For the first time in recent memory, there is reason to be optimistic for the Cleveland Browns. Having lost 31 of their last 32 games, it’s fair to wonder why so many are so high on what’s happening in Cleveland. It goes beyond hosting HBO’s award-winning documentary series Hard Knocks, that has, in one episode, demonstrated head coach Hue Jackson’s commitment to changing the culture in Cleveland. The Browns have the most improved roster in the NFL, by far, and a group of players that are ready to make noise.
Any conversation about an NFL team making the playoffs starts and ends with the starting quarterback. The Browns have been below average at that position the last 20 years, starting 29 different quarterbacks since 1999. Looking to address this positional need (again) the Browns used the No. 1 overall pick on Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield. This time, the Browns got it right.
Mayfield has all the makings of a player desperate to make a name for himself in the league. As a two-time college walk-on (yes, walk-on to Heisman winner to No. 1 overall pick), Mayfield wears a chip on his shoulder as a guy who has always had to prove his worth. In Hard Knocks, Mayfield displayed an ultra-competitiveness reminiscent of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Lofty comparison? Sure, but one scene in Hard Knocks especially harkened back to the GOAT.
During a training camp scrimmage, a walk-through practice might be the better term, Mayfield handed the ball off to rookie running back Nick Chubb, who broke through the line for a first down. Mayfield, invigorated by his running back, punched the air with a massive fist pump, shouted, and turned to headbutt a teammate. Over a practice first down. Mayfield hasn’t just been saying the right things, he’s been doing the right things, and displaying a rare confidence and swagger for a rookie quarterback. To put it bluntly, this guy is the real deal.
Of course, the Browns also got veteran help at the quarterback position, bringing in Tyrod Taylor. Taylor has displayed a much-needed veteran presence, as well as a command of the offense the Browns have sorely missed from a quarterback the last two decades. While Taylor’s numbers from Buffalo, his only stint as a starter, aren’t eye-popping, he has done well in the ball control department. Taylor has posted a career 1.4 percent interception percentage, lower than both Brady and Aaron Rodgers.
Much of Taylor’s struggles could be placed on an offensive line that offered him very little protection. In the past three seasons, Taylor has been sacked 124 times, good for the third most in the NFL in that span behind Matthew Stafford and Russell Wilson. Taylor obviously lacks the raw talent that has allowed Stafford and Wilson to flourish, despite their protection numbers, but his propensity to not turn the ball over bodes well should he be better protected in Cleveland.
The addition of Pro-Bowl wide receiver Jarvis Landry, who led the league in catches in Miami a year ago despite the sub-par quarterback platoon of Jay Cutler and Matt Moore, will be massive for the Browns. The Browns haven’t had a playmaker like Landry in their offense in recent memory, and if his counterpart Josh Gordon can stay on the field, the Browns wide receiver corps will be a threat to any opposing secondary. Landry offers a quarterback a certain level of confidence, catching 70 percent of his targets. He’s an easy option to throw to, especially on routes designed for first downs in short yardage situations. Taylor should see his production numbers rise with the offensive weaponry he’s been given in Cleveland.
So what about the defense? The Browns quietly ranked in the top half of the league in total defense last year, despite their winless record, and even more quietly ranked seventh in rushing defense. Keeping the run defense stout will be critical if the Browns hope to make a run, as they reside in the same division as Steeler’s running back Le’Veon Bell. Good news out of Browns camp, however, is that they’ve apparently been practicing for him.
General observation from all 3 days I've been here in Berea: if you run sideways or hesitate even a little as a RB, your will had better be updated. Browns D kills that every single time
— Jeff Risdon (@JeffRisdon) August 1, 2018
Bell lives in hesitation before erupting through holes, while the Browns’ coaching staff has clearly made an effort to snuff that style of running out. It’s a good rush defense to begin with, but further solidifying their ability to stop the hesitation game will only strengthen the unit.
Are the odds in the Browns favor to make a Wild Card run or win the division this season? Not exactly, but even a five-win season would be a massive uptick, and a seven to nine win campaign would be stellar. There’s a case to be made that, should the chips fall correctly, they could end the year with a remarkable 10-win season after going winless a season ago. It would certainly result in a Coach of the Year award for Hue Jackson and might soften the blow of LeBron James vacating the city.
Here’s to you, Browns fans. The future is bright.
For more Browns coverage at NFL Analysis Network, check out these bold predictions for the Browns 2018 season.