2019 NFL preview: Browns have a loaded roster, but one enormous question lingers
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Cleveland Browns general manager John Dorsey wasn’t going to lie, and nobody was going to believe the lie anyway.
He was asked when Freddie Kitchens had even been on his radar as a potential head coach before he was promoted to interim offensive coordinator in the middle of last season. Before that promotion, Kitchens had never even called a play in the NFL. He got promoted from running backs coach when the Browns turned over their staff during another disappointing season. By January, Kitchens was hired to be the Browns’ head coach.
Kitchens had a typical assistant coach resume, working up from Glenville State to the NFL coaching quarterbacks, running backs and tight ends. But head coach?
“No, he wasn’t,” Dorsey said about Kitchens being on his head-coach radar. “But that does not mean that he is not a qualified coach. You just look at the eight games he did, kind of caught your attention, too, didn’t it?”
Yes, those eight games. Those eight games are why the Browns are coming up this late in our countdown, and not in their typical slot closer to No. 32.
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Cleveland went 5-3 in the second half of the season, after Hue Jackson and Todd Haley were let go. The Browns’ three losses were to Kansas City, Houston and Baltimore, a trio of division champions. The offense, and especially quarterback Baker Mayfield, took off. The Browns, whose ineptitude since coming back to the NFL in 1999 has been the league’s most predictable storyline, looked good. All the high draft picks and hoarded salary-cap space was finally paying off. The future looked bright, and that was before the blockbuster Odell Beckham Jr. trade.
And there was just one small issue: The Browns needed a coach. For once, Cleveland’s job was very attractive, especially because of Mayfield. Cleveland had options. And Kitchens, who was quite impressive calling plays for the first time, impressed the team again in the interview process. Kitchens wasn’t on anyone’s radar at this time last year, not even Dorsey’s radar, but suddenly he is leading the most interesting team in the league (yes, it’s weird to write that about the Browns).
Every coach has to be a rookie at some point. John Harbaugh, for one example, was never an offensive or defensive coordinator and he is one of the best coaches in the NFL, with a Super Bowl ring to prove it. Sean McVay didn’t have a ton of experience before he got his shot, and he’s great. Just because Kitchens had a very fast rise late last year doesn’t mean he won’t be a great head coach. It’s just an unknown, and for once in Cleveland, there’s a lot to lose. It’s by far the biggest question the Browns have heading into a season overloaded with hype.
Las Vegas has been swamped with Browns futures bets and for once it’s easy to see why. The Browns made perhaps the biggest acquisition of the offseason, getting Beckham in a trade with the Giants. They have stars or potential stars all over, from defensive end Myles Garrett to running back Nick Chubb to cornerback Denzel Ward to receiver Jarvis Landry and plenty in between. The Browns are not a punchline anymore. This is a good football team.
There are more than a few good football teams out there, of course. The best of them combine a talented roster with a great coaching staff. Cleveland’s window to be a playoff team and — sit down before reading this next one — a potential Super Bowl contender has finally opened. The are plenty of things that have to still go right for the Browns, but the biggest one seems to be hitting on a head coach that was a fairly anonymous running backs coach as of late last October.
Kitchens is the biggest bet the Browns have made. All that’s on the line is the longest-suffering fan base in the NFL finally being paid off for its loyalty.
I could drop a picture of Odell Beckham Jr. here, give them an A and move on to the next section. We’ll talk about the good and the bad of Beckham in a bit, but he’s a transcendent player. Guys like that don’t change teams very often at age 26. I didn’t love the trade of guard Kevin Zeitler for edge rusher Olivier Vernon with the Giants, because Zeitler is a good guard and the Browns aren’t putting enough emphasis on the offensive line. But Vernon is a quality player as well and just 28 years old. Likewise, the trade of edge rusher Emmanuel Ogbah to the Chiefs for strong safety Eric Murray could be one the Browns regret, but it’s not too bad on the surface. The Browns also added defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, safety Morgan Burnett (who will help replace Jabrill Peppers, sent to New York in the Beckham deal) and running back Kareem Hunt. Hunt will miss the first eight games due to an NFL suspension over a video that showed him shoving and kicking a woman, and while he was an obviously controversial addition, the Browns have a former NFL rushing champion as a backup. The Browns didn’t take on any big losses in free agency and while their draft haul was light due to the Beckham trade, LSU cornerback Greedy Williams was a great value pick in the second round. And while it might bother chemistry, not giving in to running back Duke Johnson’s trade demand was smart because the Browns still need him.
The Browns were close to adding a fourth Pro Bowler to the defensive line, but Gerald McCoy chose Carolina instead. Cleveland will just have to settle for three Pro Bowlers on the line. Defensive end Myles Garrett is a star, Olivier Vernon could see a boost with opponents focusing elsewhere and Sheldon Richardson can be a force in the middle. And the fourth starter, tackle Larry Ogunjobi, is no liability. He had 5.5 sacks in his second NFL season last year. The Browns have one of the best defensive lines in the NFL, and they’re not bad at linebacker or in the secondary either.
The Browns have invested in just about every position, but the offensive line hasn’t gotten the same treatment. The trade of guard Kevin Zeitler for Olivier Vernon helps the pass rush but weakens an offensive line that already had some questions. Pro Football Focus’ preseason rankings of offensive lines had the Browns 20th, and that might even be a bit generous. The Browns are counting on former Rams draft bust Greg Robinson not imploding at left tackle and Austin Corbett replacing the elite Zeitler even though Corbett has barely played, among other questions. The Browns have a strong roster, but the kicking situation (Greg Joseph and rookie Austin Seibert are competing) and the offensive line are two possible issues.
