The Cleveland Browns did not become the NFL’s must-see team in 2019 overnight.
The process of resurrecting the franchise began in 2016 and continued through the past three seasons.
It was rough at times, but fans started to see the work payoff in the second half of last season, and bigger things are expected from a Browns team that has reached levels of hype last seen in the 1980s.
Football Outsiders released its annual rankings of teams based on their under-25 talent on Wednesday, via ESPN, looking at not only the on-field production but also taking into consideration the value and length of the players’ current contract situation.
And coming in at No. 1 on the list is none other than your Cleveland Browns:
Calling the Browns’ draft-day decisions from 2016 to 2018 controversial might be underselling it. They traded away the No. 2 pick that became Carson Wentz; selected pass-rusher Myles Garrett ahead of quarterbacks Mitchell Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes, and Deshaun Watson; and finally selected Mayfield and Denzel Ward with their resulting top-four picks when many preferred Sam Darnold, Bradley Chubb or Saquon Barkley, among others. Executive Sashi Brown and head coach Hue Jackson couldn’t survive those decisions -- and maybe should not have considering their entire body of work -- but new general manager John Dorsey and head coach Freddie Kitchens are poised to have the last laugh at the helm of the league’s most valuable young roster.
Mayfield is the Browns’ keystone asset. They were rewarded for adhering to QBASE-Football Outsiders’ quarterback prospect projection system and other advanced metrics that preferred Mayfield to the more physically gifted Darnold and Josh Allen. Mayfield looks like a star in traditional statistics (63.8% completion percentage, 27 touchdowns and 14 interceptions) and by his 628 passing DYAR, 12th in the NFL, as a rookie.
Ward and Garrett join Mayfield as blue-chip players with several years left on their rookie deals. The former had the third-highest success rate in coverage in his rookie season (63%), and the latter was a top-10 run-stopper at his position who added 13.5 sacks and 33 hurries. Kareem Hunt has been a blue-chip performer on the field, as well, adding more than 300 combined rushing and receiving DYAR in 11 games in 2018 before the Chiefs released him after the release of a video that showed him in an altercation with a woman in early 2018. If he makes good on his second chance, he will return from an eight-game suspension to join second-year back Nick Chubb in what could easily be the best running back duo in football.
The article goes on to also credit wide receivers Antonio Callaway and Rashard Higgins, tight end David Njoku, cornerback Greedy Williams and linebacker Sione Takitaki as depth players that should help the Browns be a favorite to go deep into the playoffs for the next several years.
We won’t quibble too much about the tired notion that the Browns should have selected a quarterback who finished that past two seasons injured (Wentz), or that selecting Garrett instead of a quarterback whose team wins in spite of him (Trubisky) was the wrong call, or that selecting a running back high in the first round (Barkley) is a defensible decision in today’s NFL.
Rather, let’s take a moment to consider that the Browns:
- have finally solved the quarterback situation that has plagued the franchise since the early 1990s
- have a dominant pass rusher that opposing offenses have to account for on every play
- have a true starting running back after years of trying to patch over the position with retreads or low-budget players
- have what could be the best pair of cornerbacks since Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield (sorry, that may be a little too much hype, but Ward and Williams have the talent to be a special duo)
- have one of the best wide receiver groups in the NFL, even if two of them - Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry - are just a tick north of the age of 25
This team is young, but it is also talented at the key positions, which is a great position to be in.
And it is another reason why the hype surrounding the Browns may actually turn into something special in the years to come.