On the heels of a laughably bad 0-12 start, there isn’t much optimism surrounding the Cleveland Browns as things stand. It’s impossible to deny that this is simply a very bad football team, and it’s very possible that the 2016 Browns finish the season as the second 0-16 team in NFL history. However, despite the fact that this season will not amount to anything substantive in the wins column, it may not turn out to be a lost year given how much the state of the organization has improved. Whether they can make the most of this opportunity remains to be seen, but there’s no denying that the organization will have the chance to change their fortunes, and it’s on them to make the most of it.
Starting with next year’s draft, the Browns will have ample opportunity to add talent to their roster as they have extra first, second, fifth, and seventh round picks to go along with what will likely be one of the top two picks in each round. While the Browns obviously don’t have the best history of turning their draft picks into quality players, compiling young talent is essential to rebuilding a football team, and after a 2016 draft which saw them draft a whopping 14 players they will certainly have the opportunity to build a young core. Additionally, I believe that their acquisition of Jamie Collins could be truly transformational for this defense. Assuming they’re able to retain him, he represents a strong building block as one of the game’s premier linebackers who seemed to be entering his prime at the time of his shocking trade. Pairing him with Christian Kirksey in nickel packages gives them two strong cover men in the middle of their defense, and with a couple more noteworthy acquisitions to go along with Collins, Kirksey, and Joe Haden (coming either by drafting young talent or using their excess draft capital to acquire veteran players, like they did with Collins) it’s not hard to envision this defense finding an identity.
However, my primary reason for having relative optimism in the future of the Browns is that it no longer seems like a terrible place for a quarterback to go. Primarily, Hue Jackson is a quality offensive mind and has a pretty strong track record having coached guys like Andy Dalton and a young Joe Flacco to moderate success. This hasn’t shown up this season given the team’s lack of talent at the position, but it’s not out of the question that he could develop and have success with the right player. But perhaps more importantly, this team has legitimate weapons. In his first full season at the position, Terrelle Pryor is playing like a legitimate #1 wideout (on pace for 80+ catches and 1100+ yards), and first-round rookie Corey Coleman still carries plenty of promise despite an up-and-down year in which he’s been hampered by a broken hand. Furthermore, Duke Johnson is on pace to top 60 catches out of the backfield for the second season in a row, and Joe Thomas has long been one of the best offensive lineman in the league. While Cleveland has gotten scattered production from players like Josh Gordon, Travis Benjamin, and even Trent Richardson in the past, this is their first semblance of having a true core on the offensive side of the ball in quite some time.
Yet, in order to get over the hump, everything hinges on Cleveland’s ability to find stability at the quarterback position. In all likelihood, their man of the future is not on their current roster, as Josh McCown hasn’t been effective and is at tail end of his career, Cody Kessler’s lack of tools and overall upside suggests he should be nothing more than a backup, and it would take an other-worldly end of the season (if he can even make it back, as has been reported) for Robert Griffin III to make himself a part of the team’s plans after another year lost to injury. Theoretically, Deshone Kizer (should he declare for the 2017 draft) seems like a potential fit on paper given his ability to push the ball down the field, which could complement the skillsets of Pryor and Coleman (as strong deep threats) very well. However, the team’s best option at this point may be to try to acquire a quarterback from another team since they have long been unable to develop their own. Jimmy Garoppolo would presumably be at the top of every QB-needy team’s offseason wish list if the Patriots decide to maximize the talent of their roster around Brady, and the Browns could do a lot worse than hoping his Patriots magic rubs off. A riskier and less heralded option could be to Mike Glennon in free agency, who showed some promise as a rookie with the Buccaneers before being unceremoniously cast aside for Josh McCown and eventually Jameis Winston. He has a big arm that could help kickstart a vertical passing game and has thrown twice as many touchdowns (30) as interceptions (15) in his career, but he hasn’t seen significant game action since 2014. Regardless of what the Browns decide to do, it’s clear that they have the resources to potentially make it work, and it’s possible that in time we will look back on this failure of a season as the foundation of successful Cleveland teams. But at the end of the day, it won’t happen unless they can finally break their quarterback curse.