The Cleveland Browns are in the midst of the worst two-year stretch of Football in NFL history. They have been worse than terrible. They were absolutely awful.
Nonetheless, this team should improve significantly during the 2018 season. Here are three reasons why: quarterback play, a vastly improved secondary, and a transformed group of receivers.
The first reason is quarterback play. Football Outsiders has a stat that tracks “yards over replacement/average player.” Effectively, this stat looks at “average” quarterback production – both running and passing – and compares it across the league.
The reason why this is so important is that the NFL quarterback is individually worth more to a team’s win percentage than any position in any other major sport.
Thus, this yard differential amounts to at least a four win difference. Now, the stat is not supposed to be applied that way, but it does signal the sizable improvement.
The second reason is the improved defense. Last season, the Browns’ rush defense was actually one of the ten best in the NFL. Football Outsiders had Cleveland as the fourth best rush defense (yards allowed vs expected average), NFL.com as seventh best (rush yards allowed), and PFF as ninth best (regression analysis).
A big reason for this was the partnership of Emmanuel Ogbah and Myles Garrett. Last season, when the opponent’s offense ran right and Ogbah was on the field, the Browns allowed 2.18 yards per carry. When Ogbah got hurt, however, they allowed 4.55 yards per carry.
As a consequence, if both Garrett and Ogbah stay healthy, fans should expect a stout run defense.
The problem is that the Browns’ pass defense was awful in 2018. The fact is, passing generates more yards per play compared to running, and because of this value, the overall defense struggled.
The Browns had the worst pass rush in the NFL last year by every statistic. Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus, and the NFL’s rankings all ranked the 2018 Browns’ pass rush as horrendous. A big reason why is that, even though Cleveland blitzed a lot, receivers torched the secondary and QBs could find the open man easily.
Hue Jackson’s team blitzed the second-most times in the NFL last season. Specifically, per Football Outsiders, they blitzed on 38% of plays. The problem is that the Browns defended 1,026 plays last year, blitzed on 390 of them, and only made contact with the quarterback 45 times.
This is a sign of a secondary that cannot stay in front of their receivers. As a consequence, the Browns have revamped and improved their secondary, which should also help the pass rush.
First, new GM John Dorsey drafted Denzel Ward. Pro Football Focus statistics show that Ward allowed the lowest “catch rate” – or the number of made catches during catch opportunities – of any cornerback in college football over the past two years.
Moreover, both Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders – two analytically-heavy resources – ranked Ward as one of the best corners in college football last year. This is surprising because Ward does not create a lot of turnovers, and turnovers are the easiest way for a corner to build analytical value. The reasoning is straight-forward: every second your team is on offense increases the odds of you scoring and vice-versa. Consequently, corners that create turnovers increase the odds of you scoring more and the defense scoring less. At Ohio State, Ward created an island by marking receivers and preventing them from catching the ball and making clean routes.
The Browns also brought in Terrance Mitchell, EJ Gaines, and TJ Carrie. During camp, so far, Mitchell has seemed to hold the starting position opposite Ward. Just two years ago Mitchell allowed a 55.5 passer rating on the right side for Kansas City. He struggled last year but, for the Browns, has been consistent. Moreover, Gaines allowed an excellent .82 yards per cover snap, and Carrie performed well last season, albeit inconsistently.
All three players are solid, but not spectacular, coverage corners. They won’t win you games, but they can do a good job on the other team’s second/third best receivers, and lengthen the amount of time a quarterback has to hold the ball.
Additionally, these four corners will join a secondary with Briean Boddy-Calhoun, who is superb at defending the slot and allowed a leave-leading .46 yards per cover snap.
Finally, the team added Damarious Randall in a trade for DeShone Kizer. Randall will play free safety, which allows former first round pick, Jabrill Peppers, to play strong safety, which is historically where the second-year player’s better position.
In sum, the secondary is much improved, and that this will lead to less opposing completions and more effective rushes against the other team’s QB.
The third and final reason why the Browns will be better this season is their receivers. Last year, Cleveland’s best receiver was Rashard Higgins, followed by Ricardo Louis. The problem is that the two players were statistically mediocre. This season, Dorsey added Jarvis Landry, who improved his quarterback’s passer rating by +7.3 points on quick outs, 34.1 points on out routes, and 21.3 points on in routes.
Additionally, the Browns may bring back Josh Gordon, who is one of the three best receivers in the NFL when he actually plays. Finally, they drafted Antonio Callaway, who was a first-round talent that fell due to character concerns.
Overall, Landry, Gordon, and Calloway should totally transform the routes our receivers can run, leading to a more complex offense, and greater production in the passing game. This, in turn, should improve the already-impressive running game.
Ultimately, the team is young, and does not have any position group that is clearly in the top-10 in the NFL. Nonetheless, there are clear improvements, and this fan expects a massive turnaround.