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ESPN: Are the Browns legitimate wild card sleepers?

7 wins? 8 wins? 9 WINS!?!

Tennessee Titans v Cleveland Browns Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

1-15 in 2016.

0-16 in 2017.

Wildcard contenders in 2018?

We know it doesn’t make sense if you’re a believer that NFL teams can only make small, incremental growth year-to-year. But things change quickly every year for many NFL teams -- what if it’s the Browns’ turn this year?

This week, ESPN’s Mike Clay posed the question on whether the Cleveland Browns could be wildcard sleepers in 2018. Clay mentioned the recent quick turnarounds of the likes of the Raiders and Jaguars, and he sees the Browns taking such a big step forward, and “with a few breaks,” believes they can win 8-9 games.

The biggest reason cited for the turnaround is the change at quarterback with Tyrod Taylor and how he just doesn’t turn the ball over:

Cleveland fans know turnovers have been a problem for some time, but that was especially the case in 2017. The Browns’ 41 turnovers were seven more than any other team. They led the NFL with 28 interceptions, which translated to a negative-28 turnover margin that was significantly worse than the next-closest team (Denver minus-17). The Browns have had one of the league’s five worst turnover margins each of the past three seasons. Comparatively, Taylor’s Buffalo Bills ranked no worse than seventh in turnover ratio and were bottom six in interceptions each of his three seasons. And yes, that includes last year’s infamous “Nate Peterman game” in Los Angeles.

Among Clay’s other takes, in summary:

  • Even with the retirement of Joe Thomas, Cleveland still has a Top-10 offensive line.
  • Cleveland has an “outstanding three-man RB committee,” with Carlos Hyde being “one of the NFL’s most effective backs since 2014,” “Nick Chubb as a big, tough back,” and “Duke Johnson as an elite receiving back.”
  • The offensive skill positions are “better than we’ve seen in Cleveland in a long time” and it is “an above average offense on paper.”
  • On defense, Clay loves the team’s revamping at cornerback, saying “E.J. Gaines and T.J. Carrie enjoyed breakout campaigns last year,” “Briean Boddy-Calhoun is one of the league’s best slot corners,” and “Denzel Ward has elite perimeter shutdown potential.”
  • He still sees questions with some of the youth on defense, but believes Myles Garrett and some of the other young guys can deliver. Defensive tackle is the one position he questions the most after the departure of Danny Shelton.

Other factors that Clay acknowledges could come into play are the AFC being a weak conference, the team’s tough schedule, and Hue Jackson’s questionable first two years as a coach. Here is Clay’s final say after considering all the elements:

As fun as it would be to bang the table and predict the Browns as a 2018 playoff team, the reality is that they’re in the middle of the pack on paper. That’s saying a lot for a team that failed to win a single game last year, but the personnel speaks for itself. The Browns are probably still one good offseason away from contending in the AFC and are best viewed as a seven- or eight-win team in 2018. Of course, the season is short and variance and luck will have a say. If the Browns get a good bounce or two and stay relatively healthy, a nine-win season is attainable. That would surely please the late Paul Brown.