2016 cheat sheet: Cleveland Browns
[Editor’s note: This article was originally published on Aug. 26, 2016, and updated on Sept. 8, 2016.]
To get you ready for the 2016 NFL season, the PFF analysis crew is assembling team “cheat sheets” to catch you up on the latest changes, grades, and rankings of note involving your NFL team.
Another season, another new front office and coaching staff. Such is the norm on the shores of Lake Erie, as Cleveland fans have suffered the better part of two decades. To shake the rut, owner Jimmy Haslam went outside the box and brought in Paul DePodesta and Sashi Brown to form football’s version of a “Moneyball” team, while hiring arguably the most sought after coaching candidate in Hue Jackson. There’s a different vibe in Northeast Ohio, although it might not show in the win-loss column in 2016.
Three biggest things to know
1. Coach Hue Jackson will tailor the offense to fit RG III’s skill-set.
This may seem like such a simple thing, but the fact that the Browns have announced a starter for Week 1 before the first preseason game is a rarity in Cleveland. Griffin was inactive for all but one game in 2015, as Kirk Cousins took the reins in Washington. RG III has seen his first NFL action in almost a year this preseason, and looked good in his first outing, but the real test will come against Philadelphia in the regular-season opener. Jackson will tailor the offense to fit Griffin’s strengths and try to rejuvenate the career of the talented, but embattled, former Rookie of the Year.
2. The Browns’ front office has invested heavily to upgrade WR corps.
In 2014 and 2015, former GM Ray Farmer drafted one wide receiver in arguably two of the best WR classes the NFL has seen in a very long time. That receiver was Vince Mayle, the only fourth-round pick from the 2015 draft to not make the final 53-man roster. EVP Sashi Brown understood the need, and thusly drafted five wide receivers in 2016, including his first-ever pick, taking Baylor’s Corey Coleman in the first round. Coleman will bring an immediate threat to all levels of the field for Cleveland. Rookies fighting for a spot include Rashard Higgins (Colorado State), Jordan Payton (UCLA), and Ricardo Louis (Auburn), all players that have legitimate chances of making the team and providing an impact. What’s more, Josh Gordon will return to the lineup in Week 5 after serving his four-game suspension.
3. Cleveland’s biggest concern is the defense.
For several years, the biggest hole in the Browns’ roster was at wide receiver. That is no longer a problem, and now the concern is their defense—most notably, their secondary. CB Joe Haden is a two-time Pro Bowler, but after a 2015 season full of injuries and bad play, along with the departure of both safeties, a secondary that graded out as a top-five unit in 2014 now has major questions. The front-seven is also a big question mark, as it’s a unit that struggled to create pressure last year, and will feature potentially five rookies playing significant snaps. While PFF analysts loved the Browns’ draft, most rookies need time to develop, and this is a group that will be thrown into the fire early and often.
Key arrivals and departures
Top three draft picks: WR Corey Coleman (Round 1, pick No. 15, Baylor), DE/OLB Emmanuel Ogbah (Round 2, pick No. 32, Oklahoma State), DE Carl Nassib (Round 3, pick No. 65, Penn State)
Signed in free agency: QB Robert Griffin III (Redskins), LB Demario Davis (Jets), OT Alvin Bailey (Seahawks)
Let via free agency: OT Mitchell Schwartz (Chiefs), C Alex Mack (Falcons), WR Travis Benjamin (Chargers), LB Craig Robertson (Saints), S Tashaun Gipson (Jaguars), CB/ST Johnson Bademosi (Lions)
Cut: S Donte Whitner, DI Randy Starks, LB Karlos Dansby (Bengals), WR Dwayne Bowe, QB Pat Devlin, CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, ED Scott Solomon, QB Johnny Manziel, TE Jim Dray
Rookie to watch
Corey Coleman, WR, Baylor (Round 1, pick No. 15 overall)
It’s easy to peg the first-round pick to be the rookie to watch, but Coleman is so electric on the football field that he’s a must-watch player regardless of his first-round status. While the Browns have a bevy of draft picks to choose from, Coleman is a special athlete with the speed, quickness, and explosiveness that will translate to the NFL field, despite playing in a Baylor system that asks its players to take plays off for large chunks of the game. Before Baylor’s QBs started dropping like flies, Coleman graded as the second-best FBS wide receiver, despite seeing the fewest targets of any of the WRs in the top five. Averaging 20.3 yards per catch and 5.41 yards per route run with through 10 weeks, Coleman has the ability and talent to make a huge impact immediately.
Highest-graded player of 2015
Joe Thomas, LT, 94.3 overall grade
There probably wasn’t a question of who the Browns’ best player was in 2015. The impressive aspect of Thomas is that he is arguably playing the best football of his career at age 31. While 2015 was his second-best season in overall grading (2009 was the best), the dominance Thomas has the displayed the past three seasons is incredible, allowing a total of just six sacks. Also of note is that he has allowed just four QB hits the past two years, and in the last seven games of 2015, allowed only three hurries. An underrated part of the future Hall of Famer’s career is his run-blocking; while not at the level of his pass-blocking ability, it’s still at an elite level.
Danny Shelton, NT/DT
The Browns’ 2015 first-round draft pick had a disappointing rookie season, as he finished as the 40th-highest-graded defensive tackle. The good news is that he started figuring it out in the second half of the season, grading as the 18th best DT in that span, compared to being the second-worst out of 72 DTs in the first half of the season. He improved in all areas of his game, increasing his run-stop percentage from 6.5 to 7.9 and his pass-rushing productivity from 1.6 to 3.8, which still isn’t very good, but on par with Ravens’ stud NT Brandon Williams. If Shelton continues his upward trajectory, he could push for top-10 status and become a clog for the defensive interior for the Browns.
Nickel defense (2015 season grades shown)
Offense with three receivers (2015 season grades shown)