Browns expecting big things with Deshaun Watson on field from start after suspension-altered season

Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson throws during the first half of an NFL preseason football game against the Kansas City Chiefs Saturday, Aug. 26, 2023, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)


EXPECTATIONS: Everything hinges on QB Deshaun Watson, who begins his first full on-field season with Cleveland after serving an 11-game NFL suspension in 2022 following accusations by more than two dozen women of sexual harassment when he played in Houston. Watson looked rusty in six games following a long layoff, but the Browns believe their investment — three first-round draft picks and a $230 million contract — will pay off. The pressure is on coach Kevin Stefanski, now in his fourth year, to design an offense that complements Watson’s unique skillset. The defense has been rebuilt and handed to new coordinator Jim Schwartz, whose scheme helped Philadelphia win a Super Bowl and should allow All-Pro end Myles Garrett to thrive. There’s no doubt that Cleveland’s got the talent to compete in the AFC. For the Browns, it’s usually something else that derails them.

NEW FACES: WR Elijah Moore, DE Za’Darius Smith, S Juan Thornhill, DT Dalvin Tomlinson, DT Shelby Harris, Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz, K Dustin Hopkins, TE Jordan Akins, DE Ogbo Okoronkwo, S Rodney McLeod, CB Mike Ford, DT Maurice Hurst.

KEY LOSSES: QB Jacoby Brissett, DE Jadeveon Clowney, K Cade York, S John Johnson, RB Kareem Hunt, S Ronnie Harrison, T Chris Hubbard, RB D’Ernest Johnson, DE Chase Winovich, DT Perrion Winfrey.

STRENGTHS: Nick Chubb. The offense will run through Watson, but it’s hitched to Chubb, one of the NFL’s best running backs who could be poised for another big season after rushing for a career-best 1,525 yards in 2022. The Browns have been careful not to wear out the 27-year-old, who may also benefit by having a mobile QB with him since defenses won’t be able to key on him as much. Cleveland could also have some new wrinkles in its running game (see Philadelphia) with Watson. Chubb is also running behind one of the league’s top lines, led by All-Pro left guard Joel Bitonio.

WEAKNESSES: Linebacker. Injuries decimated this group last season, and so did opposing offensive lines. The Browns’ issues in stopping the run can be partly attributed to having undersized LBs ill equipped to step in the hole and make a tackle. Anthony Walker Jr.’s return is vital as his leadership was sorely missed in ’22. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah needs to stay healthy and make a jump after being limited by injuries a year ago.

CAMP DEVELOPMENT: Schwartz likes his defense to play aggressively, and Cleveland’s was flying around all summer. The most noticeable differences from last season are the D-line’s speed and ability to push the pocket deeper, and a secondary that seems much better connected.

Kicker Cade York’s continued struggles throughout the exhibition season forced the Browns to trade for veteran Dustin Hopkins, who spent the past two seasons with the Chargers.

FANTASY PLAYER TO WATCH: Moore has the skillset — quick, elusive — that Cleveland’s offense was missing and he seems to be an ideal target for Watson. The Browns will lean on their running game, but Moore gives them an underneath option who could turn short throws into big gains.

FANDUEL SPORTSBOOK SAYS: Win Super Bowl: Plus-3,000. Over/under wins: 9 1/2.


AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl