Browns minus Deshaun Watson? How many games can they win? Terry Pluto

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Talking to myself about the Browns playing the entire season without Deshaun Watson, who is likely facing a significant suspension.

QUESTION: Why are you doing this, writing about the Browns not having Watson for the entire season?

ANSWER: I present this supposition not because I know anything, but it has to be something the Browns must accept as a possibility. The only thing I’ve heard lately is the NFL may make a decision on Watson by July 4. The league, the Browns, the players union all want some clarity so they can plan.

Q: OK, how many games can the Browns win minus Watson?

A: Last weekend, I wrote the need for a veteran backup QB if Watson is out for a substantial period. The team can’t go through a long stretch of the season with Jacoby Brissett and Joshua Dobbs as the only QBs. That’s one problem that must be faced.

Q: They’ll start Brissett. How many games can they win with that guy at QB?

A: A year ago, the Browns correctly believe a combination of miserable QB play and some problems with the passing led to their 8-9 record. They also targeted special teams, especially the kicking game as a culprit. Other areas needed work, but those were the two big trouble spots.

Q: Meaning what?

A: Quit throwing the ball to the other team. Make key field goals. Accent the running game and short passes. Rely on the defense to become a top-10 unit. Win games ugly. Don’t play stupid, penalty-marred football. That’s the formula.

The Browns had the lowest field goal percentage (72.1) in the NFL last season. They expect rookie Cade York to change that.

John Kuntz, cleveland.com

Q: Can they do that?

A: Let’s start with the kicker. Last season. Chase McLaughlin converted on 72 percent of his field goals. That ranked 32nd out of 32 teams. Even worse, he fell apart as the season progressed. He was 11-of-12 to open (the only miss was blocked). He then finished 4-of-9. There were times late in the season when the Browns went for it on the fourth down because they didn’t trust their kicker.

Q: Is that why they drafted Cade York in the fourth round?

A: Exactly. He was excellent in all the OTAs. A little more on McLaughlin. He was 5-of-5 from at least 50 yards. But he was 4-of-10 from 40-to-49 yards. Those 40-yarders are where kickers make their money and where close games are won and lost. The Browns believe York has the strong leg to drill those 50-yarders, but the touch of the toe to make the shorter kicks.

Q: Anything else about special teams?

A: They added Jakeem Grant Jr. as a return man and backup receiver. They signed veteran Corey Bojorquez as the punter. They put more than $4.5 million and a fourth-round pick into transforming the special teams. It’s now up to special teams coordinator Mike Priefer to make it work. In the past, Priefer’s teams were good on coverage, but the kicking/punting was weak. The return game was mediocre. Time for all that to change. Without Watson, special teams become extremely important.

Q: What about QB?

A: NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal wrote about 62 QBs who started games in 2021. When it came to the former Browns backup Case Keenum, he wrote this: “Case Keenum helped the Browns win both of his starts, a Thursday night game against the Broncos and a Week 18 start against the Bengals’ backups. After both games, I wondered about a door No. 2 where Baker Mayfield was benched for the season because of his shoulder injury, and whether that door would have led the Browns to the playoffs.”

THE BIG TWO

Cleveland Browns running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are part of the best backfield in the NFL. Joshua Gunter, cleveland.com

Q: Do you believe that?

A: Yes … or at least, they would have been better than 8-9. They have a premier running game with Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, D’Ernest Johnson and I really like rookie Jerome Ford. The offensive line was a disappointment last season, partly because of injuries. Nonetheless, the Browns were fourth in rushing yardage. They ranked No. 1, averaging 5.1 yards per carry.

Q: How did the offensive line rank?

A: Profootballfocus.com (PFF) had the Browns at No.8, down from fifth in 2020. PFF wrote: “Cleveland’s starting five forms one of the best offensive lines in the game. However, Jack Conklin played in only seven games before injury shut him down at right tackle, and Blake Hance produced a 36.9 PFF pass-blocking grade (very poor) in his stead on over 600 snaps. Jedrick Wills Jr. Missed several games at left tackle, at times leaving the Browns with backups at both tackle spots against some elite pass-rushers. Few lines were as good in the run game, with Wyatt Teller backing up his breakout season last year…”

Q: Reason for optimism?

A: Exactly. They didn’t have good health, yet they still were top-10 caliber. We’ll see how Nick Harris does in his first season as a starting center. It’s good enough. The receivers are better, assuming Amari Cooper stays healthy. David Bell was impressive in OTAs, catching virtually every pass thrown to him. Donovan Peoples-Jones could have the breakout season in 2022 that many expected a year a ago.

Q: On offense it comes down the QB – Brissett.

A: Here’s what NFL.com’s Rosenthal wrote about the former Miami QB: “The tiniest hill I’m ready to die on is that Brissett’s 2021 was much better than the numbers showed. The Dolphins’ offensive line made football unplayable. Brissett managed to move the ball, even if it was agonizingly slow. His passing grade on PFF was good for 15th out of 38 qualifiers. … I don’t always agree with PFF, but seeing this grade made me feel less alone in the world.”

Q: What do the stats say about Brissett?

A: He was 2-3 as a starter with Miami last season, throwing five T D passes vs. four interceptions. His last full season as a starter was 2019 in Indianapolis. The Colts were 7-8 with him under center. He completed 61 percent of his passes, 18 TDs compared to six interceptions. He can plan a ball-control game and this offense is equipped to play it.

NOW COMES THE WAITING

Illustration by Ted Crow for Crowquill. The Browns finished up minicamp Thursday and will go their separate ways until training camp starts in late July.

Q: Won’t a lot rest on the defense?

A: It will … and it should. Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney are back at defensive ends. The backfield should be extremely deep and talented. The linebackers could be improved with Jeremiah Owusu Koramoah (JOK) emerging in his second season.

Q: What about Baker Mayfield?

A: At some point – perhaps fairly soon – I expect him to be traded to Carolina. But we’ve heard that before.

Q: Enough already, how many wins?

A: I’m going with a 10-7 record with the option of changing as the season grows closer.

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