Our 2019 NFL Preview continues through the AFC North with arguably the most talked-about team in the league, the Cleveland Browns. After nearly two decades of mediocrity, there are a plethora of seriously positive vibes coming out of Cleveland, and it’s all due to a headline-grabbing Offseason that has come off the heels of an encouraging 7-8-1 campaign. Last Year’s No. One Overall Pick, Baker Mayfield, looks poised to take the league by storm, surrounded by playmakers, chief among them Odell Beckham Jr., who was acquired via Trade with the New York Giants. So with an augmented roster (not mention a wealth of swagger and attitude), are the Browns going to live up to all the hype? Are they ready to put years of ineptitude behind them? Let’s take a look at the key factors that will likely shape their fortunes moving forward in 2019…
With the No. One Overall Pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, the Browns indeed hit the jackpot when they selected Baker Mayfield (63.8%, 3,725 YDS, 6.95 NY/A, 25 TD, 14 INT, 55.7 QBR) out of Oklahoma, with the reigning Heisman Quarterback making an immediate impact on the club the moment he became Starter in Week Three. Outspoken and unabashed, the 24-Year Old quickly quelled any doubts that the critics may have had over his stature in the pocket, taking firm control of Cleveland’s Offense despite an early shakeup in the Coaching Staff. Truth be told, the combined dismissal of both Head Coach, Hue Jackson, and Offensive Coordinator, Todd Haley, was the best thing that could have happened to the Rookie Quarterback, who over the second half of the season completed an efficient 68.4% of his Attempts for an average of 281.8 Yards per Game on 8.41 Net Yards per Attempt, with Nineteen Touchdowns in comparison to Eight Interceptions. That was in stark contrast to the work that he put in under the warring factions of Jackson and Haley, which ultimately proved to be deciding factor in General Manager, John Dorsey, promoting Freddie Kitchens (more on him in a bit), from Quarterbacks Coach to Offensive Coordinator to Head Coach. Now armed with a greater Supporting Cast and benefitting from the consistency in playcalling provided by Kitchens, there is plenty of reason to believe that Mayfield will indeed erupt in 2019.
The Hype Train
As we stated earlier, the Browns have become arguably the most hyped team in the league, and if it feels like it happened overnight, then we wouldn’t blame you. Once the longstanding laughingstock of the NFL, Cleveland has completely transformed themselves, with the aforementioned Dorsey using every avenue at his disposal. In the Draft, they’ve hit a series of home runs taking Myles Garrett (44 TKL, 12 TFL, 29 QBH, 13.5 SK, 3 FF, 3 PD) No. One Overall two years ago, while selecting the aforementioned Mayfield along with Denzel Ward (53 TKL, 5 TFL, 1 FF, 2 FR, 3 INT, 11 PD) in the First Round in 2018. Free Agency netted them Jarvis Landry (81 REC, 976 YDS, 12.0 Y/R, 4 TD) a year ago, while the likes of Olivier Vernon (30 TKL, 5 TFL, 21 QBH, 7.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 FR, 1 PD) and Kareem Hunt (181 CAR, 828 YDS, 4.6 Y/C, 7 TD) were added via trade this past Spring. However, by far and away the most groundbreaking transaction was that of Odell Beckham Jr. (77 REC, 1,052 YDS, 13.7 Y/R, 6 TD), who was dealt from the Giants for a slew of Draft Picks. The three-time Pro Bowl Receiver eventually wore out his welcome after five extremely productive years in the Big Apple, making waves with a blockbuster move made just a year after signing five-year, $90 Million Contract Extension with $65 Million in total guarantees. However, there is a built-in way out of the deal after this season, meaning that the 26-Year Old will likely be all the more motivated to turn heads once again. After performing within a waning Offense shackled by declining Quarterback play and porous protection, look for Beckham to take flight in Cleveland’s attack, partnered with his friend and college teammate, Landry, and the energetic Mayfield. Get your popcorn ready, folks, for the Browns have become exponentially more interesting…
Perhaps the most understated, yet most intriguing, storyline coming out of Cleveland’s entertaining Offseason is the promotion of Freddie Kittchens, who at first glance appears to be the most unlikely of Head Coaches. Indeed, for the first time since the Franchise returned to Ohio, the Head Coach’s position appeared to be in high demand among coaching circles, thanks in large part to the ascendance of Mayfield and the steady hand of Dorsey. After interviewing a lengthy list of candidates, the veteran General Manager ultimately decided to stick with the known commodity and promote Kittchens, which was a move that shocked many around the league. Yes, many of candidates that were interviewed carried far more experience on their respective resumes, but Dorsey nonetheless chose the Offensive Coordinator who he bumped up from Quarterbacks Coach midway through the season. The results certainly warranted the move, with Mayfield and the Offense as a whole performing much better with the 44-Year Old calling plays; after the promotion, the Browns averaged 23.8 Points on 395.1 Total Yards per Game, surpassing 400 Yards of Offense in half of those contests. Add his relationship with the blossoming Mayfield to the equation and the his appointment makes all the more sense. While he’s certainly come across as a little rough around the edges, Kittchens has done a solid job of filling out his Coaching Staff; he hired former Buccaneers’ Offensive Coordinator, Todd Monken, to that same position, while reeling in former Cardinals’ Head Coach, Steve Wilks, as Defensive Coordinator. Wilks may have floundered as a Head Coach in Arizona last year, but he served as an excellent Lieutenant to Ron Rivera in Carolina from 2012 to 2017, while Monken’s Bucs ranked in the Top-10 in Total Offense in each of the last two seasons.
2019 Forecast: 10-6
If you’re looking for a team to make a major leap in 2019, the odds-on favorite are the Cleveland Browns, who after going a dismal 1-31 from 2016 to 2017, turned things around dramatically last season, narrowly missing the Playoffs with a 7-8-1 record. Granted, there is a real argument to be made that they could have been even better when you consider that much of their success happened after Hue Jackson was finally relieved of his duties, and four of their first seven games were decided in Overtime, in which the club went on to go 0-3-1 in those contests. Now, with a more harmonious Coaching Staff, a young Quarterback entering his second season surrounded by a greatly-improved Offense loaded with playmakers, and a Defense that is on the verge of taking the next step, the Browns look like a franchise that is ready to shed their embarrassing reputation and become bonafide contenders. Yes, we’re well aware that Kittchens lacks experience, and given the multitude of personalities on hand there is always a chance that this could all very well end up exploding in a bad way, but from top to bottom there are few teams in the AFC that can match their volume of talent. While Baltimore and Pittsburgh figure to provide plenty of resistance in the AFC North, the schedule doesn’t appear terribly difficult, and if Mayfield’s ascent continues, there is little reason to believe that the Browns won’t steadily improve, which will likely place them back in the Playoffs for the first time since 2002.