The 2017 NFL season is an unusually crucial one for the Cleveland Browns. Though it's just the second year of a painfully overdue rebuild, last year's 1-15 campaign created an added urgency for the team to show some sort of progress on its blueprint for the future. It might take a full excavation for the Browns to eventually dig themselves out of the Ohio-sized hole that they've been knee-deep in what feels like a century, but in 2017, there's at least a few glimmers of optimism.
Young, talented draft picks dot the roster. The offensive line should be one of the best in all the NFL. David Njoku looks like a marble statue of some ancient deity. But with training camp less than a week away, the importance of the 2017 season in regards to the Browns future cannot be understated. So who are the most important players on the Browns? Whose performance will help steer the team to greener, lesser depressing pastures? Whose failure to live up to potential will doom the Browns to another year of purgatory? Here are the 10 most important players on the 2017 Browns, ranked for your enjoyment.
10. Duke Johnson
Though he's been in the NFL for just two short seasons, Duke Johnson's career arc is already starting to feel a lot like that of Tavon Austin's, where the head coach comes out every week and says "we need to find a way to get the ball into his hands more often" and then never actually does it.
After carrying the ball 103 times as a rookie, Johnson's touches plummeted under Hue Jackson in 2016, rushing just 73 times despite averaging 5 yards per carry. Ditto for his receptions out of the backfield, which dipped from 61 to 53, despite Johnson averaging 9.7 yards per catch, up from 8.8 as a rookie.
Johnson is a weapon that continues to be criminally underutilized. One of Jackson's biggest challenges this season will be figuring out how to make Johnson a focal point of the offense without abandoning his overall offensive philosophy. On a team still lacking explosion on the offensive side of the ball, there's no longer an excuse to give Johnson the cold shoulder.
9. Joe Haden
For the past three seasons, Joe Haden has been a man living off reputation. The Browns 2010 first round pick was especially dismal last season, earning a 56.3 grade from Pro Football Focus, a far cry from the career-high 87.8 grade he earned as a rookie. Haden missed the most tackles of his career (10) last season, and gave up 1.48 yards per snap, 12th-worst in all the NFL. Without much proven talent in the rest of the Browns secondary, the team can't afford their former shut-down corner to continue to be below average. Haden is finally healthy (for now) heading in to training camp, and how well he plays will be a big indicator of how the Browns secondary performs.
8. Jabrill Peppers
One of the more fascinating storylines of the Browns 2017 season is how new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams uses first-round draft pick Jabrill Peppers. Peppers' versatility at Michigan has been widely covered, as the New Jersey native played safety, linebacker and cornerback during his time as a Wolverine. Peppers' is especially effective coming up to stop the run, and immediately becomes one of the surest tacklers on defense. Peppers' size will continue to hound him, but if Williams can get creative and put Peppers in positions where he feels comfortable, the Michigan Man has a chance to thrive.
7. Christian Kirksey
Sometimes it feels like there's a disconnect when we discuss Christian Kirksey. The Browns inside linebacker had by far his best season in 2016, ranking first in run stops amongst all inside backers and growing mightily as a successful pass rusher when he was charged with getting after the quarterback. And yet, for all the accolades placed at Kirksey's feet, it still feels like there's something missing. The Browns defense remained a trainwreck despite Kirksey's play last season, though this is by no means to lay that responsibility solely at his doorstep. Still, for the Browns defensive unit to become the best version of itself, Kirksey will need to reach another level. His career arc suggests he has it in him.
6. Jamie Collins
Acquiring Jaime Collins from the New England Patriots last season while giving up minimal assets, then re-signing Collins to a long-term deal this offseason, was a coup for the Browns. Collins can do everything, from stopping the run to rushing the passer to covering tight ends and running backs out of the backfield. After being thrown into the fire in the middle of the season last year, Collins will have a full training camp to learn Gregg Williams' defensive scheme ahead of 2017. Whether Collins' reserved personality will clash with Williams' tornado of intensity remains to be seen, but Collins is by far the most talented defender the Browns have had in quite some time.
