The Browns had hoped they were among the teams playing this past weekend. That's been abundantly clear in every last interview conducted since the conclusion to Cleveland's 8-9 season.
"Look, we did not get the job done this year, and we are all disappointed that we did not meet our own internal expectations and that we are not playing meaningful football this weekend," Browns EVP of Football Operations and GM Andrew Berry said. "Ultimately, we were just too inconsistent in really all three phases throughout the season."
Alas, the Browns will have to wait roughly nine more months before they're back on the field playing games that count.
For now and the weeks ahead, we'll be answering your questions in the Browns Mailbag, which doesn't have an offseason.
With the Browns drafting in the 13th position, two questions: No. 1. How would the draft position have changed if they had lost the last game? No. 2. Looking at the wide receivers in the draft, assuming all receivers are available, how do you rank all of the receivers? — Elmer L., Bangor, Maine
Based on strength-of-schedule tiebreakers, the Browns, who hold the No. 13 pick, would have picked 10th if they lost the season finale to the Bengals. That said, the effort and execution in that final game was commendable and something the team believes it can build upon going into 2022.
"It is all about having something to play for, and I think there was something to play for and multiple things to play for today," Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said after the game. "I think the guys understood that. To see them fight for each other and with each other one last time, I think that tells you a lot about our guys."
As for your second question — and a number of other questions in our Mailbag — I guess it's officially draft season.
The best I can do for you at this point is lay out what some of the experts are saying about the top wide receivers at the moment. I'll have a more developed opinion about the players as the draft process unfolds. That said, the significant injuries suffered by Alabama's top two wide receivers, John Metchie III and Jameson Williams, only makes things trickier to evaluate. Williams, in particular, could have been the top-selected wide receiver. Now, it's even more uncertain because of his likely needing to miss part or all of his rookie season. There are numerous examples of injured players still going as first-rounders — Titans DT Jeffery Simmons being one of the more recent — but it often comes at a spot further down than their initial projection.
CBSSports.com ranks eight WRs in their top 50 players, including three in the top 20. That includes Williams, who is ninth overall, and two playmakers from Ohio State — Garrett Wilson (7) and Chris Olave (19). In his most recent mock draft, The Athletic's Dane Brugler actually pegged Wilson as the 13th pick in the draft and the first receiver off the board, but that was before Cleveland's spot was locked at 13. He writes Wilson's body control is "special," and showed that off in plenty of ways en route to 70 catches for 1,058 yards and 12 touchdowns. Olave, meanwhile, is a "smooth athlete," Brugler writes, and was ultra productive during his four seasons with the Buckeyes. He finished right behind Wilson this past season with 65 catches, 936 yards and 13 touchdowns and left Ohio State with the team record for most career touchdown receptions (35).
Wilson is the only wide receiver Brugler has going in the top half of the first round, but he includes Olave, Williams and two others — USC's Drake London and Arkansas' Treylon Burkes — in the bottom half. If that's the position Cleveland wants to target in the first round, there's truly no shortage of options.
What are your thoughts on the Browns going after WR Mike Williams and/or WR Christian Kirk? Jordan Davis looks & plays like a beast! Any thoughts on this? What WRs might be available in Round 2 if one or both FAs above are not attainable? — Philip H., Saint Clairsville
Since you crammed in a bunch of questions here, I'm gonna knock these out with some bullet points.
For Williams and Kirk, it's VERY early to discuss whether or not they'll be available by the time March rolls around. Williams, in particular, is coming off the best season of his career — 76 catches, 1,146 yards, nine TDs — and appears to be one of Justin Herbert's favorite targets. Kirk could be one of the top slot WRs available in free agency if he doesn't re-sign with Arizona.
I'm sure we'll be talking plenty about potential DT targets in the first round over the next few months, and Davis is certainly one of the largest and among those pegged for the top half of the first round. Davis is CBSSports.com's highest-ranked defensive tackle and Brugler projects him to be a mid-first round pick. It will come down to scheme fit for a player of Davis' size (6-6, 340).
Some players currently projected as second-rounders by the experts: Jahan Dotson (Penn State), David Bell (Purdue), George Perkins (Georgia) and Justyn Ross (Clemson). Of note, Dotson and Bell both caught more than 90 passes while Perkins missed most of the 2021 season with a torn ACL before returning to help Georgia win a national championship.
What are some observations of the Browns' development as a team through the 2021 season of adversity due to Covid 19 and a multitude of players giving their all when their name was called? — Rob M., Fairmont, West Virginia
This is a good question that allows me to inject some optimism into the discussion as we enter the second half of January. My focus is going to be on the defense and, in particular, the secondary, which underwent a pretty significant overhaul during the offseason and played at a pretty high level for the majority of 2021.
There were some early bumps in the road, sure. Week 1 in Kansas City and Week 5 in Los Angeles weren't great, but the Browns secondary played at a pretty high level throughout most of the second half of the year despite a rash of injuries and other absences that largely prevented it from playing at full strength. Cleveland's trio of outside CBs — Denzel Ward, Greg Newsome II and Greedy Williams — were tough covers while the safeties — led by John Johnson III and Grant Delpit down the stretch — gave defensive coordinator Joe Woods the kind of playmaking secondary he envisioned when he joined the team in 2020. The development of a player like M.J. Stewart, who began his professional career as a cornerback before transitioning to safety, should give Browns fans plenty of encouragement about this team having players ready and waiting to fill big roles when their name is called.
As a result, the Browns finished fifth in the league in pass defense, which was good for 17 spots better than last year and was the club's highest finish since 2011.