As training camp approaches for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and with it the unofficial start to the season, we are taking a closer look at the opponents on the team's 2022 schedule. Next up is the Cleveland Browns, who will be the Buccaneers opponent when they come back from their Week 11 bye. The Week 12 Bucs-Browns contest at FirstEnergy Stadium will kick off at 1:00 p.m. ET and will be broadcast by FOX.
Expectations for the Browns' 2021 season were sky high after the team had broken a 17-season playoff drought in 2020 and then thrilled their fans in the playoffs with a 48-37 drubbing of archrival Pittsburgh. Third-year quarterback Baker Mayfield, the first pick in the 2018 draft, threw three touchdown passes in the win over the Steelers after finishing the regular season on a tear.
Instead, the 2021 campaign was a disappointment in Cleveland, ending without a repeat playoff berth and with the Browns and Mayfield headed for a divorce. The Browns still finished with the league's fifth-best defense and the running game behind the powerful duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt remained one of the league's best, but the passing attack cratered and Mayfield was sacked 43 times in 14 games. That beating led to a left (non-throwing) shoulder injury that was likely instrumental in Mayfield's second-half numbers being far worse than what he put up over the first six weeks of the season.
The Browns drew the Chiefs in Kansas City in Week One and nearly pulled off the upset before a late Travis Kelce touchdown gave the home team a 33-27 win. Cleveland than ripped off three straight wins over Houston, Chicago and Minnesota before dropping another road thriller, this one a 47-42 shootout with Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers. Over the next nine weeks the Browns would alternate wins and losses, the most notable decision a 41-16 blowout of the Super Bowl-bound Bengals in Week Nine, with Mayfield throwing two touchdown passes and Chubb running for two more. That game came just a few days after the Browns granted wide receiver Odell Beckham his requested release; Beckham eventually signed with the Rams and won a Super Bowl.
After coming out of their Week 13 bye and clipping a banged-up Ravens team, 24-22, the Browns were 7-6 and still very much in the thick of the playoff race. They were, in fact, tied with Cincinnati and just one game behind the Ravens at the time. With the offense sputtering, however, the Browns lost three straight to Las Vegas, Green Bay and Pittsburgh to fall out of contention. A Week 18 win over Cincinnati was too little, too late.
Mayfield would finish with a 17-13 TD-INT ratio and an 83.1 passer rating, and his replacements while he was sidelined (Case Keenum and Nick Mullens) didn't fare much better. Chubb ran for 1,259 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging a robust 5.5 yards per carry, but the Browns only had one wideout catch more than 40 passes in Jarvis Landry, with 52 for 570 yards. The strong Cleveland defense was led by Myles Garrett with his 16.0 sacks and Denzel Ward with his three interceptions, one returned 99 yards for a touchdown.
The Browns made one of the boldest moves ever – and certainly one of the most scrutinized – to address the quarterback position when they sent three first-round draft picks, a third-round pick and a fourth-round pick to Houston for Deshaun Watson and a sixth-round pick in late March. Watson faces a possible suspension from the NFL, perhaps as soon as this season and quite possibly of significant length, stemming from several dozen allegations from massage therapists of sexual misconduct and the resulting legal proceedings. The Browns also inked Jacoby Brissett to a one-year deal and would presumably turn to him as the starting quarterback if Watson is unavailable.
The Browns addressed their thin receiving corps with another trade, as well as a draft pick. With Dallas looking for cap relief, Cleveland was able to nab Amari Cooper for just a fifth-round selection and a swap of sixth-rounders; Cooper averaged 1,056 receiving yards and seven touchdowns over the past three seasons with the Cowboys. He should join Donovan Peoples-Jones in the starting lineup, as could third-round rookie David Bell out of Purdue.
The Browns also gave Jakeem Grant, who had been traded from Miami to Chicago in midseason in 2021, a three-year deal, though he likely won't make much of a mark as a receiver. Rather Grant, who is coming off his first Pro Bowl appearance, will add juice to the return game. The Browns special teams will also have a new set of kickers after they signed former Packers punter Corey Bojorquez and drafted LSU kicker Cade York in the fourth round.
