The Cleveland Browns saw their season end with a 21-16 victory at home over the backups for the Cincinnati Bengals. As always, the defense was superb, with defensive end Jadeveon Clowney literally making the most of it. Clowney sacked Bengals quarterback Brandon Allen twice. The hits brought Clowney’s total to nine sacks this season for $500,000 and gives him an extra $750,000 total in incentives. The $500,000 in bonus money will help make up for the extra half-million he would have gained had the Browns made the playoffs, which we all know didn't happen.
Clowney has shared that he has loved his time with Cleveland and is a fan of the defensive pieces the Browns have in place. But he also has been careful not to say he’ll definitely be back, despite superstar defensive end Myles Garrett openly advocating for it.
"I feel like he is disruptive every time he is out there, especially when we are out there together and they can’t key in on just one of us," said Garrett last Friday. "The guy is hitting his stride. I think he has a lot of football left, and he does know that."
Despite signs pointing towards Clowney staying, the mercenary defensive end and agent Kennard McGuire will likely be shrewd negotiators during contract talks. Thankfully, the Browns have most of the rest of their key defenders under contract for next year outside of Anthony Walker, Malik Jackson and Ronnie Harrison. The writing on the wall for Harrison was there when the team lured John Johnson away from the Los Angeles Rams, so his loss may not be as severe. Replacing Walker and Jackson, meanwhile, could be tough. But, there could be options for Cleveland in the upcoming NFL Draft that could answer some of these issues in a most cost-controlled way (more on that in the coming weeks).
But, that's just on the defensive side of the ball. In terms of where the Browns stand roster-wise really boils down to the offense. D'Ernest Johnson, meanwhile, is not under contract and is eligible for restricted free agency unless Cleveland decides to keep him in a backfield that already features Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. There's only so much money to go around and despite Johnson putting up solid production when starting, the juice just may not be worth the squeeze for the Browns.
Then there's the issue with Case Keenum's long-term viability. Keenum is under contract for 2022, but Cleveland could save $6.5 million if they cut him. Sure, Keenum is a fine backup and the Browns seem to have faith in him in that role. But, clearly, the trust doesn't go that far since Cleveland never considered benching a banged-up Baker Mayfield and leaning on Keenum while their primary signal-caller could rest and recover. That meant that Mayfield continued to struggle and, in turn, the offense continuously stalled for the Browns.
At the end of the day, a lot of where the questions lie on offense starts, and ends, under center for Cleveland. Is there a belief in the offices at Berea that Mayfield can prove what was holding him back this season was solely physical and not mental and bounce back? If they don't have faith in Keenum, why is he one of the highest-paid backups in the NFL?
For the first question, it appears, for now, that the Browns are moving forward with Mayfield as their quarterback. Perhaps Cleveland sees the writing on the wall and realizes Aaron Rodgers can no longer be had now that he's happier in Green Bay. Or that when comparing how they hope a healthy Mayfield performs to the likes of Minnesota's Kirk Cousins, Atlanta's Matt Ryan or Las Vegas gunslinger Derek Carr.
So, for now, the Browns are placing their hopes on the soon-to-be surgically repaired shoulders of Mayfield. But, don't be fooled either. It would be remiss of general manager and executive vice president of football operations Andrew Berry to still not canvas the quarterback market to see if there's any viable upgrade available. Mayfield is guaranteed $18.86 million for next year on the fifth-year option of his rookie contract. The Browns would incur no dead money on their salary cap if they traded Mayfield and added another quarterback. Again, it still doesn't mean there's a clear path forwards on an upgrade. But, you also shouldn't believe the sudden PR push by the Browns to at least quell some of the uncertainty.
When it comes to Keenum, Cleveland needs to just move on and find a cheaper, more reliable option to place behind Mayfield. A reunion with Colt McCoy wouldn't seem too far-fetched for the Browns. It could be a bit of a feel-good redemption for the former Cleveland quarterback. But, McCoy performed well at times in place of Kyler Murray for the Arizona Cardinals so he might be too costly for the Browns as well. If not him, maybe Cleveland explores signing veteran Nick Foles if the Bears waive him or even Mentor native Mitchell Trubisky.
Outside of the quarterback position, there's also uncertainty about the futures of Jarvis Landry, Austin Hooper and David Njoku as well. Landry struggled mightily this season and if Cleveland were to cut him, it would only cost $1.5 million against their salary cap next season and could save the Browns nearly $15 million. Hooper, who also struggled, meanwhile, would only cost Cleveland $3.75 million their salary threshold all while saving them $9.5 million if he was waived after June 1. Finally, Njoku is entering free agency this offseason and even though he's said he wants to retire a Brown, he might not be worth it based on his overall production.
Unfortunately, Cleveland cannot mull over the fate of their existing skill players until they have a firm vision of what they're doing under center. Mind you, that still shouldn't stop the Browns from adding receiver depth through offseason extracurriculars but it's hard to shape the offense until you have a clear idea at quarterback. This won't be a full-blown rebuild for Cleveland but rather a retooling on the fly. The Browns have a talented roster and they’ve built real depth in some spots. There's a lot to like about the future of this team and will be even more once they answer the questions they face this offseason.