Q: Have we seen enough of Deshaun Watson to see what offensive plays work for him? And has the Rustoleum been knocked off yet?
A: Pretty close. And pretty much (although I think Rustoleum prevents rust).
Watson’s improvement throughout his five starts has been obvious and encouraging for fans. Most of that is the rust falling off from going 700 days between starts. Another significant factor is the adjustments being made between coach/play caller Kevin Stefanski and Watson. Stefanski envisioned an expansion of his system with Watson, and it’s begun to be realized. The designed quarterback runs, the zone reads and RPOs have been sprinkled in and should only expand next season. I think the area that hasn’t been explored is the deep passing game. Watson clearly has the arm and Stefanski likes deep shots, but they have yet to emerge.
I’ve always liked Stefanski’s system and believe Watson will make it work even better.
Q: Coming off a serious injury, seems like an odd time for a contract extension. Do you have insight into the logic, timing and details of the Jack Conklin extension?
A: The timing was necessitated by Conklin being in the final year of the three-year deal he signed in 2020. The Browns needed a right tackle for 2023 and beyond and decided Conklin was the best option. I believe he’s much better than James Hudson III — his backup — and the Browns got Conklin at a good rate for a high-level right tackle ($15 million a season).
The risk, obviously, is injury. Conklin missed time with knee and elbow injuries in 2021 before the season-ending torn patellar tendon. He started 14 straight games this year after returning from the injury before being inactive for the finale with an ankle injury.
I don’t think the Browns would’ve been able to find an upgrade in free agency at that price and have other needs to address in the draft. But it’s only a good move if Conklin stays healthy.
Q: Jadeveon Clowney is already gone. Early thoughts on who won’t be back next season? Besides Brissett, Kareem Hunt, D’Ernest Johnson.
A: The biggest question for me is safety John Johnson III. He was the marquee free agent signing in 2021 but hasn’t lived up to the three-year, $33.75 million contract. He hasn’t been awful, just not the playmaker the Browns hoped. Would general manager Andrew Berry admit a mistake and but him with a year left on the deal? The salary cap hit would be only $3.75 million if he’s released with a June 1 designation, according to overthecap.com.
I wouldn’t expect cornerback Greedy Williams or defensive tackle Taven Bryan to return. I think the Browns will try to re-sign center Ethan Pocic and linebacker Anthony Walker Jr., who are on one-year deals, as well as linebacker Sione Takitaki, whose anterior cruciate ligament tore Dec. 4 and might not be ready for the start of the season. He’s scheduled to be a free agent in March.
Q: Did Donovan Peoples-Jones earn an extension this season? Will Demetric Felton Jr. have a roster spot next year? How far are Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Grant Delpit from locking up extensions?
A: Probably. No. At least a year away.
Peoples-Jones made the hoped-for jump this year and solidified himself as a reliable piece of the offense. I expect that to earn him an extension, likely before next season.
Felton shouldn’t have made the team this season, so I can’t imagine him being back after being a healthy scratch nine times.
Owusu-Koramoah has to prove he can stay healthy, which likely includes adding weight. Delpit needs to carry his improved play from the end of 2022 into 2023 before he would merit an extension.
Q: Like everyone else I was extremely shook up by what happened to Damar Hamlin. Is it time for the NFL to recognize that the risks of playing the game have increased dramatically over the last 50 years and make the safety of all its players the top priority?
— John Palazzo
A: That would certainly be nice. But I wouldn’t hold your breath.
I think there are several realities involved when it comes to player safety — it’s a violent game at its core, the NFL has done much better in the last decade (much of the improvement forced upon it) and business concerns too often take priority.
As scary as the Hamlin situation was — the good news of the last few days has been heartwarming — I don’t see how his injury could’ve been prevented. It was a routine football play that wasn’t dirty in the slightest. But to your point, I would love to see the event further raise awareness for player safety overall, including mental health. The league has made strides in dealing with concussions since a decade ago when the Browns put quarterback Colt McCoy back in a game in Pittsburgh with a concussion, but there’s a long way to go, as evidenced by the handling of the Tua Tagovailoa cases this season.
Q: Are you surprised that Kevin Stefanski didn’t think outside the box to have a red zone package for quarterback Joshua Dobbs? Just the threat of running helps the offense, gives a different look.
A: Colleagues I respect wondered the same thing, but I’m not a fan of that. I like to trust my quarterback in all situations. I understand that Jacoby Brissett was a backup, but I still never liked the idea of a Dobbs package.
Q: Any word on Peyton Hillis’ condition?
A: Last night Alyssa Orange, a reporter for a TV station in Arkansas, tweeted Hillis remained in intensive care. Early this morning the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported he remained hospitalized but had shown signs of improvement.
Q: Which of these new linebackers could you see sticking around next season?
A: Reggie Ragland Jr. is the most intriguing to me. At 6-foot-2, 252 pounds, he’s a thumper and a completely different body type than the rest of the unit. He’s played well and coaches said he brings great energy. He has value, especially against run-heavy teams like the Ravens and Steelers.
Q: Once again you are GM Petrak, what coaching changes are you making?
— Randy Clar
A: Luckily it’s not up to me, because I would have a hard time firing anyone — not usually a fan of confrontation.
But I expect defensive coordinator Joe Woods to be let go in the coming days, with at least part of the defensive staff joining him. I think Stefanski would want to keep some of the assistants but will leave the staff up to whomever he hires as coordinator. I don’t think Woods is responsible for all the defensive problems — he wasn’t given much to work with at tackle — but when a team misses the playoffs for two straight years with such high expectations, changes should probably be made. Woods is the obvious one.
I think the decision with special teams coordinator Mike Priefer is trickier. His units were a disaster during the first half but rallied lately, including Jerome Ford establishing himself as a legitimate kickoff returner and Donovan Peoples-Jones returning a punt for a touchdown. I get the sense Stefanski prefers stability, so Priefer could stick.
Q: Why do the Browns hate us?
A: There’s a thin line between love and hate.