Connect with us


Three keys to success for the Browns this year

On offense:

Oh, captain, my captain

Deshaun Watson has been quick to say the offense will go as far as he takes it. While that is the case with most quarterbacks, especially the highest-paid ones, it’s interesting to hear Watson acknowledge that coming off a below-average performance in his six starts last season, which followed nearly two years without a regular-season start. His teammates showed they respect his leadership and talent by voting him one of the five captains.

Coach Kevin Stefanski has empowered Watson through system alterations, playbook changes and the freedom to adjust the call at the line of scrimmage. The theory is Watson will have the greatest chance to succeed because he’s running the style and plays he most likes. The coaches have even embraced his penchant for scrambling and improvisation, teaching the receivers and linemen to adapt accordingly.

“You have to have a constant dialogue with the quarterback and things that he’s comfortable with,” Stefanski said. “And then ultimately what matches the quarterback’s eye, what matches your talent and your personnel that you have.”


The Browns have committed serious resources into a support system for Watson — on offense, defense and off the field. He doesn’t have to be perfect for the Browns to win games but he’ll have to be much improved over last year and make quality decisions, especially in the biggest moments.

The time is now

Tight end David Njoku has played six seasons and has yet to live up to his draft status as the No. 29 pick. If it’s ever going to happen, this must be the year.

Njoku is in his prime at 27 years old, had an impressive preseason and has a quarterback who likes throwing to tight ends. He ran free throughout training camp and the preseason and caught just about everything thrown to him. The Browns have enough weapons on the outside and in the backfield that Njoku should get favorable matchups down the seam and in the red zone. He’s always had the size, speed and athleticism to make big plays but lacked the consistency, especially catching the ball.

General manager Andrew Berry doubled down on the draft pick when he gave Njoku a four-year, $54.75 million extension before last season. Berry may not have had a better alternative, but it seemed like too much money for a guy who’s never been to a Pro Bowl or exceeded 650 yards and four touchdowns in a season. If Njoku approaches 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns this year, all the time waiting for him to reach his potential could finally be worth it.

Living on the edge

The interior of the line is about as good as it gets in the NFL. Left guard Joel Bitonio has been arguably the best guard in the league for years, right guard Wyatt Teller, when healthy, is a road grader in the run game and capable in pass protection and center Ethan Pocic earned a long-term contract with solid play last year.

The concern on a line in which all five starters return is at tackle.

Jack Conklin just turned 29 and has missed 13 games over the last two years. The Browns believe he can still play at a high level, signing him to an extension late last season.

On the left side is Jedrick Wills Jr., whose career has parallels to Njoku’s. Wills was the No. 10 pick in 2020, is a legitimate NFL starter but his effort and performance have been inconsistent. Berry committed to Wills for the next two seasons when he picked up the guaranteed fifth-year option on his rookie contract.

Watson takes deep drops and holds onto the ball in an effort to make the big play, which makes life more difficult for Wills and Conklin. If they can match the play of the inside three, the Browns will be in good shape. If the tackles falter, Stefanski and Watson will have to figure out a way to compensate.

On defense:

I love you, man

New coordinator Jim Schwartz only calls a lot of blitzes when he trusts his cornerbacks.

Look for a lot of blitzes.

When Schwartz reviewed the film from 2022 he was impressed with Denzel Ward, Greg Newsome II and Martin Emerson Jr. and decided he could count on them in man-to-man coverage. That frees up linebackers and safeties to get after the quarterback, and Schwartz gave a glimpse of what’s to come with pressures during the preseason.

Whether it’s a corner or safety out of the slot or a linebacker or two up the middle, Schwartz will bring extra pass rushers and force the quarterback to make a quick decision. Blitzing also generates more one-on-one blocks for the defensive ends and tackles, which Myles Garrett and Za’Darius Smith should exploit.

The reliance on man coverage will be tested right away, as the Bengals visit in the opener Sunday. Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd form arguably the best receiver trio in the league, and it will be interesting to see how Schwartz tries to contain them.

You can never be too safe-ty

Schwartz will get creative with how he employs the entire secondary.

Veteran Rodney McLeod has a history with Schwartz and was signed to be the third safety behind Juan Thornhill and Grant Delpit. McLeod is too valuable to spend the whole game on the sideline, so Schwartz will play three safeties together. That could be in the five-defensive back nickel package or in the six-DB dime. All three safeties can play in the deep middle or at the line of scrimmage, which allows Schwartz to chase the matchups he wants.

Former coordinator Joe Woods was a big proponent of the three-safety package, but it never had the success he hoped. Schwartz has the players to make it work.

Hold the line

The run defense can’t be much worse than a year ago. It needs to be so much better for the Browns to reach their goals.

The Browns ranked 25th against the run (135.2 yards a game), allowing at least 130 yards 10 times over the last 14 games. Tackle Dalvin Tomlinson was the most expensive free agent acquisition in the offseason, and Maurice Hurst II, Shelby Harris and rookie Siaki Ika were also added on the interior. End Za’Darius Smith should provide additional help opposite Myles Garrett.

The line shouldn’t be an issue, but problems are still possible. Schwartz teaches the linemen to penetrate in an attempt to generate negative plays that force the offense into second-and-long and third-and-long. That approach could leave the defense susceptible to certain run schemes. The Browns believe a high-powered offense and top-flight pass rush will make up for any big gains allowed on the ground, but they must avoid getting bullied.

The scheme also puts extra pressure on the linebackers to clean up anything the line doesn’t handle. If healthy, the linebackers are solid, but Anthony Walker Jr., Sione Takitaki and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah ended last season on injured reserve.

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.


More in Analysis