Q: Can anything be gleaned about the bad Browns run defense from PFF run grades. I wonder where Myles Garret is on the run scale??
A: I don’t like to treat Pro Football Focus grades as infallible and the only way to measure performance but I do respect the work its professionals do. And its grades for the Browns run defenders verify what I saw on the field and film.
The major takeaway: The defensive tackles weren’t nearly good enough.
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Taven Bryan had the best run grade among the group at 56.8, which ranked 56th in the NFL among interior linemen. Fellow starter Jordan Elliott (33.3) and rookie backup Perrion Winfrey (36.0) were in the bottom 10, and second-year backup Tommy Togiai (37.8) wasn’t much better. The tackles were unproven entering the year and didn’t make the jump the Browns had hoped. The run defense was a liability for most of the season, as it allowed at least 130 yards in 10 of the final 14 games, leading to the firing of coordinator Joe Woods after the season.
The starting ends weren’t the problem, as Jadeveon Clowney received a 74.3 run grade from PFF and Myles Garrett 68.6. Rookie Alex Wright struggled to 37.2. Linebacker Reggie Ragland, a late-season pickup, got the team’s highest grade at 86.3 but is considered a one-dimensional defender who struggles in space. Among the rest of the linebackers, Sione Takitaki was at 65.0, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah 58.8, Anthony Walker Jr. 56.2 and Jacob Phillips 33.5. Safety Grant Delpit tackled better as the year went on and finished at 69.3, with safety John Johnson III at 56.4 and nickelback Greg Newsome 55.1.
The line must be overhauled under new coordinator Jim Schwartz, and the work will focus on the tackles. An end to replace Clowney is also of premium importance. Walker, Takitaki and Phillips are coming off serious season-ending injuries — Owusu-Koramoah also missed the final four games with a foot injury — so it will be interesting to see how many new players are added at linebacker. Schwartz gives his linemen freedom to attack, which places a lot of responsibility on the second level.
Q: With the Haslams looking to buy into more franchises, the question has to be asked: Why would anyone want the Haslams as investors? They’ve failed spectacularly with the Browns, alienated half the fan base with the Deshaun Watson trade and angered fellow owners with his contract. What gives?
A: I believe it comes down to one thing: They have the money. Billionaires with the willingness to spend and an interest in professional sports don’t grow on trees.
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The deal with the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks isn’t a sure thing, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens. Your points are valid, but I’m sure the experience with the Browns and the knowledge of how the NFL operates would be attractive to the Bucks ownership. And if you’re the one selling a stake, you probably don’t care that much what happens after you leave.
Q: Your most recent podcast had an interesting commentary related to the rise in criticism of NFL officiating calls. I agree with you that the disparaging of refs is way overblown, but ask this question: By using their powerful brand to promote and profit from gambling, is the NFL not largely responsible for creating this newfound obsession?
— John Palazzo
A: Thanks for listening to “Zone Coverage” and spreading the word.
Your point is spot-on. The increase in gambling — at least in a legal form — has sharpened the focus of many fans on the officiating. Even if a bad call doesn’t hurt your favorite team, it could be seen as taking money out of your bank account. The league must realize this and has a responsibility to be transparent regarding officiating.
I wonder if the obsession with officiating is totally “newfound.” I also don’t know if it can be solely attributed to gambling. I don’t want to get too deep here, but I’ve seen and read plenty of stories about officials being attacked by fans at the lowest levels of sport, where gambling isn’t a concern. It could be just one of our societal problems. Officials have become a popular target, and the incredible replays available for NFL games amplify any mistakes.
I don’t like to criticize fellow media but believe sports would be better served with less focus on the officiating. That includes the late — and correct — holding penalty on the Eagles in the Super Bowl.
Q: There has been a quiet parade of smaller, quicker WRs through Berea this year, including Marquez Stevenson out of Houston and Jaelon Darden from North Texas, who were part of the 2021 draft that included Anthony Schwartz, whom the Browns selected in the third round. It’s partly related to a search for an adequate return specialist but not exclusively. It seems not to be accidental these potential playmakers and YAC-style threats have been auditioned. Team lacks explosiveness, elusiveness, speed, quickness, open-field weapons.
— Mark Leonard
A: Hope you don’t mind I turned part of an email into a “question” because I think it’s an important topic.
There’s no doubt the offense, especially in the receiving corps, lacks the desired explosion. Schwartz was supposed to fill that role but hasn’t had anywhere near the expected production. Finding that skill set will be a priority of the offseason, as the Browns search to diversify the offense and surround Watson with more playmakers. The deep ball was missing during Watson’s six games due to the lack of a true and trusted vertical threat. The jet sweep action and bubble screens were also largely absent.
Your point is correct about under-the-radar additions during the season. Stevenson was on the practice squad, but Darden got a little playing time late because the Browns saw something. The Browns could make a big splash in free agency at receiver, but I think more likely is adding a combination of a moderately priced veteran and a second-round draft pick, both with speed.
Q: What additional holes are there now? They haven’t lost much since the end of 2021 (Jadeveon Clowney and probably JJ3) while they’ve added Amari Cooper, gotten breakouts from Donovan Peoples-Jones, Grant Delpit and Martin Emerson Jr. Everything else has been roughly static.
A: You were responding to the last mailbag in which I was asked about fixing the roster while being limited by Watson’s contract.
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I would say the “additional holes” were ones that became obvious during the disappointing 2022 season. Not only is Clowney gone after his public meltdown, two starting defensive tackles are needed, leaving three holes across the defensive line. Linebacker has questions after the rash of injuries and uneven performances from Phillips and Owusu-Koramoah. And there could be a hole at safety if Johnson isn’t retained. On offense, receiver was discussed above and I’d put No. 2 tight end as second on the list of needs. Depth at offensive line, especially at tackle, and running back would be next in line.
I get your point about additional holes, but the issue is fewer resources to address problems due to Watson’s contract and the other large ones being paid. The personnel department has work to do to strengthen the roster under those constraints.