Don’t look now, but the Browns are serious contenders.
That statement is not just for the AFC North Division crown, but it instills thoughts that this year Cleveland could actually win it all. This year. In 2021.
Here are five reasons why:
Kevin Stefanski is the reigning NFL Coach-of-the-Year. How’s that for starters? Last year, the Browns finally had a winning record, then broke a 17-year drought of making it to the playoffs. On top of that, they won a playoff game before barely getting beaten by the then-reigning Super Bowl Champions.
All this while in a pandemic year to boot. What can Stefanski do in a non-COVID season? We are about to find out.
Add the fact that Cleveland possesses arguably the league’s best 1-2 punch with Special Teams coaching in Mike Priefer and Doug Colman.
Then there is Bill Callahan as the offensive line coach. He has been in the coaching biz since 1980. Nobody in the NFL does this job any better and knows how to blend players. One of the most difficult aspects at coaching this group is knowing where each player fits the best. Just because a guy played right guard in college doesn’t mean he is suited for that position – or side of the line – in the professional ranks. Callahan is an excellent groomer of young talent.
Remember last season at the tail end of the year when starting offensive linemen were either hurt or taken out of games because of COVID protocols? Do you also recall how reserve players such as Michael Dunn, Nick Harris, Chris Hubbard and Blake Hance were used in their place and still performed? That is not by accident.
Defensive line coach Chris Kiffin is seen as an up-and-coming talent. Then there is the Director of Strength and Conditioning Larry Jackson plus the Director of Performance Nutrition Katy Meassick. These two are critical in getting players the stamina they need to last not only into that crucial fourth quarter of each game, but to survive the rigors of a now-17 game season.
When was the last time Cleveland’s coaching staff was fully intact going into a second season? Don’t you think that is a key element to this year’s success?
2. Offensive Line
Last year The Athletic ran a list of the Top-10 best offensive linemen in the league. The Browns had three listed: guards Wyatt Teller and Joel Bitonio plus OT Jack Conklin.
Last year’s top pick in the draft was Alabama right tackle Jedrick Wills. He had played all four years in college at right tackle, yet the Browns switched him to the leftside; the most crucial part on the line for a right-handed passer such as QB Baker Mayfield. Early on, Wills he had his issues. But he was a rookie and made rookie mistakes. But as the season rolled along, he came into his own and now appears to be on his way to bigger things.
Guards Teller and Bitonio may be the league’s best tandem. Before he became injured last year, Teller was grading out as the top guard in the NFL. He stepped up and provided the offense with a steady front and is an excellent run blocker.
#Browns Guard, Wyatt Teller, is now the highest graded player in the #NFL.— The Hottest Take Sports Podcast (@Hottest_TakePod) November 16, 2020
Teller holds a mind-blowing Overall Grade of 96.8 per @PFF.
His Run Blocking Grade 95.6 is the best of any Offensive Lineman.
Would you like to see the @Browns offer Wyatt an extension? ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/8oPBcYgPmb
Bitonio made his first Pro Bowl last year. These two are now considered “elite” interior players. Center J.C. Tretter is a steady player.
OT Jack Conklin provided the veteran leadership that this unit was missing. In 2019, both tackle positions were considered the Achilles heel of the offense. Neither Chris Hubbard nor Greg Robinson would have any resemblance of a good season and their backup Kendall Lamm wasn’t much of an improvement. Robinson was cut. Hubbard was signed as a veteran presence as backup and this off-season Lamm was allowed to move on via free agency.
The depth this year is incredible. Opt-out players Drew Forbes and Colby Gossett will provide much needed talent. Forbes was drafted to be the starter at right guard and is a very good player. In free agency, OT Greg Senat was signed and then in the draft the Browns took OT James Hudson from Cincinnati in Round 4. Harris can play backup center and had very good games at guard last year.
Hance and Dunn were re-signed to compete along with Cordel Iwugwu, Javon Patterson and Alex Taylor.
Cleveland’s offense will only go as far as the offensive line will take them. This group is already on the elite level while the lack of depth will not be an issue this year.
3. Superstar Players
Michael Jordan did not win six NBA Championships by himself. He not only had help, he had Superstar help.
The Browns have household names who are proven stars, and stars waiting to bust out.
At the mid-point of the 2020 season, Sports Illustrated puts out an MVP watch list of five players. Rarely does any player get mentioned other than quarterbacks. But last year, listed at Number 5 was DE Myles Garrett. Not since Lawrence Taylor has any defensive pass rusher garnered this much attention.
Then there are the Browns’ receivers. Odell Beckham, Jr. is a three-time Pro Bowler who should have a huge chip on his shoulder to prove his tenure in Cleveland is not just average. Plus, he has gone way beyond his abilities to get back from his injury and has on his mind that his return will take over the league and he will once again be on the darling of everyone.
