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State of the 2023 Cleveland Browns: Deshaun Watson, Kevin Stefanski must show they can win

Where does your squad stand in 2023? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Browns organization, Browns fans around the world and those who still love to sing the cover of Cleveland Rocks that was used in the intro to The Drew Carey Show ...

The Cleveland Browns took a huge risk last season when they brought in a new franchise quarterback. It didn't work -- at least, not in the first year. Can Cleveland figure out how to move forward? Good question. But as always, before we take a look at this season, it's important to take a look back.

2022 rewind

One high from last season: Starting 2-1 right out of the gate, including a win over the rival Pittsburgh Steelers. The Browns could have been 3-0, had it not been for an epic collapse against the Jets in Week 2. Either way, after Cleveland put the Steelers away with relative ease on Thursday Night Football in Week 3, you almost thought this team could use the mini-bye coming off TNF to put something together.

One low from last season: Failing to put something together. The Browns lost six of their next seven, including a four-game skid beginning in Week 4, and they never recovered, officially falling out of playoff contention on Christmas Eve.

2023 VIPs

Quarterback: Deshaun Watson. To acquire Watson last offseason, the Browns sent a lot of draft capital, including three first-round selections, to the Texans while giving Watson a fully guaranteed, five-year deal worth $230 million. He then served an 11-game suspension (and was fined $5 million) for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy, per the terms of the league's settlement with the NFL Players Association after an NFL investigation of allegations that Watson committed sexual misconduct.

Watson is talented, but giving away picks like that is eventually going to eat away at an organization's depth -- and depth was one of the things that made the Browns so intriguing before they added Watson. They were able to restructure his contract and lower his cap figure for 2023, but they obviously still owe him quite a bit of money going forward. They aren't currently set to pick in the first round again until 2025. Maintaining a roster that can win consistently under those circumstances is going to be a challenge, no matter how well that quarterback plays (and, as we'll discuss shortly, we have yet to see Watson play well in Cleveland).

Projected 2023 MVP: Watson. He passed for 1,102 yards -- less than 200 yards per game -- with seven touchdowns and five interceptions in six games after returning from suspension in 2022. His passer rating was 79.1. It was possible to make some excuses for Watson's performance last year, because he hadn't played football since 2020 (when he threw for 4,823 yards and 33 TDs for Houston, while going 4-12 as the starter). Those excuses are gone now. When someone makes as much money guaranteed as Watson does, they must be a superstar on the field for the team to succeed. That's obvious, but it's also the truth.

New face to know: Za'Darius Smith, edge. As a pass-rushing presence, the May trade acquisition is, to me, is a huge upgrade over Jadeveon Clowney, who somehow seems to still be living off one big hit all these years later -- like Europe with The Final Countdown, which is enjoying yet another run in the spotlight courtesy of Bryan Danielson in AEW. You put him on a defensive line with Myles Garrett, who tied a career high with 16 sacks last year to go along with 18 tackles for loss and 26 quarterback hits, and that should make for a pretty impressive collab, whether Smith plays on the edge or inside (where's Mary Kay Cabot said he was lining up in minicamp). Kind of like Dua Lipa and Elton John's Cold Heart. And I know that seems like it should be out of my musical wheelhouse, but a) we're talking about Elton John, so it's not, and b) yeah, I'm thinking of the Kidz Bop version.

2023 breakout star: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, linebacker. The Browns have bolstered the defensive line. They have a couple of pass-rushing powerhouses. But keep your eye on linebacker Owusu-Koramoah. Last season, Owusu-Koramoah had kind of a quiet, injury-hampered follow-up to his promising rookie year, logging 70 tackles and two forced fumbles in 11 games. That said, as Zac Jackson of The Athletic observed in January, Owusu-Koramoah would seem to fit new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's desire to have linebackers "play fast." The 2021 second-rounder has all of the talent in the world to be an elite linebacker, and I truly believe that he will perform like one this year.

2023 braintrust

Table inside Article
Head coach Kevin Stefanski
General manager Andrew Berry
Offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz
Special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone
  • After the 2022 season ended, Stefanski said he was disappointed but "in no way discouraged for the future of this football team." And I appreciate him taking that approach. I've been a fan of his and believe the 2020 Coach of the Year is still one of the bright offensive minds in the game. He really needs to get this team back to the playoffs. Obviously, that's a tall task, given the division. But it doesn't seem likely that he'll get to log too many more sub-.500 seasons in Cleveland.
  • Schwartz has a lot to work with, as we'll get into further in a moment. He's proven he can get it done at the NFL level. You love having a guy like Schwartz on your staff, because he's accomplished so much in the league. Kind of reminiscent of what Dan Quinn has meant as the defensive coordinator in Dallas. But Schwartz's presence is also potentially tricky, because as a former head coach, he has the pedigree to step up if the organization wants to make an in-season change.

