With offseason needs filled, Kevin Stefanski under pressure to make Browns contenders in 2023

Browns coach Kevin Stefanski has everything he should need heading into a make-or-break 2023 season. Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire

BEREA, Ohio -- By any measure, the Cleveland Browns own one of the top rosters in the NFL.

Deshaun Watson is a former passing champ. Nick Chubb has averaged more yards per carry (5.2) than any other back since he entered the NFL in 2018. In Pro Bowl guards Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller, along with surprise standout center Ethan Pocic, the interior of the offensive line is arguably the league’s most dominant. And in Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward, the defense has star power.

Like any other, the roster has question marks. But in free agency, Cleveland’s front office addressed the most glaring holes, including defensive tackle and slot receiver. As a result, the Browns now boast their best collection of talent since the Bernie Kosar heydays of the 1980s.

And so, the pressure has fallen on fourth-year head coach Kevin Stefanski to mold this talented group into a postseason participant, if not a Super Bowl contender. Anything less would constitute another major disappointment.

“We’re all optimistic going into this year,” Browns owner Jimmy Haslam -- who had never had a coach reach a fourth season in Cleveland until Stefanski -- told reporters at owner meetings. “So, I’ll just leave it that.”

In Stefanski’s debut season in 2020, the Browns stunningly surged into the playoffs, which propelled him to NFL Coach of the Year. Ever since, Cleveland has struggled, though issues at quarterback were a big reason why.

Baker Mayfield's shoulder injury torpedoed Cleveland’s season in 2021. Then, Watson's 11-game suspension for committing sexual assault, as defined by the league, on massage therapists put Cleveland’s season on the brink in 2022 before it had even begun.

In 2023, there won’t be any more excuses left -- for Stefanski or for the Browns.

Stefanski will have had a full offseason to design his offense and schemes around Watson’s skill set. And Watson will have a full offseason to hone his chemistry with Stefanski and Cleveland’s other playmakers.

“He’s going to be way more comfortable,” Stefanski told reporters during owner meetings. “Any player going into Year 2 would be much more comfortable.”

Despite his struggles last year following a 700-day layoff between playing in a regular-season game, Watson threw for 4,823 yards to lead the league in 2020. The season before that, he quarterbacked the Houston Texans to the second round of the playoffs. The Browns already made their bet on Watson’s talent when they sent three first-round picks to the Texans last offseason, even with the allegations of sexual misconduct pending against him.

“We have high expectations of Deshaun,” Haslam said. “Deshaun has high expectations of himself.”

The Browns have since bolstered the firepower around Watson this offseason, landing speedy slot receiver Elijah Moore in a trade with the New York Jets. Two years ago as a rookie, Moore finished with 43 receptions for 538 yards and five touchdowns. With starting receivers Amari Cooper and Donovan Peoples-Jones and tight end David Njoku all back, Cleveland has given Watson all the pass-catchers he needs to thrive on the field again.

Defensively, Cleveland should be much improved, as well.

The Browns hired former Super Bowl-winning defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz to help spearhead the turnaround of a unit that finished 23rd in defensive expected points added (EPA) and 20th in defensive efficiency. Then, the team signed one of the top defensive tackles on the free-agent market in 325-pound run-stuffer Dalvin Tomlinson. The Browns added to their young core elsewhere by adding up-and-coming pass rusher Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and ball-hawking safety Juan Thornhill.

“We're all thrilled with at the guys we've been able to add,” Stefanski said, “really at all levels of the defense.”

The predicament in Baltimore could also be a boost to the Browns' hopes, as the Ravens and star quarterback Lamar Jackson remain at an impasse over a contract extension. If Jackson ends up playing elsewhere next season, the Ravens will likely have to shift into a rebuild after being a perennial playoff team in recent years.

The Ravens aside, Cleveland’s schedule appears to be favorable, as well, with its upcoming opponents finishing with a .460 win percentage last season -- better than only six other teams' slates. After finishing last in the AFC North in 2022 (7-10), the Browns will face four of the six worst teams from 2022.

All of which should place the Browns on the inside of any playoff conversation heading into training camp.

“There's pressure every year,” said Haslam, when asked about the pressure to make the playoffs again this season. “You all know how hard it is to win in the NFL. We certainly do. ... I think everybody has a sense of urgency that we need to play well this year.”

Haslam still declined to place specific expectations on this season. But he also admitted that it would be “premature” to discuss a potential contract extension with Stefanski at this point.

He and the rest of the Browns brass will be closely watching Stefanski’s performance this year. This team is built to win now. Their window to contend is open now. That leaves Stefanski with one more season to show everyone that he’s the coach who can take these Browns to the place they believe they can go.