Everything changed for the Browns last November and December when a team that had gone 0–16 in 2017 won five of its last seven games in 2018. Baker Mayfield looks like the long-awaited answer at quarterback, and the rookie was good enough in the second half of last season that interim play-caller Freddie Kitchens was promoted to head coach in January.
The Browns really cranked the optimism train to turbo speed in March when they traded for Odell Beckham Jr., one of the NFL’s best wide receivers and a player gifted enough to turn any play into a touchdown. Now, Mayfield has a true No. 1 wide receiver, and Kitchens can call runs for Nick Chubb knowing that Beckham will keep defenses from creeping close to the line of scrimmage. Uber-aggressive general manager John Dorsey signed Kareem Hunt last winter, too. Hunt is suspended for the first eight games after a violent act against a woman led to his being released by the Chiefs last December. The Browns say Hunt has turned things around, and all signs point to a 23-year-old former NFL rushing champion coming out of the bullpen for the Browns in November.
Dorsey added a pair of defensive line starters in March when he traded for Olivier Vernon and signed Sheldon Richardson, a former Defensive Rookie of the Year who’s now on his fourth team in four years. The Browns had two defensive Pro Bowlers last year in end Myles Garrett and cornerback Denzel Ward, and those two join Mayfield, Beckham, Chubb and others in representing something Browns fans haven’t had in a long time: real hope, as well as real expectations.
Mayfield was ready when called upon in September, and his poise and accuracy have Browns fans believing their decades-long wait for an answer at the game’s most important position is finally over. Mayfield went on to set an NFL rookie record with 27 touchdown passes, but more important, he was everything Dorsey advertised him to be when the Browns made the former Heisman Trophy winner the No. 1 pick.
Dorsey says the Browns had a simple goal coming out of last season: to continue to surround Mayfield with the best possible talent. With Beckham on the field, the Browns can move Jarvis Landry to just about anywhere across the formation and allow him to try to exploit mismatches and get open on crossing routes. Landry is one of the game’s craftiest and most productive slot receivers. He’s also one of Beckham’s best friends, and the reunion of these former LSU teammates in Cleveland should help the Browns build a dangerous passing offense. Speedy second-year wide receiver Antonio Callaway might play fewer snaps and get fewer targets with Beckham in the fold, but Callaway should be a more confident and more polished player this season. His top-end speed will challenge defenses, and Callaway was able to build chemistry with Mayfield last season.
Chubb went over 1,000 yards in his rookie season before losing yards on his final carry. He was the Browns’ primary back for just over half the season, and his confidence grew as his experience level did. Chubb is fast and powerful, and the Browns bring back four of the five offensive linemen who opened holes for Chubb and kept Mayfield clean late last season (they traded Kevin Zeitler to the Giants for Vernon).
The Browns are taking a gamble on Hunt. He’s a native of the Cleveland area, and the incident that led to his departure from the Chiefs took place in Cleveland. But Dorsey and Kitchens believe that Hunt has matured and is remorseful, and in the offseason they praised Hunt for his work ethic and focus on turning his life around — not just on making the most of his second football chance. Hunt might push third down back Duke Johnson out of the plans.
The Browns have other weapons. Ascending tight end David Njoku is a big, athletic target, and with Beckham drawing extra attention from defenses, players such as Callaway, Njoku and Rashard Higgins should get chances in the vertical passing game.
If Mayfield continues to progress and the Browns can stay healthy, they should be playing significant games in the back half of the season and could end up having one of the league’s most explosive offenses.
Garrett had 13.5 sacks last season, and the expectation is that he’ll beat the franchise single-season record of 14. He is an athletic marvel who’s still adding to his game after injuries limited him during his rookie season, and Vernon was added to play opposite Garrett with the idea of forcing offenses to limit their double teams on the edge. The Browns plan to score points, build leads and let loose on opposing quarterbacks.
Key returning players in the back seven include linebacker Joe Schobert, safety Damarious Randall, Ward and cornerback Terrance Mitchell. The Browns have a new defensive coordinator in Steve Wilks, and in the offseason they focused on adding depth and speed to the linebacker and secondary groups. Randall is coming off his best season and is hoping to have another as he’s eligible for free agency in 2020.
Schobert, a Pro Bowler in 2017, is also entering the final year of his rookie contract. The Browns drafted two linebackers, Sione Takitaki and Mack Wilson, in hopes of immediately improving the team’s depth but also because the future of the position remains uncertain. Christian Kirksey missed much of last year with a hamstring injury and carries a big cap number on a contract he signed when the old regime was in charge.
Morgan Burnett will be the starting strong safety after a brief and disappointing stint with the Steelers. The Browns added cornerback Greedy Williams in the draft because they needed additional cornerback depth and believe Williams has the talent to eventually become a star. Ward had concussion issues late last season but has showed that he has the athletic traits to become one of the league’s top cornerbacks.
On paper, the defense is clearly the weaker side of the ball. But it added experience and playmakers in the offseason, and the Browns don’t plan on being in many 13–10 games. If the Browns can force turnovers and generate a more consistent pass rush, the defense should be capable of holding its own and helping the team reach the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
Punter Britton Colquitt was the lone bright spot on the Browns’ putrid special teams units last season. Colquitt is an accurate punter who hopes he won’t be as busy as he’s been in previous seasons, but the Browns believe he’s a valuable asset as they point towards potential bad-weather games with playoff implications. There will be a training camp kicking competition between incumbent Greg Joseph and fifth-round rookie Austin Seibert. Joseph has a big leg but was inconsistent as a rookie, and it was a little surprising to see the Browns not pursue a veteran kicker given that they’ve become a playoff contender. The kicking situation might not end up getting settled in August or September.
The Browns are still a young team, but they’re an ascending team — and potentially one of the NFL’s best offensive teams. If Mayfield can continue to direct traffic and avoid turnovers, the Browns can create big plays and put up big point totals. The defensive front should be the strength of the unit and could tee off on opposing quarterbacks. The Browns have to handle the spotlight, the high expectations and a difficult early schedule, but they have enough talent to win the rugged AFC North and to be a legitimate AFC contender.