Marc and Ben are back with an extra-special and extra-long episode 25. This week, they recap the divisional round matchups with discussions about the post-Brees Saints as well as whether the NFL should change the fumble for a touchback rule. Other topics include who are the most unlikeable players in the league and does celebrating actually hurt your team. Lastly, they break down next week’s games and crown their conference champions.
Schedule: @BAL, CIN, WAS, @DAL, IND, @PIT, @CIN, LVR, BYE, HOU, PHI, @JAX, @TEN, BAL, @NYG, @NYJ, PIT
Additions: OL Jack Conklin (FA), TE Austin Hooper (FA), EDGE/DL Adrian Clayborn (FA),
DL Andrew Billings (FA), CB Kevin Johnson (FA), S Karl Joseph (FA), LB B.J. Goodson (FA), S Andrew Sendejo (FA), FB Andy Janovich (Trade), OL Jedrick Wills Jr. (Draft), S Grant Delpit (Draft), DL Jordan Elliott (Draft), LB Jacob Phillips (Draft)
Losses: LB Joe Schobert (FA), S Eric Murray (FA), LB Christian Kirksey (FA), S Juston Burris (FA), S Damarious Randall (FA), DL Andrew Billings (Opt-out), OL Drew Forbes (Opt-out), LB Mack Wilson (Injury), S Grant Delpit (Injury), CB Kevin Johnson (Injury)
Last year, I was fooled by the Browns hype. I’m not going to make the same mistake again. It is tempting, though. Just like in 2019, Cleveland has a ton of talent. The issue, once again, will be the readiness of their first-year head coach.
Kevin Stefanski hasn’t experienced the meteoric rise of Freddie Kitchens and couldn’t possibly be as bad, but I’m still not sold on him. The Vikings’ offensive success last season was because of Gary Kubiak as much as it was Stefanski in my opinion. Eric Bieniemy was the better candidate in my opinion. I also prefer when new coaches hire accomplished coordinators à la Sean McVay with Wade Phillips. Stefanski instead went with first-time OC Alex Van Pelt and Joe Woods, who angered multiple players during his two years as Broncos DC.
With that being said, Cleveland’s roster fits well with what Stefanski likes to do offensively. In Minnesota, he pounded the rock consistently and effectively, with well-timed play-action shots mixed in. The Browns’ personnel might even be a little better, too. Nick Chubb and Dalvin Cook are comparable talents, but Kareem Hunt off the bench gives Stefanski’s new team the edge. Even with Hunt, Chubb could take home the rushing crown. Newly-acquired fullback Andy Janovich should punish defenders just as C.J. Ham did for the Vikings. Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry are very similar to Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen.
Where Cleveland has the advantage is tight end and the offensive line. My only slight worries about the line are rookie Jedrick Wills Jr. at left tackle and Wyatt Teller at right guard. However, I think Wills is one of the guys talented enough to succeed in what should be a tough year for rookies. And Teller is more of a weak link by default than anything. After a down year that was slightly overstated, this group should be one of the ten best in the league or better. Austin Hooper is a dangerous in the passing game and better than anyone the Vikings or Browns had last year.
That Baker Mayfield in the spotlight—a scenario he loves to be in. He got a little too much hate last year in my opinion, but was a huge disappointment nonetheless. Luckily for the man with the greatest photo in NFL history, Stefanski has experience changing the perception of belittled quarterbacks. Kirk Cousins balled out last year under his watch and is starting to shake his primetime reputation. Even if this isn’t a make or break season for Baker, it’s definitely important. Barring disaster, he’ll be the starter in 2021, but another dud could lead Cleveland to look at their options. He’s the big question mark on an otherwise excellent offense.
Defensively, things are a lot less certain. Myles Garrett is the best player on the team and leads a stout defensive line. He would’ve challenged for the sack title if not for Mason Rudolph’s extremely punchable face. Short of another suspension, he should be a top contender for Defensive Player of the Year. Alongside him are three talented players who underperformed last year. Larry Ogunjobi, Sheldon Richardson, and Olivier Vernon will have to be much more consistent in 2020, especially after Andrew Billings opted-out. He was brought in largely to fix an abysmal run defense, so other players are going to have to step up. A lot of that responsibility will fall on the linebackers.
After Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey departed in free agency, the remnants weren’t pretty. Now, with Mack Wilson slated to miss extended time, the group is just plain ugly. B.J. Goodson, on his third team in three years, should start at middle linebacker. Next to him will likely be 2019 third-rounder Sione Takitaki (epic name) and either 2018 undrafted free agent Tae Davis (5 career starts) or rookie Jacob Phillips. These might be the worst linebackers in the league.
Cleveland was expected to run a lot of nickel and dime looks already, and that’s all but certain now. That doesn’t bode well for the run defense, though. Plus, the secondary is having their own injury woes, with versatile rookie Grant Delpit and nickel corner Kevin Johnson already going down. Without them, the Browns’ young corner duo of Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams will have to grow up fast. Karl Joseph and Andrew Sendejo, both of whom were signed this offseason, will have additional responsibility, too. While I like both cornerbacks, I don’t love the new safety tandem and these injuries are killing one of the few strengths on this defense—secondary depth.
Cleveland’s defense will likely be a bottom-10 unit in the league and the offense should sit comfortably in the opposite grouping. While the out-of-division schedule is pretty easy, playing Baltimore and Pittsburgh twice will be tough, and even Cincinnati beat them last year. An 8-8 season full of extreme highs and lows feels right.
