INDIANAPOLIS — While Cleveland Browns players take their time off this offseason, the work of general manager Andrew Berry, head coach Kevin Stefanski and the rest of the front office and coaching staff ramps up as they prepare for the upcoming season. While the workload increases, their focus remains the same, and the immediate needs of the Browns are not sending them into the same ongoing panic expressed by many Browns fans who were disappointed in last season.
Berry and company are remaining steadfast in their approach heading into this offseason, and as they scout prospective talent at the NFL Combine in preparation for the 2022 NFL Draft, reiterating the plans laid out at the end of the season. But what do those plans look like?
Baker Mayfield is entering the final year of his contract, and an extension is nowhere near promised, so questions about his future are warranted. But while the Browns have kept the same mentality about all positions and are open to exploring upgrades of all kinds, they have also remained adamant that Mayfield has their full confidence to be the starting quarterback in 2022.
Mayfield tore his labrum in his left, non-throwing shoulder in the second week of the season in the game against the Texans. He played through the injury, and the Browns won their next two games and were a score away from winning the third, and then the injury was made drastically worse in Week 6 against the Cardinals. After the injuries, Mayfield's accuracy declined severely, his decision-making seemed the worst of his career and his mechanics suffered tremendously.
There were many issues Mayfield displayed that were directly correlated with the shoulder injury, and others that seemed more mental. But the impact the injury had, despite being cleared to play week in and week out, is something that the Browns are aware of and are taking into account when determining his future.
“I think the reality is that we have seen him play at a high level before. Being realistic, the injury does have some impact on his performance. We are focused on him getting healthy," Berry said Tuesday at the NFL Combine. "We know how he works. We think he's talented. We've seen him play at a playoff-caliber level before, and I don't think there's any reason to think he can’t rebound to that level next year.”
Mayfield had surgery on his shoulder in January and is now rehabbing through the offseason. The team said that Mayfield is progressing well through his rehab and that they're confident in not only his recovery but with him as the team's starting quarterback this season.
"I think you guys know how hard he works. He has worked his tail off since the surgery. He's right on track," Berry said. "It's the first time he has ever had surgery in his entire career. He has worked really hard, and we feel good about his progress.”
After speaking with Mayfield numerous times since the end of the 2021 season and since his surgery, Berry and the Browns are in a good place. But just because the Browns are confident in Mayfield as their starting quarterback this upcoming season doesn't mean the position won't be scouted and evaluated this offseason.
“No, that is a position that we always do significant work on," Berry said. It just doesn't matter who's on the roster. To me – maybe we are a little bit different in this regard – just like we would not stop doing research on offensive linemen, defensive linemen, receivers or corners, I don't think there is any reason not to make sure that you have all of your ducks in a row at that position.”
The difference between the Browns and other teams with questions in quarterback is in how they speak about their current quarterback. Take the Colts, for example. The team has similar questions about Carson Wentz that Browns fans have about Mayfield. The difference to note is how each franchise talks about their respective quarterback.
While Berry continues to reiterate "full confidence" in Mayfield as the starting quarterback this season, Colts general manager Chris Ballard said of Wentz, "I don't have a direct answer for you. We're working through it. Jim -- Mr. Irsay -- Frank and I will sit down over the next 10 days and figure out where it's going. Ultimately, we'll do what's best for the team, for the Colts, both in the short term and in the long term."
Teams like the Colts seem to have true uncertainty about their quarterback situation whereas the Browns are ready to let it ride with Mayfield and see what he can do with one more, hopefully fully healthy, season.
Wide receiver wishlist
It's no secret that the Browns are in need of receivers after the way last season played out. With Rashard Higgins likely gone, and the future of Jarvis Landry very uncertain, the Browns are running thin at the position. But, like Berry has stressed in the past, they are evaluating not out of panic, but out of overall improvement from an organizational standpoint.
That means Berry isn't going to push, push, push to draft a wide receiver with their first draft selection. Could he? Sure, and they could use the talent. But if the players available don't make sense, they won't draft the position just to do it. That mindset applies to the defensive line as well, which is a position that has seen turnover this offseason.
"We really do look at it like it's an expansion team, and if we have opportunities to match resources with talent, we do want to continue to add talent to the roster. That applies to every position," Berry said. “I would not necessarily say that they [WR and DL] are a top priority. Obviously, we have to get more players under contract in both of those spots, needless to say. Ultimately, we are going to prioritize opportunity. There are a number of ways to assemble a team or construct the roster that ultimately allows you to reach your goal of winning games. We will take the next couple of weeks, and like I said, try and map our resources for opportunities.”
So, despite the uncertainty of the wide receivers room entering this season, Berry and the Browns are not allowing themselves to hold a singular focus and miss out on a better player because of it.
With that being said, the Browns have plenty of options when looking at possibly selecting a receiver with their first draft pick this year. Many eyes in Northeast Ohio are glued to Buckeyes standout receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, both entering the league this year. And for good reason. At the combine, Olave impressed with a jaw-dropping 4.39 40-yard dash and his innate ability to catch nearly everything thrown his way. Meanwhile, Wilson showed off his speed with a 4.38 40-yard dash time and set himself as one of the top receivers in the draft.
