For Cleveland Browns general manager Andrew Berry, this will be his most challenging season yet. The Browns have failed to reach the playoffs in two of Berry’s three years as general manager. The team is coming off a 7-10 last-place finish in the AFC North in 2022. Cleveland has no first round picks in this year or next year’s NFL draft, those picks going to Houston as part of the Deshaun Watson trade. Barring any trade, their first pick in this year’s draft won’t come until pick No. 42, in the second round.
They have some key holes to fill on their defense, particularly 75% of the defensive line, either through the draft or free agency, but they are about $14 million over the salary cap.
Coach Kevin Stefanski has made significant changes to his staff, hiring two coaches from outside the organization, including new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, and Stefanski has given six assistants from last season new roles for 2023. All of those changes reflect the urgency of the 2023 season.
“Sometimes change can be good,” Stefanski told reporters at the NFL combine in Indianapolis. “It pushes you to rethink certain things we’re doing.”
Berry realizes that more than anyone.
“Kevin is the driver of the coaching staff,” Berry said of the overhaul of Stefanski’s staff. “That’s not to suggest that we don’t have discussions, or that there’s no level of counsel. It’s no different than how we think about roster decisions or player decisions.”
Berry and Stefanski, were both hired by the Browns in January of 2020. Both are well aware of the urgency to win that awaits them in the 2023 season.
“I feel urgency every year,” Berry said. “We all feel we have an incredible responsibility to the organization and the city to put a good team out on the field. If you don’t feel urgency or excitement, you’re in the wrong role.”
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The most immediate challenge for Berry and Stefanski is the start of free agency, and then the NFL draft. “Nothing changes in the draft and free agent process as far as our preparation,” Berry said. “We go into each offseason as though we have an expansion roster.”
This year, part of that philosophy is due to last year’s trade for quarterback Deshaun Watson, plus the massive, five-year, $230 million contract he received from the Browns. It’s a contract that impacts many other roster decisions.
“The reality is when you have an expensive quarterback you have a different set of constraints, as far as roster building,” Berry said. “So that may change from year to year, but how we go through the approach and preparation, that really doesn’t change.”
Another thing that won’t change for the Browns this year is Stefanski’s decision to remain the Browns’ play caller, an arrangement that has generated plenty of controversy in Cleveland among a segment of Browns fans who have not always been thrilled with the plays the play caller has called over the last three years.
During Wednesday’s session with reporters, Stefanski said he will continue to handle the play calling duties. Asked why he thought that was important to him, Stefanski said, “I don’t think it’s important to me, it’s to do what’s right for the team. It’s the right thing to do.”
More immediately, the Browns will have to address the two biggest needs for the coming season. They must bolster what was last year one of the weakest defensive lines in the league, even with perennial All-Pro edge rusher Myles Garrett. The Browns’ defense struggled against the run in 2022, and if the 2023 season started today the Browns’ defensive line would consist of Garrett and three question marks.
The team’s second most pressing need is a speedy receiver who can stretch defenses, and clear underneath routes for steady ballhawk Amari Cooper, who was by far the Browns’ best receiver last year.
The team’s passing game will be under more scrutiny than ever, enhanced, as it will presumably be, by a full season of Watson at quarterback. Last year, in his return to action for the first time in almost two years, Watson looked like a quarterback who hadn’t played in almost two years.
The Browns split the six games that Watson started at the end of the year. The opportunity to call plays for Watson for a full season is exciting for Stefanski, and how well, and quickly, Watson can return to being an elite NFL quarterback will go a long way towards defining what kind of season the Browns will have.
“We’re very excited about Deshaun,” Berry said. “We’re looking forward to see him continuing to evolve the offense over the next several months. For him, having a full offseason going into 2023, we expect him to play at a high level.”