What’s your record prediction for the Browns? What did I get right or wrong? Sound off in the comments.
Cleveland had just finished 1-15 in Hue Jackson’s first season as head coach. They needed help at almost every position and had a bounty of draft picks to find that help. Part of that bounty was an additional first-round pick acquired by allowing Philadelphia to trade up for Carson Wentz in 2016.
Just as they did the year prior, the Browns chose to pass on drafting a quarterback and acquire more picks by trading back. This time, it was the Texans on the other end of the call.
Houston had won the AFC South in back-to-back years, but that’s about as meaningful as winning your family fantasy league back-to-back. The Texans knew that if they truly wanted to compete, they needed an upgrade at quarterback.
Their first attempt didn’t go so well. 12 months after they signed Brock Osweiler to a massive contract, they dealt him in one of the only pure salary dumps in NFL history.
Trading up with the Browns represented a second chance. Their guy was still on the board, and the price wouldn’t matter if he panned out.
Houston Post Trade
Giving up a future first rounder is always tough because you never know just how high it will end up. Houston’s nightmare scenario came true as they finished 4-12 with the 4th-worst record in the league.
An already risky move to trade up for the third quarterback in the class was quickly teetering on disaster. Then, Watson started doing Deshaun Watson things.
Tom Savage was named the week one starter, but the combination of his awfulness and a dominant Jaguars defense opened the door for Watson to see immediate relief action. From that point on, he never looked back.
Now starting, Watson quickly showcased the elite potential Houston saw in him. He locked up a win in his first start with a highlight run against the Bengals then went toe-to-toe with Brady in Foxborough and humiliated the Titans.
Watson’s rookie season was electric, but unfortunately, it was also short-lived. After three more exciting starts, he tore his ACL during a non-contact practice drill. The Texans cratered without him, and Watson’s murky future along with their now top-five pick being shipped out caused the doubt surrounding this trade to resurface.
But, as we now know, doubting Watson is foolish. He grinded through rehab and was ready in time for week one. Despite his return, the Texans lost their first three games.
Then, they went on of the better mid-season turnarounds in NFL history, winning 9 straight games and finishing 11-5 with the division crown. A lot of the credit goes to Watson, who continued to make highlight plays while cutting down on his mistakes and playing behind a porous offensive line. Despite losing in the Wild Card Round, it was a great season for Houston.
I’ll admit, I doubted the Texans before 2018 and again after it. I thought they beat up on bad teams during their win streak and would fall back to earth. Instead, they won the division again and gave the eventual champion Chiefs a scare in the divisional round.
I’ve learned my lesson. My faith in Watson will never waver again. No matter what weakness is on the roster or what idiot is in the front office, he will put the team on his back.
I said in my review of the Rams’ trade up for Jared Goff that you can only really win one of these mortgage-the-future moves if you get one of the absolute best players in the league, which Watson surely is. It’s hard to deny his talent—he’s my fourth-best quarterback in the league—or accomplishments.
Houston would do this deal again in a heartbeat. Bill O’Brien, especially. Without Watson, he’d be out of a job. Though, to be fair, he seems content getting there on his own.
Cleveland Post Trade
Purely based on the value of the draft picks, this was a win for Cleveland. Houston’s 2018 pick (4th overall) landed significantly higher than the 2017 first (12th) they traded away.
They didn’t draft complete busts (which says a lot for the Browns) with the selections, either.
With the 25th pick in 2017, Cleveland made a polarizing move by taking Peppers. Some expected his versatile and game-breaking college career to translate to a star pro career. Others thought he lacked a true position and might only stick as a gadget player in the NFL.
While Peppers has certainly been more than a gadget player, he has struggled to lock down a position. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams couldn’t find a consistent role or snaps for him in Cleveland.
As a result, Peppers was included in the package sent to New York for Odell Beckham Jr in 2019. The change of scenery was beneficial to Peppers, as he began to cement his role and earn the trust of coaches. To Cleveland, though, he was another failed first-round draft choice.
Thankfully, the Browns’ other pick from this deal has fared significantly better. Like Peppers, Ward faced concerns over how his college production would translate to the pros. In his case, the big worry was size.
Young corners notoriously struggle, so he’s certainly had his lumps. For the most part, though, the good has overshadowed the bad. Besides health concerns (seven games missed in two seasons) and inconsistency, he has shown the makings of a very good player for years to come.
As for team success, nothing changed after this deal. The Browns followed up a 1-win season by becoming the second 0-16 team in history. 2018 brought hope for the future as they finished 7-8-1, but that all came crashing down as a 6-10 finish in 2019 derailed Cleveland’s hype train.
Ward could become a star corner for Cleveland and Peppers might have been necessary to land OBJ, but let’s be real: hindsight shows this as a terrible trade for the Browns.
Watson developed into a superstar quarterback, which apparently Cleveland’s Moneyball-inspired front office wanted no part of. The best part is, they were only able to trade away the rights to this star quarterback because they traded away the rights to a star quarterback the year before.
Even if you’re a Baker Mayfield defender, it’s clear the Browns passed on two superior quarterbacks before eventually taking him. No amount of extra picks will make up for that, especially not with Cleveland making those picks.
Final Verdict: Texans Win
There’s been plenty of times where these expensive moves up in the draft don’t end up working out. This was not one of those. Watson is pretty much the only thing keeping Houston afloat, and missing out on him has to sting even more for a Browns front office that passed on Wentz the year before.
Who do you think won the trade? What deal should I look at next? Sound off in the comments.