Cleveland Browns 2023 season preview and predictions
This appeared in the original VSiN NFL Betting Guide released on June 29, 2023.
Adam Burke: The Cleveland Browns almost have a clean slate to work with this season. Deshaun Watson spent five games shaking off the rust, and the beleaguered defense has a new coordinator in Jim Schwartz, who is back where it all began when he was a personnel scout from 1993-95 working under Bill Belichick. With optimism on offense and a more positive outlook on defense, the Browns are in search of a turnaround and a playoff berth.
Head coach Kevin Stefanski seemed to be under a lot of fire last season, but the truth is that he turned Jacoby Brissett into the leader of an offense that was sixth in EPA/play and ninth in Success Rate through Week 11. The Browns had a top-five passing offense by Dropback EPA and a top-five ground attack by Rush EPA. However, when Watson returned in Week 12, the Browns were 24th in EPA/play and just 12th in Rush EPA, as everything seemed to suffer.
Armed with a new receiving corps that includes third-round pick Cedric Tillman, trade acquisition Elijah Moore, and free agent Marquise Goodwin, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Amari Cooper will see less attention from opposing defenses and Watson will have no shortage of targets. Also, Nick Chubb, who rushed for 1,525 yards, should have a little softer defense to run into as the passing game matures.
Of course, that also assumes that Watson will return to his pre-suspension form or something close to it to utilize all the weapons at his disposal.
The Browns finished 15th in yards per play allowed on defense, but numerous coverage breakdowns and overall bad play hurt throughout the season. Overall, the Browns finished 25th in EPA/play, as the Jadeveon Clowney soap opera played out and big plays were few and far between outside of Myles Garrett’s 16 sacks.
Cleveland only had 20 takeaways and finished 25th in points per drive allowed. Over the last six weeks of the season, the Browns seemed to figure some things out and were third in EPA/play, but that wasn’t enough to save Joe Woods’s job. Schwartz is a veteran DC with some nice pieces to work with, including a lot of draft capital spent on the secondary, Garrett, and former Chiefs safety Juan Thornhill.
The Browns have also provided some help for Garrett in terms of the pass rush with Za’Darius Smith and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, plus some upgrades at defensive tackle in hopes of stopping the run.
All the talent is there for the Browns to have an outstanding season. They still have a quality offensive line and plenty of skill-position talent on both sides of the ball. Watson is the big question. Are the Browns able to get the guy who posted a 68.7% completion rate with an 85/28 TD/INT ratio from 2018-20 or a much lesser version eating up a huge amount of cap space? This looks like a boom-or-bust team, but the schedule is favorable for a playoff push. I lean over on the win total.
This appeared in the Updated VSiN NFL Betting Guide released on August 31, 2023.
Michael Lombardi: On December 23rd, 1989, Cleveland Browns running back Kevin Mack crossed the goal line with less than a minute to go ahead in the game against the Houston Oilers. The Browns became winners of the then-called AFC Central. Little did anyone know (me included as I was in the Astrodome witnessing the win) that would be the last time the Browns finished in first place in their division, ahead of the Steelers. Thirty-four years have passed, many of them with the Browns having no chance to finish ahead of Pittsburgh. This year might be their year. And why not? The Browns are talented. They have no glaring weakness on either side of the ball; this summer, they appear focused and have solid depth.
The Browns are good where it matters most — both lines. With the addition of defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and special teams coach Bubba Ventrone, the Browns have shored up two areas of malfunctions last season. Now, they need to get quarterback Deshaun Watson to regain his past form, his confidence, and his playmaking skills. If he can, and head coach Kevin Stefanski doesn’t go for every fourth down he meets, then they might have a good chance to win the North. Thirty-four years is a long time, and the clock is ticking for the Browns to turn a talented roster into a winning team.
Player to Watch: WR Elijah Moore
This is Watson's offense and the Browns will mostly be an 11 personnel team that tries to force defenses to defend every inch of grass. Watson is best when he's on the move, and the Browns want to both roll him out by design and let him improvise. Moore is the slot receiver, but he'll also line up in the backfield and across the formation. After a disjointed and disappointing 2022 season, Stefanski has spent the offseason refining this more open offense and taking Watson's feedback on what works. The Browns targeted Moore because they think he's explosive enough to get yards on quick screens and get big yards when Watson leaves the pocket. It wouldn't be a surprise to see Moore lead the team in targets, and the Browns think that they're far enough along to start using his versatility to also create favorable matchups for David Njoku and Amari Cooper. - Zac Jackson, The Athletic (@AkronJackson)
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