Hope springs eternal each summer, though not so much in Cleveland the last few years. But last year things went differently. The Browns had signed Tyrod Taylor, Carlos Hyde and Jarvis Landry, and they drafted Baker Mayfield and Nick Chubb. It seemed like the ship was finally turning around.
But no turn around mission is without its hiccups. The Browns found their hiccup when Taylor turned out not to be the answer at quarterback, and Hue Jackson was dismissed as head coach. The Browns ended winning five of their last seven games, going 7–8–1 on the season. After a big off-season, the team is hoping that last year’s glimpse of success turns into a full-blown playoff berth in 2019.
Jackson was relieved of duties during the 2018 season, leading to Gregg Williams taking over as interim head coach. But it was the offense under Freddie Kitchens that seemed like the real boon to the team in 2018, so this off-season Kitchens was promoted to head coach while Williams moved on. It was just the start of some big things for the Browns.
The biggest of off-season moves came when the Browns traded their first round pick (17), third round pick and Jabril Peppers to the New York Giants for wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. In his five years in New York, OBJ amassed 390 receptions for 5,476 yards and 87 TDs. He gives the Browns and incredible weapon at receiver, and an incredible weapon to pair with former LSU teammate Landry and second-year gunslinger Mayfield. The Browns also made a splash by signing Kareem Hunt, late of the Chiefs, to a one-year deal to add a bit of firepower to their backfield. Hunt is suspended for the first eight games, but he could provide depth and explosiveness during the back half of what the Browns hope is a successful 2019 campaign.
For the first time in a long time, the Browns didn’t do their upgrading through the NFL draft. Instead, they also traded for pass rusher Olivier Vernon from the Giants, and signed free agent lineman Sheldon Richardson (Vikings) and safety Morgan Burnett (Steelers) to bolster the defense. Those free agents and trade targets on offense and defense add to a strong young nucleus, and are part of the reason that the Browns are becoming a trendy playoff pick for the 2019 season.
They are also becoming a popular fantasy option at all the positions, and for good reason. Mayfield started 13 games as a rookie, throwing for 3,725 yards and 27 TDs. And that was after starting the season with more conservative Jackson at the helm and no OBJ on the field. So with Kitchens running the show from the jump, there is reason to believe Mayfield could be on his way to a stellar season, and is a good bet as a QB1 in fantasy this season.
In the backfield, Chubb came on late as well. As a rookie he started nine games and posted 996 yards and eight TDs. While Hunt has had some success in the past, Chubb feels like a strong RB1 candidate with a full season as the starter. That claim to RB1 status got even stronger on Thursday, when the Browns dealt reserve running back Duke Johnson to the Texans. Hunt is little more than an end of draft flier or stash. More than likely in re-draft he’ll remain on the wire and you can evaluate his potential value when it gets closer to his return.
In the passing game, the Browns have an embarrassment of riches. The problem might be whether there is enough targets to go around. For now, OBJ is one of the best receivers in the game and should be a WR1. Landry is a solid WR2 candidate. In 2018 with the Browns he had 81 receptions for 976 yards and four TDs. OBJ figures to be the top guy, especially in the Red Zone, but Landry has always been a strong PPR option. There are no other receivers I’d feel good about for the Browns right now, but tight end David Njoku figures to have some solid value. He had 56 receptions for 639 yards and four TDs in 2018, and is a borderline TE1 this year. There is plenty of value in this passing game, but with so many options — and Chubb in the mix, too — it’s likely there will be some boom-bust games for all three receiving targets listed above.
It’s hard to remember a time for Cleveland in the last 30 years when hopes and expectations were as high as they are now. But as Red noted in the Shawshank Redemption, hope can be a dangerous thing. This is still a young team with a new coach and new pieces that will have to work out the kinks. In addition, after last year’s strong finish and a big off-season, the Browns won’t sneak up on anybody. And their division remains tough, with the Ravens and Steelers still playoff contenders. So what is realistic?
I think the Browns will take a step forward in 2019, but I’m not ready to crown them an AFC contender. A win for this team, and their city, would be for the Browns to have a winning season and contend for a Wild Card slot. In a competitive division, they could end up good enough to win the AFC North crown. More likely, I think they win nine or 10 games and make the playoffs.
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