BEREA, Ohio -- The Cleveland Browns broke out in 2020. Now, can they break through?
This past season, the Browns ended the NFL’s longest playoff drought before winning their first playoff game in 26 years. Then in the divisional round, they took the defending Super Bowl champs to the wire before falling short.
Cleveland has never been to a Super Bowl. But the Browns now boast a talented young core that just might be capable of putting Cleveland over the top.
In the meantime, the Browns have more roster building ahead. Here are the burning questions to be addressed this offseason:
Will Baker Mayfield get an extension from the Browns?
This week, general manager Andrew Berry didn’t want to talk publicly about quarterback Mayfield’s contractual future, calling those looming discussions “personal.” All signs, however, point to the Browns attempting to sign Mayfield to a long-term extension, which would follow the rubber-stamping of Mayfield’s fifth-year option.
Under coach Kevin Stefanski, Mayfield had a promising third season, finishing in the top 10 in QBR. He then shined in the playoffs, as well.
So, what will it take to get a deal done? As a baseline, Spotrac.com projects Mayfield's market value could result in a four-year deal, with an average salary of about $35 million per year. Quarterbacks Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen, who are both extension eligible, as well, could help reset the market and present a blueprint, if either were to agree to an extension first.
Last summer, Berry took care of Cleveland’s defensive cornerstone, extending pass rusher Myles Garrett with a record $100 million in guaranteed money. After Mayfield quarterbacked the Browns to a 12-win season, there’s no reason to believe Berry won’t do the same with his offensive cornerstone, as well.
What about Nick Chubb and Denzel Ward?
Cleveland’s hallmark 2018 draft class also included cornerback Ward and running back Chubb, who together have produced three Pro Bowl appearances. Like Mayfield, they are extension-eligible.
The Browns have running back Kareem Hunt under contact through the 2022 season. But even though Hunt is a starting-caliber player, Chubb is an essential piece of the Browns' attack. And while Chubb and Hunt are great individually, they’re phenomenal as a tandem.
Running backs typically don’t command a premium outlay anymore. But Chubb isn’t the typical running back. Last summer, the Tennessee Titans extended running back, Derrick Henry, with a four-year, $50 million contract with $25.5 million guaranteed. Chubb won’t be cheap to extend, either. But he’d be worth it.
Defensively, Ward has been Cleveland’s most important player after Garrett. When asked about the futures of Ward and Chubb, Berry tipped his thinking, noting, “I would like to keep as many of our good players as long as possible."
Can Cleveland bolster the defense?
Last offseason, the Browns focused on improving their offense, and more specifically, better supporting Mayfield. Cleveland would end up committing more than $60 million in guaranteed money to signing All-Pro right tackle Jack Conklin, Pro Bowl tight end Austin Hooper and backup quarterback Case Keenum. That investment paid off, as Mayfield led an offense that finished sixth in efficiency.
Now, it’s time for Berry to address the defense, which conversely ranked 19th in efficiency.
Berry won’t have the same resources available, due to the aforementioned impending extensions. And as Berry explained this week, Cleveland will be shifting its resources from “external acquisitions” to “retaining the core.”
Still, the Browns have enough cap maneuverability to pounce on an impact free agent or two, should the opportunity present itself. And improving the middle of the defense should be where Berry starts. As colleague Bill Barnwell wrote in the wake of the Kansas City loss, “the Browns could very well have been headed to the AFC Championship Game if they had been slightly better up the middle Sunday.”
Safety Grant Delpit, last year’s second-round pick, returning to form from the season-ending Achilles injury he suffered in training camp, would help immeasurably. A safety duo of Delpit and Ronnie Harrison, who performed well after coming over from Jacksonville in a trade, could offer the answer.
The Browns also need to get better at linebacker. Bringing back B.J. Goodson, who exceeded expectations on his one-year deal, would make sense and give recent draft picks Jacob Phillips, Sione Takitaki and Mack Wilson added time to develop.
But Cleveland could still use a boost at either position, as well as cornerback and even another pass rusher, especially if the Browns move on from Olivier Vernon, who had a banner year before tearing his Achilles in the regular-season finale.
The Browns will have the 26th pick in the upcoming draft. They will have the flexibility to use it on the best available defensive player on their board.
What now with Odell Beckham Jr.?
OBJ showed this season he’s still a game-changer, underscored by his three-touchdown performance in the Week 4 shootout win over the Dallas Cowboys.
But there’s also no avoiding how Mayfield immediately took off following OBJ’s season-ending knee injury. With Beckham on the field over the first six weeks, Mayfield ranked 14th in QBR. Without Beckham, Mayfield was seventh.
Beckham’s contract, however, would complicate any potential trade. His $14.5 million base salary is mostly guaranteed now because of the injury, and becomes fully guaranteed in March anyway. Finding a trade partner might not be practical, considering Beckham will be rehabilitating from the ACL year throughout the offseason.
At this point, Berry seems committed to running it back with Beckham next season regardless, even arguing that Mayfield’s success the second half of the season came “independent of Odell.”
That could prove to be correct. Previously, Beckham seemed to negatively affect Mayfield’s decision-making, progressions and precision, for whatever reason. But after the success Mayfield had in 2020, he might have the confidence to integrate Beckham back into the passing attack without missing a beat.
Either way, Cleveland would be committing an awful lot of money to its receiving corps, especially for a team built on using multiple tight ends and running the ball. Bringing back Rashard Higgins, Mayfield’s security blanket, won’t come cheaply, and Jarvis Landry will be making $12.5 million in base salary.
The Browns could solve their financial quandary at the position by letting Higgins walk and cutting Landry, considering the latter’s contract isn’t guaranteed. But given their chemistry with Mayfield, that would seem ill-advised for an offense primed to be special next season.
More likely, the Browns will have to suck it up for the time being. And wait to see if Mayfield and Beckham can finally unearth their own chemistry.