It’s no secret the 2022 NFL Season did not go the way many Browns fans planned. From the 11-game suspension of Deshaun Watson, to the gut-punching losses, to the apparent lack of accountability inside the building, to the lack of adjustments, to the players openly calling out the organization, the 2022 Browns season will be one Browns fans will be happy to forget about now that the NFL season has concluded.
However, once one season closes, another season opens. The 2023 season will see a new defensive coordinator, and new faces wearing orange helmets on gamedays. A new team means a breath of fresh air for everybody involved. There’s been numerous examples in recent NFL history of teams going from the bottom of the league one year to legitimate Super Bowl contenders the year after. Look no further than the 2020 and 2021 editions of the Cincinnati Bengals.
Circumstances often dictate success in life, and the same can be said for the NFL and its teams. Just because the Browns have not had the ideal last two seasons does not mean they’re automatically doomed for 2023. Here’s three reasons for optimism when it comes to the Browns in 2023.
Photo: Phelan M. Ebenhack / AP
Deshaun Watson Gets a Full Offseason With the Browns
It’s no secret I have not been the biggest fan of coach Kevin Stefanski since the way the 2021 season went down. My frustration with the head man of the Browns boiled over even more after the loss Week 2 to the Jets. My colleague and co-host of Brown and Orange Weekly Clarence Wilson felt the same way after the Browns were officially eliminated from playoff contention after a disastrous loss to the Saints on Christmas Eve in the cold elements at FirstEnergy Stadium, but as Clarence correctly pointed out, Stefanski hasn’t had a full offseason to work with No. 4.
You can debate how well Jacoby Brissett played while Watson served his suspension. The numbers say he was above average, but my eyes told me he was exactly what he is: A backup quarterback who played well in some games, but it ultimately didn’t result in wins. Even though Watson struggled in his six games as the Browns starter, you can see why Andrew Berry paid him that guaranteed contract. Mobility and playmaking is a part of playing the hardest position in sports in today’s day and age, and Brissett does not bring that to the table. Watson showed enough flashes for me to believe he has a chance to get back to a Pro Bowl level in 2023 with a full offseason to dive into Stefanski’s scheme.
The pressure is going to be on him, Stefanski and the team immediately to win in 2023, but Watson was brought to Cleveland to compete with the likes of Joe Burrow and Lamar Jackson in the AFC North. The Browns sought after the former National Champion at Clemson to go head-to-head with Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Justin Herbert. Watson is used to the pressure, and his history as a quarterback tells you he will live up to the pressure. He’s won big games everywhere he’s been throughout his young career.
Upgrades to the Roster
As BelieveLand Media writer Adam Cooper wrote last week, the Browns roster has holes. The Browns do not have a lot of resources to use in the draft due to the Watson trade. They have a second-rounder, a third-rounder, two fourths (one from Minnesota), two fifths and a sixth. It’s likely Berry could receive at least a third-round choice if he trades Kareem Hunt, who has seemingly been discontent all year with his roll. Even with Hunt entering free agency, it’s possible Berry could pull off a sign-and-trade for the back. The Browns won’t miss Hunt. There’s a reason Berry drafted Jerome Ford out of Cincinnati during last year’s draft. I still like D'Ernest Johnson to back up Nick Chubb.
The more likely way is for the Browns to use the free agency market. The Browns are currently projected to be $1 million over the cap heading into the 2023 offseason. The contracts of Watson, Myles Garrett, Denzel Ward and Amari Cooper are candidates to be restructured in order to give Berry more space to work with.
After restructuring, I would expect the Browns to have anywhere between $20-30 million in cap space by the time the new league year begins in March 2023. That would allow the team to go out and address the weaknesses on the roster, including wide receiver, defensive tackle and linebacker.
Often in the NFL, it’s not who you play, it’s who you play, WHEN you play and WHERE you play that determines how tough a game is going to be to win. The schedule game we all like to play in the spring becomes a completely different looking game by the time the season begins in the fall.
With that said, outside of their six division games, the Browns will be playing a fourth-place schedule in 2023 by virtue of finishing last in the AFC North. That sets up the following schedule for 2023:
Home: BAL, CIN, PIT, JAX, TEN, ARZ, SF, NYJ, CHI
Away: BAL, CIN, PIT, IND, HOU, SEA, LAR, DEN
Cleveland was already scheduled to play the entire AFC South and NFC West divisions this season based on the NFL’s schedule rotations. The Broncos, Patriots and Bears were additions to the Browns schedule following the conclusion of Week 18.
All division games are non-guaranteed in the NFL, but I will be conservative and say that as of this writing, it’s likely the Browns split their six AFC North contests. Jacksonville seems to be on the rise in the AFC South, but they’re the only real threat to the Browns in 2023. Indianapolis and Houston are messes that need complete overhauls, and Tennessee has a murky quarterback situation at best, along with a lack of skill players on the outside, and there’s no evidence that suggests they’re going to upgrade the position. 3-1 seems plausible against the south.
The NFC West is tricky. The Niners are going to be in-line to be Super Bowl contenders again, and the Rams seem likely to bounce back regardless of who’s under center for Los Angeles if Sean McVay returns as head coach. Arizona and Seattle are two teams who have to figure out their QB situation. Kyler Murray’s ACL injury and a new head coach complicates things for the Cardinals, and the Seahawks have to figure out what to do with Geno Smith, as the team does have a Top 5 pick thanks to the Denver Broncos. A 2-2 record vs the NFC West is plausible in my estimation.
Speaking of Denver, we will find out in 2023 if Russell Wilson is truly washed, or if Nathaniel Hackett was the Rocky Mountains version of Freddie Kitchens! The Denver game is a true toss-up going into next season. The Broncos have always been the Browns’ kryptonite.
Nothing should scare a Browns fan about the Jets at home, at least for right now. It took a miraculous onside kick for New York to pull off the upset in Cleveland in Week 2. With Watson starting, the Browns as currently constructed are a better football team than the Jets, but that could change if the Jets make a big swing at the QB spot. Chicago may have the No. 1 overall pick and Ohio State alumni Justin Fields, but they’re in re-build mode and likely to trade their prized pick for more draft capital. The Browns should be able to win their extra home game against Chicago.
If the Browns take care of business the way they should, the schedule as of this writing sets up for the Brown and Orange to win at least 10 games next NFL season, which should easily qualify them for a playoff spot in a competitive AFC where the last Wildcard spot should have either eight or nine victories. If I had to guess, Vegas will set the Browns over/under win total in 2023 at 8.5, and I would take the over if I was a betting man. Anything under eight will be a disappointment and mean Stefanski and quite possibly Berry will not return in 2024.
The bottom line is the Browns have a talented roster and a franchise-changing quarterback on the field (regardless of your personal belief of him off the gridiron). Despite the dark cloud that casted over the team in 2022, 2023 will be a new year, a new team and a new opportunity for Cleveland to plant their flags as contenders in the AFC. Even though the 2022 season will end in disappointment for the Browns and their fanbase, there’s reason to believe there will be a lot of cheering in the Dawg Pound come September 2023.