

I feel another scenario needs to be explored. If Watson is suspended for the entire season, the Browns should seek an upgrade to Brissett. Jimmy Garoppolo tops the list for me, with Cam Newton next. With a talented defense and dominant run game, the Browns might be able to will their way to their first North title even without Watson — but they need to do everything they can at quarterback.

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Q:
If Watson receives a lengthy suspension, who do you think the Browns will pick up to serve as backup QB? The pickings are slim, so who’s your No. 1 candidate?

— @LeonardMullin10

A: I jumped the gun a bit in the previous answer but would love to explore the question further.

I believe they should try to find an upgrade for Brissett, or at least competition for the starting job. Garoppolo, Newton and the recently retired Ryan Fitzpatrick are the most attractive options in this category.

If the Browns are sold on Brissett as the starter, they would still need to add to the position, preferably a No. 2 ahead of the untested Josh Dobbs. Journeyman Mike Glennon has the best resume on the free agent list I reviewed. Another option is Josh Rosen. He was the 10th pick in 2018 but flopped in Arizona and has bounced around. He was liked by some in the Browns organization in 2018 and might be worth a shot.


Q:
Will Kareem Hunt be traded this season? The Browns are stacked at RB and his contract demand may make him the odd man out.

— @ChrisPyanowski

A: I understand the question and reasoning but don’t think Hunt will be dealt. I just think he’s too talented and the return in a trade wouldn’t match his importance to the offense. The Browns may not be willing to give him the extension he wants, but he’s still incredibly valuable to them in 2022.

I think a much more likely scenario is D’Ernest Johnson is traded before the season. You’re right about the depth in the backfield, and I think Johnson is more expendable than Hunt. Johnson is also set to be a free agent after the season and isn’t as good as Hunt.

I will offer a caveat: If the Browns are out of the playoff chase by the trading deadline, Hunt could be moved.


Q:
Who is the No. 2 WR by midseason?

— @wtfbrowns

A: I don’t think it will change from the start of training camp: Donovan Peoples-Jones. The front office and coaching staff are big believers in Peoples-Jones despite a pedestrian Year 2 in 2021, so he’ll get every chance to solidify himself as the starter opposite Amari Cooper.

But there are options if Peoples-Jones falters. Rookie David Bell will be counted on to contribute immediately and was highly productive at Purdue. Anthony Schwartz was a third-round pick last year, has elite speed and is expected to make a significant jump in Year 2. And the possibility of an addition at the position remains.

Since Jarvis Landry was cut in March, I’ve thought the Browns would be better off signing a proven No. 2, allowing Peoples-Jones, Bell and Schwartz to fit better in their roles. But general manager Andrew Berry seems to disagree, believing his youngsters are ready.

Q: Kevin Stefanski and Andrew Berry have forgotten more about pro football than I know so I cannot pass judgment on their QB decisions. But as a fan I will forever be grateful to Baker Mayfield for bringing the joy back to Cleveland on Sundays. My question is this, during his Panthers press conference, Baker indicated he will do his best to help the Panthers in their season opener “any way he can.” In the NFL one big play can change the outcome of a game, what do you think the Browns will need to do to assure that Baker’s knowledge of the Browns’ playbook, protections and callouts does not tip the game in Carolina’s favor?

— John Palazzo

A: I have no doubt Mayfield will share every ounce of knowledge he has about the Browns with Panthers coaches and teammates. While it’s debatable how much impact that can have — remember Hue Jackson joining the Bengals during the 2019 season — the Browns must take precautions.

Fortunately for them, the playbook has changed to some degree with the addition of Watson and Brissett. But Stefanski and his staff must be careful to use language unfamiliar to Mayfield, especially at the line of scrimmage. They should also be concerned about Mayfield’s intimate knowledge of the personnel. If he feels he can attack a cornerback or safety with a specific route — or fool defensive end Myles Garrett with a draw — the coaches need to be prepared for him to try.

Four takeaways from the Baker Mayfield trade

Q: Can they put Brownie the Elf on the alternate helmets?

— @jq6008

A: Yes. I don’t believe any rule regarding alternate helmets prohibits Brownie from being used.

But the organization would have to choose to go in that direction.

Browns writer for The Chronicle-Telegram and The Medina Gazette. Proud graduate of Northwestern University. Husband and stepdad. Avid golfer who needs to hit the range to get down to a single-digit handicap. Right about Johnny Manziel, wrong about Brandon Weeden. Contact Scott at 440-329-7253, or email and follow him on and Twitter.

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