The NFL's new league year officially starts Wednesday afternoon at 4 p.m. ET and yet the picture in the AFC North has already changed drastically compared to where it was just a few months ago. And what's even more surprising is that there appears to be a new top dog in the division — the Cleveland Browns.
Yes, the Browns. The same franchise that hasn't been to the playoffs since 2002, hasn't posted a winning record since '07, and is just one season removed from going 0-16, has emerged as the team to beat in the AFC North. Baltimore is the defending division champion and Pittsburgh won it the two seasons prior, but Cleveland seems poised to break through in a major way in 2019.
That's what happens when in a span of a little more than a month you add four Pro Bowlers to your roster. Through a pair of trades and two free-agent signings, Browns general manager John Dorsey has beefed up his roster in a big way by acquiring wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., running back Kareem Hunt, defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, and linebacker Olivier Vernon.
Beckham was the big splash, a trade that was announced late Tuesday and sent shockwaves through the NFL, but even before that Dorsey had already made several moves that upgraded a Cleveland team that already seemed to be headed in the right direction following a 4-2 finish to last season behind a reshuffled coaching staff and inspired play from rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield.
With then-interim offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens installed as the full-time head coach, he'll look to guide the young Browns to the next step. However, following the flurry of moves already made and given what has happened to the other teams in the division, it's no stretch to install Cleveland as the favorite in the AFC North.
Consider that Mayfield, who finished his rookie season with a 19:8 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a passer rating of 106.2 over his final eight games, now has Beckham and Jarvis Landry as his primary targets to throw to. The former LSU teammates combined to post 158 receptions for 2,028 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. And don't forget that Hunt totaled 79 catches in his two seasons (27 games) for Kansas City, averaging 10.5 yards per reception and totaling 10 touchdowns through the air alone.
Yes, Hunt is a bit of an unknown at this point since he currently is on the Commissioner's Exempt list and in all likelihood is facing a suspension of some length due to the league's ongoing investigation into the domestic violence accusations that resulted in the Chiefs cutting ties with him in late November. But Nick Chubb, Cleveland's second-round pick in last year's draft, was expected to be the primary running back in the first place, and the Browns also have Duke Johnson Jr. and tight end David Njoku on the roster. In short, Mayfield doesn't lack for weapons.
More importantly, Cleveland's defense also has been beefed up with the additions of Richardson and Vernon. Those two will help defensive coordinator Gregg Williams improve a unit that finished 30th in the NFL in yards allowed per game (393) last season.
Another thing to consider is that Dorsey hasn’t had to give up a ton to add these four pieces either. The Beckham trade, which also included Vernon, will cost the Browns their first-round pick (No. 17 overall), one of their third-rounders (No. 95), safety Jabrill Peppers, and veteran right guard Kevin Zeitler.
Richardson (reported three years, $36 million) and Hunt (one year, maximum of $1.1 million but that total will be impacted by his likely suspension) were free-agent signings, but the Browns had plenty of cap space to sign them and work Beckham's and Vernon's contracts in as well.
But perhaps an even bigger reason to get on the Browns' bandwagon is what has happened to the rest of the division. Baltimore's defense has been decimated in free agency with linebackers C.J. Mosley (Jets), Terrell Suggs (Cardinals), Za'Darius Smith (Ravens), and safety Eric Weddle (Rams) all set to sign with new teams.
Pittsburgh already was aware that disgruntled running back Le'Veon Bell would be leaving via free agency and then last week sent wide receiver Antonio Brown to Oakland in a trade for a third- and fifth-round draft pick. So the Steelers are now down two of the NFL's top offensive weapons (and still absorbing a hefty $21.12 million cap hit in dead money for Brown) and have other holes on the roster that need to be filled.
Cincinnati appears to be on the verge of embarking on a rebuild under rookie head coach Sean Taylor after finally moving on from Marvin Lewis on the heels of last season's 6-10 finish.
Put it all together and it's looking like the AFC North is Cleveland's to lose. Yes, we still have the draft in April and the start of the season is six months away, but if you are a Browns fan you have every reason to be excited about what the 2019 season could hold. Don't look now, but the team that went 4-44 from 2015-17 could have its coming out party this fall.