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2021 NFL Preview: After many, many bad hires, the Browns finally have their coach in Kevin Stefanski

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Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2021 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 4, the day before the Hall of Fame Game.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

The Cleveland Browns got lucky.

In 2019 they passed on Kevin Stefanski to hire Freddie Kitchens. That sentence is hilarious knowing what we know now. When Kitchens was fired after one disastrous season, Stefanski was still available. The Browns weren’t too proud to approach him again. Stefanski wasn’t too proud to listen.

The Browns have done a lot wrong since coming back to the NFL in 1999, and most of it begins with mistakes at quarterback and head coach. We could blame the Browns’ terrible infrastructure for the coaching failure or the coaches themselves, but other than Butch Davis for a short period none of them worked. Some were hilariously bad.

Finally, the Browns got it right. Stefanski did a great job and won NFL Coach of the Year. Cleveland broke a long playoff drought. The Browns had their greatest win since their expansion year of 1999, jumping out to a big lead against the Pittsburgh Steelers and beating their rival in a wild-card playoff game. The Browns then gave the Kansas City Chiefs a scare in a divisional-round playoff loss. It was a long-awaited fun season for Browns fans.

Now comes the real trick for Stefanski and the Browns: building on success.

The roster is set up for big things. Cleveland has hit on some high draft picks and has thrown around money on high-end free agents. Quarterback Baker Mayfield hasn't been great in the NFL yet but he's more than good enough. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are the best 1-2 running back combination in the NFL. The offensive line is excellent. Over the past few seasons Myles Garrett has been as good as any defensive lineman not named Aaron Donald. This roster wasn't put together to win just one playoff game.

The Browns have been everyone’s fun pick to win big for a while, but there was real success to point to this time around. The key to keeping it going is Stefanski. He is the best coach in new Browns history, even after just one season. It’s not like there are many other contenders for the honor. Now that the Browns have the coaching piece of their puzzle in place, they can go forward with confidence that there will be more success to come.

It took a while, but the Browns finally found the right guy.

Cleveland Browns coach Kevin Stefanski was a great hire last year. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)
Cleveland Browns coach Kevin Stefanski was a great hire last year. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)
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When will the Browns run out of salary-cap flexibility? This offseason they signed safety John Johnson (three years, $33.75 million) and cornerback Troy Hill (two years, $9 million) to help the secondary. They brought in defenders Jadeveon Clowney, Malik Jackson and Takk McKinley on one-year deals, hoping at least one hits big. Northwestern cornerback Greg Newsome II was picked in the first round, and second-round pick Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, a Notre Dame linebacker, was a steal. Just about everyone liked the Browns' draft. They keep winning offseasons. 

Grade:

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Three years into Baker Mayfield's career, we can't be sure what he is. Is he a superstar in the making? An above average quarterback? Someone who is good enough if he has a great offensive line and strong running game? Mayfield was excellent as a rookie, bad in 2019 and good again in 2020. Mayfield was very good after a so-so start to 2020, with 2,468 yards, 16 touchdowns and two interceptions in the Browns' final 10 regular-season games. Mayfield played very well in a playoff win over the Steelers and wasn't quite as good in the next round against the Chiefs. If nothing else, the Browns' questions at quarterback are over. Now it's just figuring out what the realistic expectation is for Mayfield the rest of his career. 

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Nobody wants to toss water on the Browns' fun season. But this needs to be said: They were lucky to be 11-5 last season. They were outscored by 11 points. They were 7-2 in games decided by 7 or less and 4-0 in games decided by 3 or less, which is bound to regress. They ranked just 18th in Football Outsiders DVOA, and FO's estimated wins for the Browns based on their metrics was 7.7. They were 6-10 against the spread, for whatever that's worth. The Browns simply didn't profile like an 11-win team when you look at the stats. That's what makes the Browns' win total at BetMGM of 10.5 a tough one. What would we think of that number if the Browns lost a couple of those close games and went 8-8? The Browns' roster is good but the under is the only way I can go. 

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From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "To some fantasy managers, Nick Chubb is a boring floor pick, someone held back by the presence of Kareem Hunt; in other words, a player with a capped upside. But on my clipboard, that sells Chubb far too short. Hunt is certainly a good player, but Chubb is the much better back here. Chubb is the star.