5. David Njoku
The Browns are placing a great amount of faith in David Njoku, the Miami tight end that also happens to strongly resemble a Greek god. After selecting the 6-foot-4, 246 pound pass catcher, the Browns elected to straight up release Gary Barnidge, just two seasons removed from hauling in 79 balls for 1,043 yards and nine touchdowns. Barnidge fell off hard in 2016, but still, that's a lot to place on a rookie's shoulders, no matter how massive they are. Njoku certainly looks the part (he was already labeled a "freak" during rookie mini camp), and how quickly he adjusts to the NFL game will be a huge indicator of how big of a step forward the Browns offense can take in 2017.
4. Corey Coleman
We caught a brief glimpse of what Corey Coleman could be during Week 2 of the 2016 NFL season, when he went for 104 yards and two touchdowns while showing off the speed and shiftiness that intrigued Hue Jackson and company in the 2016 draft. Then Coleman broke his hand in practice, and when he finally returned to the field, he looked like just another average wide receiver.
The 2017 season is an enormous one for Coleman. If he sleepwalks through it again, he probably won't be a Brown for very much longer. He's put in the work this offseason, only to go down with some sort of hamstring injury in OTAs. Coleman is the Browns most talented receiver. Whether he plays like it, and can avoid becoming another high draft pick selected by Cleveland only to flame out, is one of the most crucial storylines for the Browns in 2017.
3. JC Tretter/Kevin Zeitler
The Browns biggest offseason signings came in the form of two gigantic men. Former Green Bay Packers center JC Tretter and Cincinnati Bengals guard Kevin Zeitler were two of the best offensive linemen on the free agency market, and the Browns made it a priority to swoop in and lock them up. With Joel Bitonio returning from injury and Joe Thomas still playing at a Hall of Fame level, the Browns offensive line looks like one of the best in the NFL. All that's left to do is live up to the hype.
2. Myles Garrett
In the run-up to the 2017 NFL Draft, rumors flew like so many ninja stars about what the Browns were going to do with the no. 1 overall pick. Despite the presence of what many felt was a generational pass rusher ripe for the picking, the Browns seemed to have their eyes elsewhere. Would they take Mitch Trubisky instead? Would they trade out of the pick to fatten their ever-growing draft capital? No one seemed to actually know what the Browns were going to do until they did it. And fortunately, they stayed at no. 1 and took Myles Garrett.
Garrett certainly has his flaws. But for a team that has never really had a truly terrifying playmaker on defense, adding Garrett was a necessity. His mere presence on the defensive line transforms the Browns front into something teams actually need to scheme against. There will be an inordinate amount of pressure of Garrett to perform, and there's the chance he won't ever reach his potential. But if he does? If he becomes JJ Watt and unleashes hell on the quarterback for the next five seasons? Well, then you can say this is where the Browns true rebuild finally began.
1. DeShone Kizer
Out of the entire crop of quarterbacks that threw their name into the 2017 NFL Draft, DeShone Kizer was by far the most polarizing. He began the draft process as the top quarterback of group, before questions about his personality and contribution to Notre Dame's poor record pummeled him down draft boards.
Unafraid, the Browns nabbed Kizer with the 52 overall pick. That's incredible value, especially because Kizer already possesses some of the most important traits that a quarterback needs to thrive at the NFL level. His footwork is pristine. His poise under pressure is well beyond his years. His throwing mechanics that led to his inconsistencies in college need work, and that's what Hue Jackson is for. But if Kizer can put it all together, he has a legitimate opportunity to be really, really good.
In an ideal world, Kizer comes out in training camp and looks worlds better than Cody Kessler and Brock Osweiler, forcing Jackson to name him the starter, a la Russell Wilson. He then shows enough ability to allow the Browns to avoid drafting another quarterback in 2018 and finally move forward in building their team with the most important position on the roster secured. Things rarely come together with a bow like that in Cleveland, but Kizer genuinely has a chance to bulldoze the ever-spinning Browns quarterback carousel for good.