CLEVELAND — The Cleveland Browns entered the offseason this January sooner than they had hoped to when the season began and now have questions about the roster that need to be answered before the team plays another football game.
Some of the questions are ones that the team knew it was going to need to answer whenever this season concluded, while others are disappointing and unforeseen.
In some cases, the questions can be solved relatively easily, while in others significant searching may be needed. In both cases, the Browns need answers.
Here are the three biggest questions Cleveland finds itself facing in the weeks and months ahead:
What will the wide receiver room look like?
Even before the disaster that was the 2021 wide receiver room played out this season, the Browns likely knew that they were going to need to part with either Odell Beckham Jr. or Jarvis Landry following this season. Now, Beckham Jr. is already in Los Angeles, and Landry could be on his way out of town too.
Landry has led the Browns in catches in each of the four seasons he’s spent in Cleveland but carries a cap hit of $16.6 million next season. After an injury-riddled 2021 season that was the worst of his career, it’s incredibly difficult to see Landry back on the Browns at that number. If Landy and the Browns can restructure his deal or come to terms on a team-friendly contract extension, then he could find himself back in Cleveland. If not, Landry will likely be playing football elsewhere in 2022.
Landry is not the only receiver that could find himself on the open market come March. Wide receiver Rashard Higgins was playing this season on a one-year contract, meaning he’s set to be a free agent when the new league year begins in March. Higgins had a disappointing year for the Browns, finishing with just 24 grabs for 275 yards and a single touchdown. Higgins found himself as a healthy scratch on at least one occasion and didn’t see the field much at times. He only played more than half of the team’s offensive snaps in nine games, and logged just four snaps in the season-opening loss to Kansas City, and just three total snaps in the Week 9 blowout victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.
In addition to his limited production at receiver, Higgins doesn’t play on special teams. It wouldn’t make much sense for the Browns to bring back a wide receiver that had very limited production and didn’t contribute anywhere on special teams.
The two guys the Browns will bring back -- barring something unforeseen -- next year are Donovan Peoples-Jones and Anthony Schwartz. Peoples-Jones had a slightly disappointing season but may have been miscast in his role. He was a sixth-round draft pick back in 2020 and was the popular pick as the training camp MVP of the Browns. For the season, he finished with 34 grabs and three touchdowns but did average a team-high 17.6 yards per catch. He’s certainly worth continuing to develop.
As for Schwartz, he was a third-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft and is still trying to figure out his way in the NFL. He missed a considerable amount of training camp last summer with a hamstring injury and then played in 14 games this season, missing time with a concussion. Schwartz is likely the fastest guy on the roster for the Browns, and they’ll need to find the best ways to utilize him moving forward.
The wide receiver position is the one that the Browns are most likely to upgrade in the first round of the NFL Draft come April. A number of names to watch for include Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave from Ohio State, Alabama’s Jameson Williams -- who just suffered a torn ACL on Monday -- and Drake London out of USC.
Who is opposite of Myles?
The Browns have not yet found a long-term answer at the defensive end position opposite of All-Pro Myles Garrett. Last season, Olivier Vernon was a fine counterpart, but tore his Achilles tendon prior to the playoffs and didn’t play in the NFL this season. This season, the Browns signed both Takkarist McKinley and Jadeveon Clowney to one-year deals to fill that position.
Clowney had a fantastic season, to the point where he may have played himself out of the Browns’ price range in free agency. After he spent the last couple of years in Seattle and Tennessee, Clowney came to Cleveland in hopes of playing well enough to earn a big payday. His nine sacks in 14 games was his best mark since 2018 and it’s fair to think that someone out there will spend big on the former No. 1 overall pick.
As for McKinley, he suffered the same fate as Vernon the year before, tearing his Achilles tendon late in the season. It’s unfair to expect him to be able to contribute early on next season, should a team sign him as a free agent this year.
The Browns are going to need to have their eyes on both the free-agent market and the NFL Draft here as they look for a sidekick to Garrett once again.
How to evaluate the quarterback position
The biggest disappointment for the Browns this year was the play of quarterback Baker Mayfield. Mayfield suffered a shoulder injury all the way back in Week 2 while making a tackle following an interception. His performance went south after that, and the question the Browns must answer this offseason is whether or not his poor play was due to the injury or due to regression in other areas.
If the answer is the former, then Mayfield will be the starting quarterback for the Browns in 2022 as he plays out the final year of his rookie contract. If the answer is the latter, the Browns could find themselves searching for a new quarterback this offseason either in the trade market or free agency.
Obviously, the best-case scenario for the Browns would be Mayfield looking more like the guy that played for the Browns in the latter half of the 2020 season as opposed to what he was this season. Unfortunately, he has been more bad than good throughout his career thus far, and it’s fair to question just how likely a turnaround is for him.