Browns Chief Strategy Officer Paul DePodesta believes the Browns aren't far from returning to a playoff-caliber level.
The expectation for 2021, of course, was to be at that level and go even farther into the playoffs than 2020, when the Browns snapped an 18-year playoff drought and advanced to the AFC Divisional Round for the first time since 1994. The Browns thought they were well-equipped for another playoff run but instead went 8-9 in 2021, leaving several questions about what Cleveland needs to prioritize this offseason to get back to the playoffs next season.
DePodesta, now in his sixth season with the Browns, will be exploring solutions alongside Executive Vice President and GM Andrew Berry and coach Kevin Stefanski in the coming months. The Browns have several areas of the roster to address, but DePodesta believes the Browns just need a few quality moves to be back on track.
"There are definitely some clear things we need to correct, and we feel like we can (do that) going into next year," DePodesta said Friday in an interview on Cleveland Browns Daily. "Ideally, we want to be a top-10 unit on both sides of the ball, special teams included, and we think that's within our grasp. We're just frustrated that we have to wait eight months before we get to play again and, hopefully, prove it."
The Browns were a top-10 team in only one of those areas in 2021: defense. Cleveland finished fifth in the league by allowing only 311.5 total yards per game and finished fifth in pass defense and 12th in run defense. The group gradually improved as the season progressed and was exceptionally good in the last seven games when it never allowed more than 30 points.
With many of the top playmakers — Myles Garrett, Denzel Ward, Greg Newsome II, John Johnson III, among others — set to return, DePodesta said the Browns feel they're in a position to repeat that success next season.
"I think we're in better shape than we were a year ago or even a year before that in terms of all the returning guys in key spots," DePodesta said. "All of those guys coming back puts us in a good spot."
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The Browns will be in an even better spot if they can elevate their offense, which will undoubtedly be among their biggest offseason tasks and will generate much of the speculation around the Browns' free agency and draft moves. The Browns were 14th in the league with 25.5 points per game in 2020 and regressed to 20th and averaged 20.5 points per game in 2021.
Cleveland could explore upgrades at several positions, but DePodesta said the Browns still feel strong about their core of playmakers and will attempt to expand the list of talented playmakers even further.
"We want to be able to have an offense that's flexible on any given week and against any given defense," he said. "In 2020, I thought we were able to execute that at a high level. Unfortunately, it wasn't as high of a level in 2021, but I think we're still confident in that mindset with our personnel going forward.
"Last year, you could sit there and say, 'OK, we're in the red zone or it's second-and-5, so pick your poison. Are you going to try and stop Nick Chubb? Are you going to try and stop Kareem? Jarvis Landry? (Austin) Hooper? David Njoku? There are lots of targets we can go to in those situations, and I think that's probably the way we're going to continue to build it out."
The Browns will be doing their homework to find improvements for every position, regardless of immediate need. That's just how normal procedures go in NFL front offices, but the Browns will also be taking a hard look at the other playoff teams around the league to see what they did with their roster and replicate some of their plans that worked well.
DePodesta, though, believes the Browns already have many of the top pieces in order. Only a few transactions are needed for the Browns to re-establish themselves as a playoff team, and the expectation has already been set for next season that, around this time next year, the Browns will still be preparing for another football game rather than completing offseason evaluations.
"We don't just look at ourselves," DePodesta said. "We're constantly looking at what we could consider to be the top 10 teams … and stacking ourselves up against those different units and saying 'that's where we want to be.' That's where we think we need to be in order to still be playing this time of year, so that is our standard."