Where does your franchise stand heading into 2019? Adam Rank will set the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams over the next few weeks, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.
What a time to be alive in Cleveland! I know that I say something like this for a lot of teams. But I really do mean it for the Cleveland Browns. How great is it to back the Browns right now? Fans are already slamming the doors shut on the bandwagon. The velvet rope is out, and the bouncers are checking the list to make sure that you truly deserve to walk through the doors.
And this team won seven games last year.
But there is a good reason for the optimism. For the first time in a long-ass time, there seems to be an answer at coach and quarterback. The team was already a pick to click before acquiring one of the best receivers on the planet. There’s a lot happening right now. Let’s get started.
How the Browns got here
Let’s take a quick look at the ups and downs of 2018:
— Finally not losing a game! Yep, it was a big deal when, in Week 1 of the 2018 campaign, the Browns tied the Pittsburgh Steelers, ending a game without losing for the first time since beating the Chargers in Week 16 of 2016.
— Actually winning a game! (And kicking off BakerMania). Taking over for an injured Tyrod Taylor after Cleveland fell behind the Jets, 14-0, in Week 3, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft dazzled the home crowd (and prime-time Thursday night audience) while snapping an epic winless streak and turning a definitive page in franchise history. Oh, and free Bud Light!
— Winning five of their last seven games. It was the team’s longest sustained stretch of success since 2014 — you know, back when it made sense to see Kyle Shanahan coaching Johnny Manziel.
— Not beating the Steelers in Week 1. Pulling off the upset could have kicked things into gear sooner for a team that eventually became a semi-viable playoff threat.
— Not starting BakerMania soon enough. I can see, in theory, why it would have made sense to let Mayfield grow as a rookie while watching the veteran Taylor steer the ship. But knowing now what Mayfield was able to accomplish, it’s not hard to imagine his presence turning the tide in either Week 1 or Week 2, potentially setting Cleveland on a very different course.
Head coach: Freddie Kitchens. He kind of looks like a guy who would be typecast to play “football coach” in an ABC sitcom, or the guy you inevitably end up with when you use the “create-a-coach” feature on “Madden.” But make no mistake, it seems like the dude can coach. Through the first eight weeks of the season, the Browns were struggling under head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley, who always seemed to be at odds. They were like that bickering couple at a party who makes everybody else uncomfortable — and then, once they call it a night, the party comes alive. That was what it like when Kitchens took over the Browns‘ offense last year, stepping up as coordinator under interim head coach Gregg Williams. People were doing shots. Everyone hit the dance floor. Somebody in the wedding party ended up in a trashcan. It was like that.
With Kitchens as coordinator, the Browns averaged 395 yards per game. With Kitchens as coordinator, they averaged 6.86 yards per play. With Kitchens as coordinator, they scored 12 touchdowns on their first 12 trips inside the red zone. With Kitchens as coordinator, the offense scored 25 touchdowns. With Kitchens as coordinator — you know what, you kind of get the point now, don’t you?
It’s fair to wonder if someone whose first non-position-coach job came last year is ready to be a head coach. But the in-house promotion makes plenty of sense when you think about the chemistry he demonstrated with the most important piece of the franchise puzzle …
Quarterback: Baker Mayfield. I’m a huge believer in Baker. And it’s not like I’m jumping on the bandwagon just now. I have proof right here. Baker was the quarterback we (I) all believed he could be. He broke Peyton Manning’s record for touchdown passes as a rookie (27) despite not entering a game until Week 3. I mean — and as I say this, I should point out that I like Tyrod Taylor — Mayfield was no doubt the best quarterback in the room. Maybe he did benefit from not bearing the weight of the expectations that come with starting Week 1. The bottom line is, from Week 10 to Week 17, when the Browns went 5-2, Mayfield ranked first among quarterbacks with 200-plus attempts in yards per throw (8.86) and fourth in passer rating (108.4). That first number is a significant factor that we’ll come back to later.
Projected 2019 MVP: Baker. I mean, he’s a dark-horse candidate to be MVP of the league.
