ABOUT RASHARD HIGGINS
Confession time: This is not a cold-eyed, objective column about Rashard Higgins.
Many readers know the wide receiver has been one of my favorite Browns since he was a fifth-round draft pick in 2016. This is not an attempt to turn Higgins into the second coming of Paul Warfield or Jarvis Landry. But it is to say Higgins is productive when given regular playing time.
The perception of Higgins is that of a possession receiver, and that’s true. You throw the ball to him, he catches it. As he told me in 2016 after being drafted, “I’m a catch-the-ball type of receiver.”
He’s not supposed to be a big-play guy. But he’s also averaged 16.2 yards per reception. That’s higher than Odell Beckham Jr. (13.9) and Landry (11.7). That’s because Baker Mayfield likes to throw medium and deep passes to the receiver he’s known the longest and best.
Talking to some NFL sources, I heard the scouting report on Higgins dwells on his lack of speed and athleticism. They believe he is a product of the Browns’ system, especially his chemistry with Mayfield. He’s not the No. 1 receiver, so he seldom deals with double- or triple-coverage.
Most fans in Cleveland know the decline of Higgins in 2019 was due to a personality clash with former coach Freddie Kitchens. Higgins caught only four passes. He also dealt with a knee injury.
In 2018, he had 39 catches (27 for first downs, 4 TDs).
In 2020, he 37 catches (26 for first downs, 4 TDs).
“The feeling around the league is the numbers are nice, but nothing special,” said one source. “You can find a lot of guys like Higgins without spending much money.”
General manager Andrew Berry values Higgins. Berry was part of the front office that drafted Higgins out of Colorado State, where he was the school’s all-time leading receiver. When Berry returned to run the Browns in 2020, he re-signed Higgins after the disastrous 2019 season to a $1 million veteran minimum contract.
In March, Berry read the market, knowing Higgins would be ignored by most teams – as has been the case for nearly all of his career. Coming out of high school, Colorado State was his only Division I scholarship offer. The Browns signed Higgins to a $2.37 million deal. He had offers from other teams (probably in the same price range), but wisely stayed where he has been productive and appreciated.
Here is my favorite stat on Higgins: He was 37-of-38 in “catchable passes,” according to Football Outsiders. You can count on him.
He’s a player with the nickname “Hollywood,” but his style is pure Cleveland.
ABOUT THE BROWNS DEFENSE
ESPN’s Mike Clay wrote: “They were a contender in 2020, but keep in mind that of the 14 playoff teams, they were the only one with a negative scoring margin (minus-11). In order to avoid a crash back to irrelevance in 2021, there was work to do on the defensive side of the ball. … Mission accomplished. Star safety John Johnson III is a game-changer of an acquisition; Troy Hill upgrades the corner spot opposite Denzel Ward; Malik Jackson adds quality depth at defensive tackle; DE Takkarist McKinley helps replace Olivier Vernon; and Malcolm Smith and Anthony Walker improve the team’s shaky linebacker corps. Already loaded on offense, Cleveland now arguably has a top-10 defense.”
Let’s think about this as I relay what I found on the profootballreference site:
1. The Browns ranked 17th out of 32 teams in yards allowed. This means little to me.
2. More important is points allowed. The Browns were 21st at 26.2 per game. That’s better than I thought.
3. The Browns ranked No. 9 vs. the run. That is significant. Most fans remember how opposing teams have run roughshod in the past.
4. They ranked No. 9 in fewest tackles missed. That helps explain why the run defense improved.
5. They ranked 16th in sacks — middle of the pack.
6. They were 24th in “pressuring the QB.” This stat is a combination of sacks, QB knockdowns, passes batted down, hurries and QB hits. This is a major stat, showing they didn’t put that much pressure on the QB.
7. The Browns ranked 31st in QB knockdowns after the throw. Another indication of a lack of a consistent pass rush.
8. They were 10th worst in preventing third-down conversions to first downs. On fourth down, they were the second-worst.
9. They were 19th in red zone defense, which is denying touchdowns. I thought it would be worse than that.
10. The Browns ranked 19th in forcing turnovers. I thought they were better than that.
WHAT COMES NEXT?
1. Signing safety Johnson has been praised everywhere. He can play strong or free safety. He is a team leader, the one who set the Rams’ defenses. Browns safeties allowed 12 TD passes last season, most in the NFL, according to ESPN. Johnson allowed only one for the Rams.
2. The plan is for the Browns to often use three safeties: Grant Delpit, Ronnie Harrison Jr. and Johnson. Don’t be surprised if they also draft a safety in the middle rounds. They need depth at the position with Delpit coming off Achilles surgery and Harrison missing five games with various injuries in 2020.
3. Malcolm Smith and Anthony Walker are the type of linebackers favored by defensive coordinator Joe Woods – and the modern NFL. They are quick, almost like safeties. With all the passing and the variety of spread offenses, the traditional hard-hitting linebacker has fallen out of favor.
4. The Browns are still shopping for a defensive end/pass rusher. Not sure what is happening with Jadeveon Clowney, who visited a while ago. He played only eight games because of injuries last season, had zero sacks. Some of his stats against the run are good.
5. One way to improve the pass rush is improve coverage. That explains the free-agent emphasis on the secondary and a quick linebacker. Malik Jackson could help a lot at defensive tackle. Takk McKinley has the ability to be an effective pass rusher, but we’ll see if it happens in Cleveland.
6. A top 10 defense? I doubt it. But a better defense than a year ago? That looks certain.
RECENT TERRY PLUTO COLUMNS
Tribe opening day scribbles: Good pitching, lousy hitting, Luplow leading off?
How many games will the Tribe win this season?
When it comes to Cleveland Indians worries, what are we missing?
Terry’s Talkin’ Browns: Let’s look at Andrew Berry’s moves
What do spring cuts say about the Tribe?
What happened with the Cavs & Andre Drummond?
Talking to myself about Jake Bauers, Bobby Bradley & The Tribe
Is Bradley Zimmer the best option in center field?
Terry’s Talkin’ Browns: Andrew Berry’s Defensive Makeover
New Browns face masks for sale: Here’s where you can buy Cleveland Browns-themed face coverings for coronavirus protection for adults and youth, including a single mask ($14.99) and a 3-pack ($24.99). All NFL proceeds donated to CDC Foundation.