A slew of strong offseason transactions has the Browns defense off to a historic start, but with his cap number exploding next year, Deshaun Watson needs to step up.
The Cleveland Browns shouldn’t be in the AFC North race.
Starting quarterback Deshaun Watson is on short-term IR with an injured shoulder. Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb is out for the season after gruesomely tearing his MCL in Week 2 against Pittsburgh. Cleveland has a minus-eight turnover differential, tied for the worst in the league with the comically abysmal New England Patriots.
Yet a historically great start on defense, supplemented by a quartet of shrewd offseason moves, has the Browns at 3-2 and a half-game out of first following Sunday’s shocking 19-17 upset of the previously undefeated, seemingly invincible San Francisco 49ers. Aided by game-ending injuries to Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, and Trent Williams, the Browns allowed just 215 yards of total offense in the win, the Niners’ lowest output in a regular season game since Dec. 4, 2016.
Flying all over the field during the last-second victory were players involved in the aforementioned shrewd offseason moves made by general manager Andrew Berry.
Already anchored by four-time Pro Bowler Myles Garrett, who has three seasons left on a five-year, $125 million extension, including $100 million guaranteed, Berry solidified the defensive line by signing veteran defensive end Ze’Darius Smith with one year and $11.7 million left on his deal. That helps bolster a line that also added veteran Dalvin Tomlinson — four years, $57 million with $27.5 million guaranteed— and the underrated impactful Ogbonnia Okoronkwo — three years, $19 million with $12.5 million guaranteed— who already has 2.5 sacks and six tackles for loss. Veteran safety Rodney McLeod, signed in May for $1.3 million, is also making a positive impact for a secondary that’s more than impressed to date.
And while we’re giving the front office its flowers, let’s not forget to mention how the Browns have nailed recent draft picks on the defensive side of the ball. We all know about Garrett, but 25-year-old safety Grant Delpit, a second-round pick in 2020, is playing at an All-Pro level right now, and 23-year-old cornerback Martin Emerson is playing like a Pro Bowler after being drafted in the third round last year.
Even more, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, a 24-year-old second-rounder in 2021, is tied for third in the league in tackles for loss. The cornerback duo of Emerson and 23-year-old Greg Newsome, the 26th overall pick in 2021, has excelled so far in 2023, thus far graded better by Pro Football Focus than Denzel Ward, who signed a five-year, $100 million contract extension with $71 million guaranteed in April 2022.
Coming off the big win over the 49ers, it’s evident these moves have made an impact, to say the least. For reference, Cleveland’s 1,002 total yards allowed this season is the third-lowest ever through five games and the best mark in 52 years, trailing just the 1971 Baltimore Colts and 1970 Minnesota Vikings.
How else has Cleveland’s defense been great so far?
- The Browns lead the league in fewest pass completions (69) and completion percentage (51.9%) and have allowed just 607 passing yards. The Dallas Cowboys are in second with 843!
- Cleveland leads the league with 27 first downs allowed, 12 fewer than Dallas, and just 20.3% of opponents’ plays result in a first down, best in the NFL by 3.5 percentage points.
- Browns are also third in rush yards allowed, fifth in yards allowed per carry, and first in rushing first downs allowed and percentage of runs that result in a new set of plays.
All these excellent moves on defense were designed to be the ideal complement to an offense designed around Watson, whose $19.3 million cap hit in 2023 explodes to $64 million in each of the next three seasons as part of an unheard-of five-year, fully guaranteed $230 million contract after acquiring him from Houston for six draft picks, including three first rounders. In 2024, he’s projected to take up 23.16% of the salary cap, 24.9% of the cap in 2025, and 23.2% of the cap in 2026, per Spotrac.
A trade for wide receiver Amari Cooper, who has one year and nearly $24 million left on his deal after 2023, signing tight end David Njoku to a four-year, $54.8 million extension with $39 million in combined cap hits in 2024 and 2025, and big money extensions for guard Wyatt Teller and tackle Jack Conklin (out for the year with a torn ACL), were all aimed to help Watson become the franchise quarterback the Browns never had.
Watson’s bruised rotator cuff hasn’t been bad enough to be placed on short-term IR, which would cause him to miss at least four games, and Cleveland lists him as day-to-day heading into a matchup at Indianapolis, another team missing its starting QB. While Jerome Ford has stepped in admirably for Chubb at running back, no quarterback on the Browns roster is equipped to replicate the impact Watson’s supposed to have on the field.
In his three games so far, Watson’s passer rating is 16th in the league, and his QBR is 21st, both directly below Washington’s Sam Howell after he was suspended for a majority of last season. The Browns didn’t pay Watson this much and ship off an armada of draft picks to get him for this kind of mediocrity.
Cleveland’s bye week is in the rear-view mirror, and four of its first five games have been at home, meaning the road toward its first division title since 1989 and its playoff appearance since 2020 will only get tougher. Thus far, the Browns’ defense has more than held up its end of the bargain.
But for Cleveland to have any kind of sustained success, it’s going to need Watson to step up and do the same.
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