Projected 2019 defensive MVP: Myles Garrett, DE. That’s right, the Browns have a great young leader on the other side of the ball, too. The first overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft, Garrett finished last season with 13.5 sacks and expects to have even more in 2019. The Browns added defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson and defensive end Olivier Vernon this offseason to make life a little easier for Garrett. And even if he’s not freed up in one-on-one battles, he’s going to open it up for his talented teammates. The Browns‘ defense could be legit. Or, at least, it just needs to be better than what Kansas City’s D was last year, which, frankly, it already is.
2019 breakout star: Larry Ogunjobi, DT. A third-round pick by the Browns in 2017, Ogunjobi had a mini-breakout last year with 5.5 sacks, serving as one of the most consistent players up front. He could easily be the biggest benefactor of having Garrett, Richardson and Vernon on the defensive line. Don’t be surprised if you hear his name called a lot. Jermaine Whitehead is another name to monitor, as he’s drawn raves from new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks. Also worth noting: Wilks is a damn good defensive coordinator, even if things didn’t work out so great in Arizona.
New face to know: Odell Beckham Jr., WR. I’m not sure if you heard about this move, but the Giants traded OBJ to the Browns. Crazy, right? Well, I know there isn’t much new ground to cover regarding one of the biggest transactions of the offseason, but I did want to make some key points:
2) But what I really want to impress on you is that OBJ has always wanted to make more plays downfield. I want to be careful with the way I word that, because Beckham is not a malcontent. Net-related antics aside, he’s never really pouted. If you look closely at his comments about the Giants‘ play-calling last year — “How come we can’t throw the ball for more than 20 yards? How come we don’t attempt or try to throw the ball for more than 20 yards?” — it seems clear that his angst was focused on his ability to contribute on the field rather than stemming from concern over personal glory. And he never stopped working hard. Quite the opposite. OBJ is loved by his teammates. He just wanted to make more plays.
3) And that’s the thing: During Cleveland’s fiery season-ending stretch, when Mayfield and Kitchens were really clicking, Mayfield led the league in yards per attempt, which suggests OBJ could really have the best numbers of his career this season. (Once he gets used to playing with someone who’s “throwing that ball hard,” that is.) I’m in on this. If you think OBJ will be a bust because of what you saw over the last few years, then you’re clearly selling him short. I will die on this hill.
The 2019 roadmap
The competitive urgency index is: ELEVATED. In a perfect (or fair) world, we would give the Browns a chance to grow. Kind of like the way no one expects their child to go out and drain buckets like Steph Curry the first time he/she picks up a basketball. But the internet is going to internet, and if the Browns don’t win the Super Bowl, people are going to wonder what the hell is wrong with this team. Which seems totally fair for an organization that hasn’t won a championship since the 1960s. I think. I didn’t look it up.
Fine. I looked it up. It’s 1964. They haven’t won a title since ’64.
Editor’s note: No one from Cleveland had to look that up.
Will the Browns be able to …
Deal with expectations? I mean, it’s a whole new world for the Browns, coming in as the expected AFC North champs. Even their new second-round corner got a little (David Caruso puts on his sunglasses, “CSI Miami” style) “Greedy,” proclaiming that the Browns are going to the Super Bowl. We’ve seen “super teams” fail in the past. But I don’t get the impression that the Browns are in danger of that. There are a lot of guys who still have something to prove, despite all the hype. They’re more like the Indians in “Major League” than the Indians in “Major League II.”
Find balance between Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt? How have we not talked about this yet? The Browns‘ signing of Hunt, who had been released by the Chiefs after a video showing Hunt shoving and kicking a woman in a February incident at a Cleveland hotel was made public, was surprising. Why bring him in when Chubb was coming off a rookie year in which he averaged 84.8 rushing yards per game during the final half of the season? If you’re an on-pace guy, that would come out to close to 1,400 rushing yards in a full season at that level of usage. Chubb also had three of his four 100-yard rushing games during that span, which came after the Browns traded away veteran back Carlos Hyde. (Seriously, I don’t mean to bash Hue Jackson; that’s not fair. But wow.) How will Cleveland continue to get the most out of Chubb while also working in Hunt, who ranked sixth in the NFL in touches (532) in 2017-18, when he returns from his eight-game suspension? And that’s not even factoring in dual-threat back Duke Johnson, though he might not be on the team long-term.