Roster reshuffling

Below is a rundown of the Browns' most notable roster developments for the 2023 season, including this year's draft class, as well as key acquisitions and departures via free agency and trade.

Table inside Article
Draft class (round-pick) Key additions Key departures
Cedric Tillman, WR, Tennessee (3-74) Joshua Dobbs, QB Jacoby Brissett, QB
Siaki Ika, DT, Baylor (3-98) Marquise Goodwin, WR Kareem Hunt, RB
Dawand Jones, OT, Ohio State (4-111) Elijah Moore, WR D'Ernest Johnson, RB
Isaiah McGuire, DE, Missouri (4-126) Jordan Akins, TE Chris Hubbard, OT
Dorian Thompson-Robinson, QB, UCLA (5-140) Ogbo Okoronkwo, Edge Hjalte Froholdt, C/OG
Cameron Mitchell, CB, Northwestern (5-142) Za'Darius Smith, Edge Jadeveon Clowney, Edge
Luke Wypler, C, Ohio State (6-190) Trysten Hill, DL Chase Winovich, Edge
Maurice Hurst, DL Taven Bryan, DL
Dalvin Tomlinson, DT Deion Jones, LB
Rodney McLeod, S Greedy Williams, CB
Juan Thornhill, S Ronnie Harrison, S
John Johnson, S

2023 roadmap

Three key dates:

  • Week 1 vs. Cincinnati Bengals. The Browns open up the season against one of the best teams in the entire league, let alone in the AFC North. And if this tone-setter wasn't enough, they have the Pittsburgh Steelers on the road for Monday Night Football in Week 2 and a home game against the Ravens in Week 4 (after what should be an easy one vs. the Titans in Week 3).
  • Week 6 vs. San Francisco 49ers. The Browns follow a Week 5 bye by facing one of the top teams in the NFC. At least four of Cleveland's first five games come at home.
  • Week 18 at Cincinnati Bengals. Hey, you never know; this could be for all the marbles in the AFC North. Or the season could have gone horribly, horribly wrong for Cleveland. The Browns have the seventh-easiest schedule based on last year's winning percentages -- it just doesn't seem that way.

Will the Browns be able to ...

... field a difference-making defense? The Browns ranked 14th in yards allowed last season, which doesn't seem right, given how many stars they had on that side of the ball. That might be why Joe Woods is no longer running the defense. We've mentioned Jim Schwartz, Za'Darius Smith, Myles Garrett and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. But let's not forget Denzel Ward is still leading a pass defense that finished fifth in yards allowed in 2022 and could be improved if Garrett and Co. are able to get to the quarterback at a higher rate. Can Smith, defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson and pass rusher Ogbo Okoronkwo collectively provide a major boost up front? Will new safety Juan Thornhill stabilize the position after John Johnson III was released two years into a three-year deal? Getting the most out of the new defensive additions (including rookies Siaki Ika, Isaiah McGuire and Cameron Mitchell, plus vets like Trysten Hill, Maurice Hurst and Rodney McLeod) will only make life easier for Kevin Stefanski as he tries to get the offense rolling again.

... boast of one of the best receiving corps in the NFL? I underestimated how good Amari Cooper would be for the Cowboys when they traded for him in 2018, and I was excited when the Browns acquired him last year. His 2022 line (78 receptions, 1,160 yards and nine touchdowns) was fine -- but I expect him to be much better in 2023. With Cooper and Donovan Peoples-Jones doing the work on the outside, I'm pumped for Elijah Moore to stretch the field and maximize the potential he showed over the past two seasons with the Jets. With David Njoku at tight end and rookie Cedric Tillman (who was kind of a steal in the third round) also on hand, this group of pass-catchers could be really good -- and that would be huge for helping Deshaun Watson take off.

One storyline ...

... people shouldn't overlook: Just how great Nick Chubb is. I know he's coming off four straight Pro Bowl nods, but I feel like Chubb doesn't quite get his proper due as one of the best running backs in the game. Like, I saw some speculative musing out there this offseason about the Browns being a potential fit for Ezekiel Elliott. Uh, pass. For the second straight season, Chubb ranked in the top three in the NFL in rushing yards (1,525), and he tied for fifth in rushing TDs (12). And I am glad that, after years of having him split carries, mostly with Kareem Hunt, Cleveland went to Chubb so much last season; he logged 1.5 more carries per game (17.8) in 2022 than he did in 2021 (16.3). Hunt is gone now, with his contract having run out, and I would love to see Chubb get even more work this season.

For 2023 to be a success, the Browns MUST:

  • Make the playoffs. The Browns paid a heavy price to bring Deshaun Watson in to be their starting quarterback. They're coming off back-to-back losing seasons, and the pressure will only continue to mount for the Kevin Stefanski-Andrew Berry regime if they fall short again. It's playoffs or bust -- there is no other way to explain it.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter.

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