When the story is told of Hue Jackson’s impossibly bad job coaching the Browns, one of the first lines should be that he had no intention of playing Baker Mayfield as a rookie. It was weird when Jackson was digging in and telling the world Tyrod Taylor would start all season, and it was inexplicable in hindsight once Mayfield actually played. The No. 1 pick of the 2018 draft looked like a future Pro Bowler. He threw for 3,725 yards and an NFL rookie record 27 touchdowns despite not starting the first three games, only getting his chance due to a Taylor injury (seriously Hue?). We can be sure that it will be a long time before the Browns voluntarily start another quarterback. Mayfield wasn’t perfect, and he’ll need to cut his 14 interceptions, but this is what the Browns have been waiting for. Cleveland, you have a franchise quarterback.
It’s probably not overstating things to say Odell Beckham Jr. is the most important player in new Browns franchise history. Joe Thomas is the best player the Browns have had since 1999, but he was playing at a Hall of Fame level on a bad team. Beckham has the chance to lift the Browns to a place they haven’t been before. There are certainly questions about Beckham’s ability to not be a distraction and to stay healthy — we all know there’s a reason the Giants traded him — but if Beckham is healthy and happy he’s probably one of the 10 best non-quarterbacks in the NFL. And while Eli Manning has had a fine career, it’s also fair to wonder if Baker Mayfield is an upgrade over the aging Manning that Beckham played with. Non-quarterbacks can’t win MVP anymore because most voters don’t bother considering them, but it’s not too crazy to think Beckham could get some MVP buzz if the Browns pay off on their hype.
From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “If you want to own the primary Cleveland players in fantasy this year, you’ll probably have to buy at the high end of their theoretical ranges. With Nick Chubb and Baker Mayfield, I’m open to the discussion. With Odell Beckham Jr., I’m much less likely to cut the check.
“Mayfield has a history of spreading the ball around — although he had 27 touchdown passes last year, no one caught more than four. That theme was similar in his Heisman Trophy year at Oklahoma. And while Beckham is without question the most talented wideout on Cleveland’s roster, it’s not like OBJ has never been a fantasy disappointment before. He’s only played one full season out of five, and receivers often struggle a bit when they shift to a new team.
“To be clear, it’s not like I expect Beckham to fall on his face. But to draft him where he slots in 2019, you likely pick him over a Julio Jones or a Michael Thomas. That’s not something I’m likely to do. There’s also a bunch of running backs in the same ADP pocket — James Conner, Joe Mixon, teammate Chubb — who interest me more than Beckham does.”
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The Browns’ offense took off in the second half, and pretty much everyone has credited Freddie Kitchens and Baker Mayfield. Those two certainly did well, but it’s not a coincidence that the offense rose as Nick Chubb’s rookie season took off. Stuck behind Carlos Hyde to start the season (seriously, what was Hue Jackson doing?), Chubb had 823 rushing yards on a 4.7-yard average with six rushing touchdowns, and 149 receiving yards with two receiving touchdowns in the Browns’ final 10 games. Inexplicably Chubb, a high second-round pick, didn’t have more than three carries in any of Cleveland’s first six games. The addition of Kareem Hunt when he’s done with his suspension in midseason could affect Chubb’s workload, but it’s just as likely the Browns continue to ride Chubb all season. He’s already one of the NFL’s most talented backs.
COULD CHEMISTRY BECOME AN ISSUE?
Baker Mayfield says whatever he wants and mostly that’s endearing and fun. But he stepped over a line when he criticized Duke Johnson, who requested a trade. Players don’t often air out their teammates over business matters.
“It's not awkward. No. It's self-inflicted,” Mayfield said. “It is what it is. That's not awkward for anybody else in this building.”
Mayfield also said “you're either on this train or you're not.” NFL Network reported that veterans talked to Mayfield about his words toward Johnson.
Just because Mayfield didn’t take the right tact with a teammate doesn’t mean there’s a problem. But the Browns have some big personalities. We all know that Odell Beckham Jr. created countless headlines in New York that had nothing to do with catching the football. Freddie Kitchens is a first-time head coach and we don’t know how he will handle some of the situations that might arise. There are no known chemistry problems now, but it’s worth keeping an eye on.
I don’t even know how to say these words in order, but here goes: Cleveland should believe it can win a Super Bowl. Really. The roster is that good. I don’t know if Freddie Kitchens can be a good head coach and manage what might be a bit of a volatile locker room, but I do know the Browns are loaded. If Mayfield builds on his rookie season (and I really don’t see why he wouldn’t), Beckham stays healthy, the offensive line holds up and the defense is as good as it looks on paper, the only reason you wouldn’t believe in the Browns as one of the NFL’s truly elite teams is their history. And that’s not unfair. There’s a lot of baggage to unload. But just look at the depth chart. It’s impressive what they’ve put together. The rebuilding project has reached a point where it’s time to win.
It’s fun to be optimistic about the Browns. Even if you’e a fan of another team, (outside of the rest of the AFC North) you probably have a soft spot for the Browns. They have a fan base that deserves a winner. But the Browns are still the Browns. We expect the worst to happen. Maybe Baker Mayfield has a sophomore slump, or Odell Beckham Jr. can’t stay healthy, the few warts on the roster are just too much to overcome or the Browns hired the wrong coach. This is a team that hasn’t posted a winning record since 2007. Not many of the current players are burdened with all of thee Browns’ miserable history, but if there was ever a “here we go again” team if things don’t go well early, this is it.
Do I have the Browns too high because I want the Browns to be good? I can’t deny that might be the case. The Browns becoming a playoff team, even an AFC North champion, would be a fantastic story. Everyone could rally behind that. The Browns’ mix of stars makes them a must-watch team. And even if I’m rooting for the story, we can all recognize the talent is legitimate. So here goes: The Browns are going to win their first division title since 1989. Crazy.
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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter! Follow @YahooSchwab