This past season was yet another disappointment for the Cleveland Browns as they finished 7-10. Deshaun Watson was suspended for the first 11 games, so the results might’ve been different had he been out on the field for the entire season.
Watson is going to be under center for all 17 games this season barring an injury, which should give the team a confidence boost and tip the scale in the Browns direction.
In order for Watson to be the difference maker that Cleveland wants him to be, he’s got to be in sync with head coach Kevin Stefanski as well as offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt. Stefanski and Van Pelt need to develop an offense that fits Watson’s skill set so that he’s in the best position to lead the Browns to wins.
Over the past few seasons, the Browns have been a very run-heavy team (the 2021 Browns were almost identical to the 2019 49ers), but that could be because Stefanski felt limited in what offensive plays he could run with Baker Mayfield as his quarterback. Now that Watson is the quarterback, the playbook should open up and be more diverse.
Recently, there have been murmurings that free agent wide receiver Deandre Hopkins could sign with the Browns. Adding Hopkins to the offense would give Stefanski, Van Pelt, and Watson that go-to option in tight ball games.
Hopkins and Watson played together in Houston, and they’re both Clemson alumni. If the Browns were to sign Hopkins, he would slide in as the No. 1 wide receiver, pushing Amari Cooper down to No. 2 and Donovan Peoples-Jones down to the No. 3 wide position.
Hopkins, Cooper, and Peoples-Jones have different, complementary skill sets which Watson could utilize when it comes to facing certain opponents this season. For example, when the Browns host the 49ers in Week 6, that could be a matchup that is tailored to Cooper, or when the Browns visit the Broncos in Week 12, that could be a matchup that is tailored to Hopkins (again, this is contingent on Hopkins actually signing with the Browns).
Running back Nick Chubb and tight end David Njoku would play into a dynamic offense, offering the Browns other matchup advantages throughout the season.
Last season, from Week 4 to Week 7, the Browns lost four consecutive games against the Falcons, Chargers, Patriots, and Ravens. Three of those four games went right down to the wire and looked winnable for the Browns. They lost 23-20 in Atlanta, 30-28 at home against the Chargers, and 23-20 in Baltimore.
In those three games, it was a mixture of bad coaching decisions, defensive lapses, and head-scratching offensive plays that cost the Browns three victories. If Cleveland had won those three games, they would’ve finished the season with a winning record at 10-7, and tied with the Ravens and Chargers in the AFC Standings. Since the Browns rarely seem to finish with a winning record, a winning season could have taken some of the pressure off of Watson as he enters his first full season as the starting quarterback.
This season, the Browns will be facing the AFC South, which means they’ll host the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars and they’ll visit the Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans (Watson’s old team). The last time Cleveland faced the AFC South was in 2020, the same year the Browns narrowly lost to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Divisional Round.
That year, Cleveland swept all four games against the Colts, Texans, Jaguars, and Titans. Watson knows the AFC South very well, but he still needs the right personnel and play-calling to succeed this season. The Browns will look to accomplish a sweep this season with Watson at the control. That should be feasible given that no team in the AFC South finished with more than nine wins.
Cleveland will also face the NFC West this upcoming season, meaning they’ll host the 49ers and Cardinals and head out on the road to face the Seahawks and Rams. In 2019, the Browns went 0-4 against the NFC West, so they’ll look for a reverse in fortune this season. The games at home against the Rams and Seahawks were right there, begging for the Browns to win them, but Cleveland couldn’t pull it off.
Had Watson been the QB in 2019, rather than Baker Mayfield, they might’ve won those games. The NFC West could be a dangerous division since San Francisco and Seattle are both expected to be playoff contenders and the Rams look to stay healthy and bounce back. So if the Browns want to feel good about their performance against the NFC West, they at least need to split the season series.
The last time Watson faced the Seahawks in Seattle was back in Week 8 of the 2017 season when he and then Seattle QB Russell Wilson (who’s now with the Broncos) put on a shootout. Watson was 19-30 for 402 yards and four touchdowns, but he also threw three interceptions.
Wilson was 26-41 for 452 yards and four touchdowns, but he had one interception. Wilson and the Seahawks narrowly edged out Watson and the Texans 41-38. When the Browns visit the Seahawks in Week 8 during Halloween weekend, Watson won’t be intimidated by the “12th man” at Lumnen Field. Will Watson and the Browns have a shootout with Geno Smith and the Seahawks this season?
Cleveland made the huge trade with the Texans to bring in Watson because they felt like they were at the very least a playoff contender. DW doesn’t have to worry about any off-field drama this season, so he can devote all of his attention to fully learning an expanded playbook and developing chemistry with the skill players around him (whether that includes Hopkins or not remains to be seen).
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The Browns hope that he’s the missing piece that puts them back into contention this season and moving forward.