It wasn't a new addition, but Cleveland was able to avoid the loss of their second-leading sack producer, Jadeveon Clowney, when they reached a one-year deal with him in late May. Clowney claimed to have turned down more lucrative offers elsewhere to return to the Browns. Cleveland did make a few new additions to their defensive front, as well, giving one-year deals to tackle Taven Bryan and ends Stephen Weatherly and Isaac Rochell; of the three, Bryan is most likely to start and see significant playing time. Also in the mix up front is third-round pick Alex Wright, an end out of Alabama-Birmingham. Fellow third-round pick Martin Emerson of Mississippi State could form a formidable trio of cornerbacks with Ward and 2021 first-rounder Greg Newsome.
The trade for Watson signaled the almost certain departure of Mayfield, and though it took a little longer than expected the Browns did finally trade their former starter to Carolina earlier this month. The Browns gained a fifth-round pick in the 2024 draft that could improve to a fourth-rounder based on playing time.
Cleveland gave former Falcons tight end Austin Hooper a lucrative four-year deal in 2020 but cut him halfway through the contract this past spring after two underwhelming campaigns. The Browns also released wideout Jarvis Landry, who subsequently signed with the Saints. Fellow wide receiver Rashard Higgins signed as an unrestricted free agent in Carolina, where he will now get to continue working with Mayfield. Former Buccaneers cornerback M.J. Stewart, who started three games for Cleveland in 2021 and played about 40% of the defensive snaps, signed with Houston.
The Browns will have a new center in 2022 after choosing to release long-time starter J.C. Tretter in March. Tretter started all but one of a possible 81 games over five seasons in Cleveland. He had not signed with another team as of mid-July.
What Else is New?
Tight end David Njoku isn't new to Cleveland but he does have a shiny new contract extension after getting the franchise tag that indicates he is only going to become more central to the Browns' passing attack. The Browns' quarterback room has been completely transformed – former Steeler Josh Dobbs, signed in the offseason to a one-year deal, is the number three – so it might as well have a man at the front. Drew Petzing, formerly the team's tight ends coach, has been reassigned to the quarterbacks; previously, Offensive Coordinator Alex Van Pelt had been the de facto quarterbacks coach.
Oh, and some people believe the Browns will make use of the NFL's new rule for alternate helmets and don white headgear at some point in 2022.
Who will be under center in 2022?
The Browns made a massive investment in Watson, in terms of both draft assets and guaranteed salaries, but aren't yet sure if he will be starting for them when the season begins this September. The NFL and NFLPA conducted a three-day hearing two weeks ago in front of Judge Sue L. Robinson, which could ultimately result in a ruling from the judge on a possible suspension for Watson. Depending upon what that ruling is, an appeals process may follow. What is clear is that as of mid-July the Browns don't yet know if Watson will be available to play on Week One.
As noted, Brissett is the fallback option. He arrives in Cleveland after one season of backing up Tua Tagovailoa in Miami. Brissett started five games for the Dolphins, winning two of them and compiling a 78.1 passer rating. He has also spent time in New England and Indianapolis and has started a total of 37 games, with a 14-23 record.
Regardless of the quarterback situation, can the Browns win with the combination of a dominant rushing attack and a defense that has the potential to be among the league's best?
Fans of the Tony Dungy-era Buccaneers might like this 2022 Browns team. Dungy and his staff assembled one of the best NFL defenses ever in the late 1990s, and he relied on that group and the backfield tandem of Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott to grind out wins. Cleveland could take a similar approach.
The Browns have the makings of one of the NFL's best offensive lines, particularly if they find a good replacement for Tretter on the pivot. Former Titan Jack Conklin and 2020 first-round pick Jedrick Wills form a strong pair of tackles and All-Pro left guard Joel Bitonio has an underrated running mate on the right side in Wyatt Teller. With Chubb and Hunt splitting time and keeping each other fresh and 2021 surprise D'Ernest Johnson ready to step in if either of those two is unavailable, the Browns should be able to follow up on a 2021 campaign in which they led the NFL in yards per carry.
Meanwhile, Garrett seems destined for a 20-sack season at some point in his career and Clowney put up 9.0 sacks in just 14 games last year. Ward has quietly turned into one of the NFL's best cornerbacks and Newsome had a very promising rookie campaign. Weakside linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is a second-year breakout candidate and safety John Johnson is strong on the back end. The Browns were fifth in yards allowed and 13th in points allowed last season and could be even better in 2022.