Berry did give the Buckeyes some love when asked about the two receivers but wouldn't show his hand when it came to how much value he'd put into the idea of drafting Olave or Wilson.
“It is always good to see Buckeyes playing at a high level and producing well. Those guys are very talented prospects. We obviously have a lot of pride with our college in Columbus," Berry said. There are a number of talented players across all positions, and we are looking forward to getting to know them a little better over the next several days.”
In terms of the attributes the team is looking for when scouting a receiver, well, Berry didn't give too much away there either, and if you hadn't noticed a pattern, the Browns are very insistent on entering every decision well-informed but with an open mind.
“I actually think receivers can come in all shapes and sizes – some top players, whether it is like DeAndre Hopkins, he's a strong guy who is really good in contested spaces; Deebo Samuel, who is really like a run-after-catch receiver; you have Justin Jefferson, who is one of the top route runners in the league; or you may have a burner on the perimeter who is a deep-ball threat. I think there are a number of different specialties, so to speak, that you can have in that room. I don't really think there's a one size fits all," Berry said.
Stefanski echoed those same sentiments when asked about the ideal body type for a Browns receiver.
"It all depends. I think you can see when you look across the league and you see big guys making plays and little guys making plays. You see receiving corps that have a bunch of big guys and you see some smaller guys. I do not think we are locked into any specific type. Certainly, we have some parameters that help us in our evaluation, but ultimately, we are just looking for good football players,” Stefanski said on Wednesday.
The Browns will also explore the free agent and trade market for a wide receiver and with options including Amari Cooper, Chris Godwin, Cole Beasley and Andy Isabella, among others. What happens in those markets may inevitably have an impact on the way the Browns enter the draft but won't dictate it entirely, Berry said.
“I think it would be disingenuous to say that free agency does not have some interplay with the draft, but I would not say it would be the primary driver in terms of what we really want to do with our draft picks," Berry said.
While a few changes have been made this offseason in terms of the coaching staff and their responsibilities, most things have stayed the same.
Among the changes is giving the team a true quarterbacks coach once again, taking a bit off Alex Van Pelt's plate by handing over those duties to tight ends coach Drew Petzing and moving T.C. McCartney to tight ends coach. Additionally, Chief of Staff Callie Brownson is adding assistant wide receivers coach to her responsibilities while several other coaches have earned new roles with the team.
RELATED: Browns assign Drew Petzing to be QBs coach, reposition several other coaches
The Browns decided to make those decisions to better suit the needs of the team as a whole while also helping their staff grow.
“Certainly, all of those decisions are in the best interest of the Browns. I do think ultimately it's good for his growth. Similarly, T.C. McCartney coaching tight ends is great for his growth. I broke in coaching tight ends. I think that's a really important spot for a young coach," Stefanski said on Wednesday. “Really for us, it was what is the right mix of coaches in what rooms where we can maximize the voices for each coach. Certainly, Drew has been in the quarterbacks room before so I think he, along with AVP, can really work well with all of those quarterbacks in terms of development, but AVP is still the main dominate voice in that room because that is kind of where his area of expertise is. Coupling AVP and Drew together can really work well together.”
Stefanski said that while some things are being shifted in terms of coaching duties, one thing will continue as it has—play calling will be conducted by him.
“I will still call the plays. Like I've told you guys many, many times. AVP is a huge, huge part of what we do throughout the week and on game day. We have ideas of how we can do that better. That's something that we have really spent time on, making sure we have everybody’s voice and everybody has a way on gam eday to contribute, if you will, and AVP is a huge part of that," Stefanski said.
The way the Browns address play calling has been a point of contention for some fans, especially in the Browns' rough patches, but Stefanski and the organization have always been pretty clear about the process. The decisions made in both the game planning each week and during each game are very much a collaborative effort between Stefanski, Van Pelt and the rest of the staff. While they make not take the exact same approach in terms of play calling this season in an attempt to improve, the collaboration and person running point will not be altered.
“Every offseason, I want to make sure that I am intentional about reflecting on everything we do. That is part of our operation and part of our process, and I think we can do it better," Stefanski said.
Berry explained why the continuity of the coaching staff, amid the recent small tweaks, is so important to the organization.
“Continuity is always a good thing because it is probably no different than a marriage where with each passing year or in some cases with each passing decade you just have a little bit more familiarity, and that is not too different as you try to marry a front office with the coaching staff as we go through some of the different significant points throughout the offseason where you just kind of know what to expect, you know how to work together, you know how to solve problems and ultimately, you know how to execute together upon a plan in season or during the offseason," Berry said. "That level of comfort and that level of familiarity is certainly a plus and a bonus for us, and we are looking forward to entering our third offseason cycle together.”
As of this point, the Browns are approaching the 2022 season with the same even-keeled demeanor that they have had since this new organizational era began two years ago. And while there are some obvious and necessary adjustments to be made this season to prevent last year's results from repeating, not panicking when making decisions in regards to adjustments is important—and it's one of the Browns' most promising traits as they look to get back to their winning ways in their next season under Berry and Stefanski.
Camryn Justice is a digital content producer at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.
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