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 goes 7-10 in last place in the AFC North in 2022. Cleveland has no first-round picks in this year’s 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 the No. 42 pick 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 new roles to six assistants from last season for 2023. All of these changes reflect the urgency of the 2023 era.
“Sometimes change can be good,” Stefanski told reporters at the NFL combine in Indianapolis. “It makes you rethink some of the things we do.”
Berry realizes this more than anyone.
“Kevin is the driver of the coaching staff,” Berry said of Stefanski’s staff overhaul. “That doesn’t mean we don’t have conversations or that there isn’t a level of advice. 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 2020. Both are well aware of the urgency of winning that awaits them in the 2023 season.
“I feel an urgency every year,” Berry said. “We all feel like we have an incredible responsibility to the organization and the city to put a good team on the field. If you don’t feel urgency or excitement, you’re in the wrong role.”
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 goes,” Berry said. “We go into every offseason like 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 affects many other roster decisions.
“The reality is that when you have an expensive quarterback, you have a different set of limitations in terms of building the roster,” Berry said. “So that might 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’ receiver, an arrangement that has caused a lot of controversy in Cleveland among a segment of Browns fans who haven’t always been thrilled with the project’s plays. the caller has been calling for the past three years.
During Wednesday’s meeting with reporters, Stefanski said he will continue to handle playing duties. Asked why he thought it 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 is the right thing”.
More immediately, the Browns will have to address their two biggest needs for the upcoming 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 more scrutinized than ever, boosted, as it likely will be, by a full season of Watson at quarterback. Last year, in his first return to action in nearly two years, Watson looked like a quarterback who hadn’t played in nearly two years.
The Browns split the six games Watson started at the end of the year. The opportunity to call plays for Watson for an entire season is exciting for Stefanski, and how well and quickly Watson can return to being an elite NFL quarterback will go a long way in determining what kind of season the Browns will have.
“We’re very excited about Deshaun,” Berry said. “We look forward to seeing him continue to develop the offense over the coming months. For him, having a full offseason until 2023, we expect him to play at a high level.”