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State of the Cleveland Browns: Will healthy Deshaun Watson help build on team's stunning 2023 success?

Where does your squad stand ahead of the 2024 NFL season? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the new faces to know, one significant fantasy spin and the stakes at play in the campaign to come.

Members of the Browns organization, Browns fans around the world and those who felt David Njoku had a valid point when he was ...

The Browns are back, baby. Although some -- OK, fine, it was me -- were in 2023, the Browns endured a season-ending injury to their starting quarterback, pulled Joe Flacco from the scrap heap like he was and made the playoffs! It was an incredible season for a team that was just looking for some respect. That respect was earned. Now what? Can the Browns build on this? And will Deshaun Watson be the player he is paid to be? Let's take a look.

2024 brain trust

Table inside Article
Head coach Kevin Stefanski
General manager Andrew Berry
Offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz
Special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone

Roster reshuffling

Below is a rundown of the Browns' most notable roster developments for the 2024 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
Michael Hall Jr., DT, Ohio State (2-54) Jameis Winston, QB Joe Flacco, QB
Zak Zinter, OG, Michigan (3-85) D'Onta Foreman, RB PJ Walker, QB
Jamari Thrash, WR, Louisville (5-156) Nyheim Hines, RB Kareem Hunt, RB
Nathaniel Watson, LB, Mississippi State (6-206) Jerry Jeudy, WR Marquise Goodwin, WR
Myles Harden, DB, South Dakota (7-227) Germain Ifedi, OL Harrison Bryant, TE
Jowon Briggs, DT, Cincinnati (7-243) Devin Bush, LB Nick Harris, C
Jordan Hicks, LB Jordan Elliott, DT
Cade York, K Sione Takitaki, LB
Anthony Walker, LB
Mike Ford, CB

New faces to know

Buffalo Bills quarterback coach Ken Dorsey looks from the sideline during an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021 in Tampa. The Buccaneers won the game in overtime 33-27. (Paul Jasienski via AP)
Ken Dorsey
Offensive coordinator

The Browns hired Dorsey, who was fired in Buffalo last season after a start in which the Bills failed to live up to expectations. Let's not ignore what Dorsey did previously, though. From 2019 to 2021, he was the Bills' QB coach, helping shepherd Josh Allen's rise to stardom. In his first season as Buffalo's OC, in 2022, the Bills ranked second in points per game (28.4) and yards per game (397.6). Heck, even in his 10 weeks on the job last year, Buffalo ranked third in the NFL in yards per play (6.0) and second in third-down conversion rate (49.2%). One of the only glaring weaknesses of his tenure was turnovers. Which, actually, was a huge problem from the Browns last year, too. Uh, let's move on. 

Jerry Jeudy
WR · Year 5

The underrated Amari Cooper produced steadily last season despite catching passes from four different QBs. Njoku, meanwhile, had a breakout season, earning a Pro Bowl nod after posting career highs in catches (81), receiving yards (882) and TD catches (six). To this mix, the Browns added Jeudy, acquired from Denver via trade and handed a three-year $52.5 million extension. Jeudy is a former first-round pick who never broke the 1,000-yard mark in his four seasons with the Broncos. He's also still just 25 years old, and there might be a lot of potential that Denver never fully tapped, considering the Broncos never ranked higher than 19th in total yards or passing yards during his time with the team. With Cooper and Njoku taking some of the pressure off, Jeudy could finally put it all together this season. 

Jameis Winston
Cleveland Browns · QB · Year 10

Watson has appeared in just six games in each of his two seasons in Cleveland so far. Flacco was incredible down the stretch for the Browns last year, as he led the NFL in passing yards (1,616) and passing touchdowns (13) in December. Flacco had five games with at least 300 passing yards and three games with at least three touchdown passes. (Watson didn't break either threshold in any of his games last season.) Flacco is now in Indy, and Winston was brought in to be the new QB2 in Cleveland. You hope the Browns don't need Winston, but as we've seen, backup quarterbacks have played an important role for this team over the past few years.