Keep the momentum going on the offensive line? In 2017, the Browns allowed 50 sacks, sixth-most in the NFL. In 2018, they brought that total down to a more manageable figure of 38, 19th in the league. Plus, they allowed just five sacks over the final eight games of the season, the lowest total in the NFL over that span. Four-fifths of the line that finished out the season is set to return. Can second-year pro Austin Corbett replace former right guard Kevin Zeitler, who was sent to the Giants in the Beckham trade? Will Cleveland regret the loss of depth that came with releasing Desmond Harrison?
Three key dates:
— Week 3 vs. the Rams. The Browns were given kind of a break early in the schedule, which will present them with the Titans (who finished 9-7 in 2018) in Week 1 and the Jets (4-12) in Week 2, before this stiff Sunday night test against the reigning NFC champs. What that means is, the Browns will probably start 0-2 and then beat the Rams, because that’s just the way football works.
— Week 4 at the Ravens. Two huge games in back-to-back weeks. After this difference-making stretch, we’ll know if the Browns are a serious team ready to make a playoff run or, well, the same old Browns.
One storyline people are overlooking: Todd Monken is a pretty good offensive coordinator. What a fantastic addition to Cleveland’s staff. Remember last year, when Ryan Fitzpatrick was tearing up the league with the Buccaneers? Guess who his offensive coordinator was. (Seriously, if you guessed anyone other than Monken, what are you doing with your life?) It’s expected Kitchens will call the plays for the Browns. And why not? He was pretty good there last year. But adding Monken is a pretty great move. He had other chances out there, because he’s a well-respected coach. But he wanted to be a part of Kitchens’ staff and work with Baker. Just another reason to start believing the hype.
One storyline people are overthinking: How will they distribute all of these targets? Whenever something cool is happening, people are always drawn to the negative. It’s like when your boss springs for free pizza at the office. You always have that one co-worker who has to say stuff like, “Oh man, that’s so many calories.” Just stop it, already. Nobody is forcing you to eat that pizza. Yes, over the five years they’ve been in the NFL, Jarvis Landry and OBJ each rank in the top 10 in total targets (Landry is fifth with 719 and Beckham is 10th with 622). But the former LSU teammates seem to have the kind of relationship where they can share in each other’s successes. Nobody is going to get upset when the other guy is out there scoring touchdowns. It’s also fair to point out here that Kitchens is at his best trying to distribute the ball to everyone. Eight different players caught at least one touchdown pass over the final eight games last year. So everyone is going to get a slice.
One more thing: Hey guys, stop antagonizing national talk show hosts. Look, I’m one to talk about this. But sometimes you need to let it go. You know who you are, and you know who I’m talking about. I mean, I love the moxie. And calling out opponents is what made you one of my favorites at Oklahoma. And … you know what? You do you, Baker. Go nuts.
For 2019 to be a successful season, the Browns MUST …
— Get off to a good start. They can’t afford to overlook those two teams mentioned above, because the stretch from Week 3 to Week 9 — which includes the two other key dates mentioned above, vs. the Rams and Patriots, as well as contests with the Seahawks and in Denver — is fairly gnarly.
— Make the playoffs. Or at least win nine games. It is one thing to win seven games when nobody is expecting much from you. When people are counting on you, it’s time to step up and deliver.
Here is why I believe in the Browns. We’ve seen Cleveland take positive strides before, making (what we thought at the time) were good picks, or maybe by making a nice signing. They’ve settled on coaches who seemed like the right hires. And we’ve bought in before, only to learn that none of the hype was really warranted.
This time, I truly believe things are going to be different. Kitchens passed his offensive-coordinator audition last year, and he strikes me as a Bruce Arians-type. Mayfield is a good quarterback. OBJ is a proven NFL superstar. Garrett is a good NFL player. There are legitimate football reasons — tangible ones — to support the thesis that the Browns are legit. This isn’t hope; this is real life. The Browns are going to be good this year. See if you can sneak by that bouncer and hop on this bandwagon.
Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @adamrank.