Jarvis Landry is a five-time Pro Bowler. Either Austin Hooper or David Njoku is going to bust out this year. Do not expect that third-round draft pick Anthony Schwartz will undergo a grooming period. He will provide this offense with that top-shelf speed that clubs such as the Kansas City Chiefs has enjoyed.
For one-and-one-half seasons, Kareem Hunt was the NFL’s best running back before “that” video became public. Nick Chubb already is considered an elite back with the likes of Derrick Henry. Both Hunt and Chubb are stars by themselves in any backfield much less in the same backfield together.
Wait till the league gets a gander at Cleveland’s revamped defensive backfield this year with Denzel Ward, John Johnson, Grant Delpit, Greg Newsome, Troy Hill, Ronnie Harrison and Greedy Williams.
Would love to add Baker Mayfield’s name to this list. You can feel his year is coming soon. He certainly is now in an offense that will ultimately make him succeed and flourish.
Three teams from the AFC North made the playoffs last year. The Browns were one of them with an impressive 11-5-0 season - tied for fourth best record in the AFC. Cleveland ended up in third place in their division. That means this year they will play under a third-place slot using last season’s winning percentages.
On the surface, that sounds pretty good. Or is it?
In reality, that equates to the ninth most difficult schedule. Right off, they meet the Two Time reigning AFC Champs Kansas City Chiefs on the road. Ouch. But their most difficult contests are late in the season when the continuity of this year’s teams will have gelled.
Games such as at Green Bay (Week 16), on the road against the Pittsburgh Steelers (Week 17) plus the oddity of playing the Baltimore Ravens in back-to-back games in Weeks 12 and 14 with their bye week sandwiched in between.
Other hard games include the Chicago Bears, who made the playoffs last year, plus two up-and-coming clubs in the Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Chargers.
But the football gods have given the Browns the Detroit Lions, Houston Texans, Denver Broncos plus two games against the Cincinnati Bengals.
The schedule is favorable this year. The bye week in Week 13 comes at the best opportune time since it comes before hopefully a postseason push.
5. Offense, Offense, Offense
It is true the defense this off-season was given the lion’s share of attention. And it needed it. But this Browns’ offense is just as lethal as last year.
Mayfield will finally enjoy a second straight season of having the same head coach, offensive coordinator and pass game coordinator. That in itself is the plum.
Not only that, but the offensive scheme is no different. That means instead of focusing on learning a new system and playbook, Mayfield can take what he learned from last year and finally have the opportunity to blossom.
Will he finally become one of the league’s elite quarterbacks? There isn’t any signs that he can’t finally grow into that role.
This offensive line is groomed for the run game. Even the tight ends employed by the club are all good run blockers now that someone has taken the time to show David Njoku how to sustain blocks.
The key this year will be the reemergence of OBJ and the addition of Schwartz.
Some say the offense did better once Beckham was no longer on the field. The reality is that the new system that Mayfield was thrown into was still fairly new and the acclimation period took around half a season, coincidentally when OBJ was hurt.
If Cleveland is going to beat teams like the Chiefs, then they will have to build along the same lines. Schwartz will be the Browns’ Tyreek Hill.
A former track star that regularly competed in the 60 meters, 200, and 4x100. He has also competed in the USA Junior Championships plus U.S. Olympic Trials. He was named the Broward County Florida Track and Field Athlete of the Year in 2017 while his high school football team won a state championship.
Hill is utilized in the jet sweep and short passes. Schwartz’s signature play is the jet sweep. Hill wears number 10. Is it any coincidence of the jersey number Schwartz decided upon this year?
Rashard Higgins is a key element of Mayfield’s success. The two just have this connection, and Higgins just knows how to get open.
The biggest group that needs to step up this year are the tight ends. Austin Hooper was named to two Pro Bowls in a year before signing with Cleveland. Last year, he had a below-par season. More than any other player on the Browns’ roster, Hooper needs to have a standout season. Njoku could be the best player in this group, and if he can remain healthy, could be that Pro Bowler he was drafted to be.
Chubb was seventh in league rushing last year with 1,067 yards. Hunt had 841 yards.
Offensively, the Browns are built to run. They landed in the lower tier of passing yards, but that is by design. They finished third in the NFL in rushing yards with 2,374 right behind the Tennessee Titans and Ravens. Cleveland was fourth in rushing attempts (495), seventh in yards-per-carry (4.8), fifth in rushing touchdowns (21) and second in most runs of 20+ yards (21).
What say you? Are the 2021 Browns a Super Bowl contender?
This poll is closed
On paper - yes!
They need another season to be considered Super Bowl ready