"On a per-play basis last year, it wasn’t even close. Chubb popped 5.6 yards per carry, while Hunt managed an ordinary 4.2. Chubb is widely considered the lesser receiver, but his pass-catching efficiency was also much better last year. The touchdowns were close to even — Chubb bagged 12, Hunt 11 — though Chubb missed four games in the middle of the year. Hunt was good not great in those four starts: 254 rushing yards, 71 receiving yards, two touchdowns.

"The Browns have an outstanding offensive line and they finally got it right at head coach and quarterback. This is an offense we can feel good about, and that makes Chubb a destination pick in the early part of any draft. Although Chubb's ADP sits at 8.5 in early Yahoo results, I'm willing to consider him in the front half of the first round, anywhere from 3-onward. Hunt is going to have a notable role on this club, but Chubb is unquestionably the featured piece."

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Odell Beckham Jr. averaged 92.8 yards per game with the Giants, one of the best marks in NFL history at the time. He has averaged 58.9 yards per game with the Browns. He also has just seven touchdowns in two seasons. And now he's coming off a torn ACL and will turn 29 this season. The mega-trade for Beckham hasn't worked out yet. There is still time, and the Browns need him to be a star. Jarvis Landry is a good possession receiver and Cleveland is built around its running game, but a great No. 1 receiver would bring. the offense to another level. We've seen Beckham be one of the best receivers in the NFL before. If he doesn't do it this season, it might be time to wonder if we'll ever see him reach those Giants levels again. 

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Can Myles Garrett be the best defensive player in the NFL? 

As long as Aaron Donald is playing, everyone else is realistically vying for No. 2. But that doesn't mean Garrett couldn't put up a huge season and win NFL defensive player of the year. Garrett has the second-best odds to win DPOY at BetMGM. Garrett is +500, right behind Donald at +450. Even if Garrett finishes second to Donald, the Browns would sign up for that. Garrett has been fantastic for practically his entire career, something that was overshadowed a bit by the Mason Rudolph helmet swinging incident and subsequent suspension. Garrett has 13.5, 10 and 12 sacks the last three seasons, and if he can turn that up to 15 or more, he'd get DPOY votes. The Browns have improved the defensive talent around him, and a unit with a player as dominant as Garrett should be better than it was last season. 

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Based on the talent on both sides of the ball and a huge coaching hire, the Browns have to be considered Super Bowl contenders. If Odell Beckham Jr. can be anything near what he was with the Giants — at times that seems a futile chase — that might be the missing piece. If Beckham plays near an All-Pro level, that means good things for Baker Mayfield. The running game will be good again, the defense has talent and Kevin Stefanski knows how to orchestrate it all. When the Browns underwent this massive rebuild, it wasn’t to just go to the playoffs or win a wild-card game. They wanted to chase a Super Bowl. It’s time to make that step, if it’s ever going to happen.

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Browns fans wouldn’t trade what happened last season. To break the long playoff drought and embarrass the Steelers in the wild-card round was the biggest highlight the Browns have had since they reentered the NFL. However, they also don’t want that to be a one-time event. A step back without a playoff spot this season wouldn’t preclude the Browns from being great in 2022, but it would be worrisome. The Browns won a lot of close games last season and there are a few reasons to believe regression is inevitable. They simply weren't as good as their 11-5 record last season. Windows to win can open and close very fast. We always expect the next step to be forward, and it would be crushing for Browns fans if it went the other way. 

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The Browns did a remarkable job using their draft and salary-cap resources to build a deep, talented roster. I think there is another level for the Browns, but I’m not sure that step leads them past the Ravens in the AFC North this season. I buy the Browns being a wild-card team and maybe even making a playoff run from there. But would that be enough for Browns fans, given the heightened expectations?

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32. Houston Texans
31. Detroit Lions
30. Jacksonville Jaguars
29. New York Jets
28. Cincinnati Bengals
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Carolina Panthers
25. Atlanta Falcons
24. Las Vegas Raiders
23. New York Giants
22. Chicago Bears
21. Denver Broncos
20. Dallas Cowboys
19. Washington Football Team
18. Arizona Cardinals
17. Minnesota Vikings
16. Pittsburgh Steelers
15. New Orleans Saints
14. New England Patriots
13. Miami Dolphins
12. Los Angeles Chargers