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Exit Interview: Cleveland Browns

Where not winning is the norm.

Salute Magazine’s Exit Interview series examines the status of each NFL team heading into the offseason, along with their free agents, team needs and more. Click here for the rest of the exit interviews. Up first: the Cleveland Browns.

Record in 2017: 0-16

In 2008 the Detroit Lions were a horrible team.

Everything that could go wrong went doubly wrong. Aside from Calvin Johnson and Cliff Avril (the latter in his rookie season), they were mostly made up of fading talents and no-namers, and that led to the first winless season in the league since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1976.

There was endless speculation about whether or not a team could be THAT bad, and the question of if that would be bad for the NFL as a whole was brought up a number of times as well.

The Cleveland Browns generated not one iota of that attention in 2017. When they lost their last game to the Pittsburgh Steelers to finish at 0-16, it seemed like the majority of football fans collectively shrugged.

They’re the Browns. Of course they’re terrible. If any team is expected to fail to win a game in one season, it’s them.

To be honest, that’s one of the saddest things that’s ever been heard. The Browns have fallen past the bottom of the barrel. Rather, they’ve reached the bottom, only to discover there was a hidden door that went even deeper. When the world expects failure, a point of despair has been reached that’s hard to recover from.

Here’s a hot take. The 2017 Browns are a lot better than the 2008 Lions. There’s actually a good deal of youthful talent on this team that can be built upon, namely last year’s top pick Myles Garrett and an overall solid offensive line, which makes their decision to keep head coach Hue Jackson around all the more puzzling.

But if the new management, led by general manager John Dorsey and assistant GM Eliot Wolf, two executives with a plethora of experience between them, can fill in the holes, the Browns climb to competitive play may get a lot easier. Everything starts with a change in mindset: “this team deserves respect, and this city deserves a decent football team.”

And hey, when you’re expected to fail, anything that resembles progress should be good enough, right?

Current number of draft picks: 12 (#1 and #4 in the first round)

Cap space: $103-112 million

Notable free agents

Isaiah Crowell, RB: Amazingly, the Browns have just four unrestricted free agents this year. Two of them (defensive lineman Lavar Edwards and cornerback B.W. Webb) are fringe players, while Marcus Martin is just an okay backup in the interior offensive line.

Crowell, on the other hand, actually resembles an NFL starter. He was just 48 yards away from eclipsing the 1000-yard mark in 2016, scoring 7 touchdowns as well.

He took a step back this season, accumulating 832 yards and just 2 TDs, along with an average of 4.4 per carry. The Browns certainly have the money to keep Crowell around if they want to, but they shouldn’t break the bank for him either.

Team Needs

QB: If you want a bright future for your franchise, you need to find a talented young quarterback. DeShone Kizer wasn’t god awful in 2017, but he wasn’t exactly inspiring either. Luckily, the Browns have two top-5 draft picks to remedy that. Or they could send a boat full of money to one of the free agent signal callers.

WR: Josh Gordon is back from suspension, and he flashed that special ability many raved about a few seasons ago. However, the state of the receiving corps isn’t as hopeful. Corey Coleman has struggled with injuries, and the rest of the wideouts currently on the roster haven’t done much to stand out. If you want to help your QB grow, get him a reliable pass catcher.

RB: Or find him a running back to fall back on when the going gets rough. With Crowell hitting free agency, the only other RB on the roster is Duke Johnson, who’s flashed as a third-down back, but is otherwise limited. A certain prospect from Penn State is sitting at the top of the draft boards though.

T: Joe Thomas remains the best left tackle in football, but his injury midway through 2017 should get the Browns thinking about the future. Right tackle Shon Coleman is their only weak spot on the offensive line as well.

CB: Believe it or not, the Browns secondary was pretty productive this season. The trio of Jason McCourtyJamar Taylor and Briean Boddy-Calhoun all did well at corner. However, none of them are a top-flight defensive back, and McCourty will turn 31 before the start of next season. There are a couple of corners available near the top of the draft, however.

Best player/building block

Myles Garrett, DE: When you get selected first overall in the NFL Draft, you’re expected to make an impact right away. Unfortunately, Garrett sustained a number of injuries in his rookie year (first a high ankle sprain, then a concussion), which caused him to miss six games. When he was on the field though, that talent shone through brightly.

He had 7 sacks to go along with 28 total tackles in 2017. His pass rushing is as good as advertised, but his run defense could stand to improve a little. Still, at just 22 years old, Garrett will have plenty of time to evolve his game as his career progresses.

Underappreciated player

Joel Bitonio, G: When Joe Thomas is around to get all the accolades, it’s no wonder that a guy like Bitonio is overlooked. But when Thomas went on IR, the fourth-year man from Nevada stepped up his play to elite levels.

He was 6th in Pro Football Focus’ rankings for guards with a grade of 85.2, coming in second behind Carolina Panthers guard Andrew Norwell in pass blocking. His run blocking wasn’t as great, but the Browns line as a whole struggled in this area, suggesting that it could be a scheme issue. Bitonio is signed through 2022, so he won’t be going anywhere.

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