State of the QB room

Watson is back from that ended his 2023 season in November. As notable as Flacco's run was last season in Cleveland, it's important to remember that Browns were 5-1 in Watson's six starts. The team was having success with him under center. The big questions are, will he log a full season's worth of games for the first time since 2020? And can he do more to elevate the offense? Over the past two seasons, he's posted a passer rating of 81.7 with Cleveland while averaging 184.8 passing yards per game -- less than Mac Jones (204.7), Zach Wilson (188.5) and Desmond Ridder (186.5) in that span. This will be Year 3 of the fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million contract Watson was handed in 2022. He doesn't necessarily have to lead the league in passing yards again, as he did with Houston in 2020, but he will presumably have to produce like at least a top-16 QB for this team to keep up in a tough division.

Most important non-QB

Myles Garrett
Edge · Year 8

The reigning Defensive Player of the Year was a big reason why the Browns finished first in total yards allowed per game (270.2) and passing yards (164.7) allowed per game last season. They forced a three-and-out on 33.3 percent of their drives -- that's the best such mark by any team since 2009, when the Jets' defense did so on 33.7 percent of their drives. Garrett led the NFL with 13 sacks through Week 11, then went through a five-game sackless streak that coincided with a shoulder injury suffered in Week 12 before adding one more sack to his total in Week 17. Still, over his final six games of the regular season (he sat out Week 18), he put up 32 pressures, according to Next Gen Stats, tied for 11th most in the NFL in Weeks 12-18. The 28-year-old Garrett currently has 88.5 sacks in his career and can become the third player all-time to hit 100 career sacks prior to his 30th birthday, joining Reggie White and Jared Allen. 

My HOTTEST Browns fantasy take:

I'm out on Browns running backs this year.

There are talented ball-carriers on the roster, for sure. But there are too many guys. Jerome Ford looked good last year, ending up leading the team in carries (204) and rushing yards (813) after Nick Chubb went down, and Pierre Strong chipped in 5.0 yards per touch. This year, they're joined in the running back room by veterans D'Onta Foreman and Nyheim Hines -- plus, there's even the possibility that Chubb as he continues to recover from last season's devastating knee injury. Then there's Dorsey's proclivity for passing. During his time as Bills OC (Week 1 of 2022 to Week 10 of last season), the Bills attempted 35 passes per game, 12th most in the NFL, and 25.4 carries per game, 20th in the league. Coming off a season in which Cleveland logged the lowest rushing ranking of the Kevin Stefanski era (118.7 yards per game,12th in the NFL), I can't dive into this backfield.

2024 roadmap

Three key dates:

  • Week 1: vs. Dallas Cowboys. I mean, it's not a divisional matchup or even a conference game. But when you're trying to log back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since the year Taylor Swift was born, and your opening game is a marquee showdown against the Cowboys? You need to win that.
  • Week 6: at Philadelphia Eagles. The Browns have a tough schedule, and after a stretch of some favorable games in Weeks 2-5 (at Jaguars, vs. Giants, at Raiders, at Commanders), this kicks off an imposing three-game run, including home matchups against the Bengals and Ravens.
  • Week 18: at Baltimore Ravens. Speaking of the Ravens, could this end-of-the-year tilt be for the AFC North? Might Cleveland finally capture a division title for the first time since, again, the year Taylor Swift was born? (Come on, you know this.)

For 2024 to be a success, the Browns MUST:

A) Win the Super Bowl
B) Make a playoff run
C) Earn a playoff berth
D) Finish above .500
E) Show progress

My answer: B) Make a playoff run. We had some fun last year. It was cool for the Browns to be one of the big stories, claiming a surprise postseason berth behind Flacco after Watson's injury seemed to doom them. It was not a shock to see Stefanski (who, along with general manager Andrew Berry, earned an extension this offseason) win his second Coach of the Year award. But what happens now? Sure, Cleveland could simply make the playoffs again; that would certainly be an accomplishment for a team hasn't reached the playoffs in consecutive seasons since, you guessed it, the year Taylor Swift was born. (OK, fine; if you haven't looked it up by now, that year was 1989, a fact that, as the dad of a 9-year-old, .) Still, I'm sure everyone involved (including, obviously, Watson) would love to erase any lingering memories of January's thrashing by the Texans in the Wild Card Round by stringing together multiple victories in the same postseason. That's something that hasn't happened since ... well, Cleveland's never done it in the Super Bowl era at all.

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