The Cleveland Browns will win the AFC North this season. With apologies to my Yardbarker colleague Sam Robinson, there’s no need to tamp down expectations in northeast Ohio this fall. Cleveland isn’t perfect, but it's better than most, and plenty good enough to win a division where no team is without warts.
The biggest reason why is Baker Mayfield. His detractors can wring their hands all they want about his GQ interview, particularly the part where he said he was surprised the Giants selected Duke’s Daniel Jones sixth overall in the 2019 draft.
Mayfield’s words off the field don’t matter. His actions on the field do, and he’s poised to make a major leap in his second season. Pro Football Focus ranked him 10th in its 2019 quarterback rankings, second highest in the division behind Ben Roethlisberger, who was eighth.
According to Steve Palazzolo, a senior analyst for PFF, the passing numbers could have been even better in 2018 for Mayfield, who threw for 3,725 yards and 27 touchdowns.
“[Mayfield’s] rookie season was the second highest we’ve ever graded since starting [Pro Football Focus] in 2006," he told me. "He was fantastic on a throw-for-throw basis last year. His stats probably should have looked a little bit better. He had a bunch of dropped passes that turned into picks last year early on; he had some bad luck early on.”
Asked what makes Mayfield so good, Palazzolo said it’s all about precision.
“I think Mayfield has all the accuracy, the downfield throwing ability," he said. "He had the second-highest percentage of ‘big-time throws’ -- those are our highest-graded throws -- [and a] great way to figure out who is putting their team in position to create big plays. Mayfield was fantastic at that. We already think he’s ready to become that top-10- caliber quarterback.”
The basic numbers back up the accuracy claims, as Mayfield’s 63.8 completion percentage was best among 2018 rookie quarterbacks. He wasn’t dinking and dunking it, either, as Football Outsiders points out. The Browns threw the ball deep, defined as 16 or more yards downfield, on a league-leading 28 percent of their passes.
As Yardbarker's Michael Nania detailed, Mayfield was elite on short throws as well as deep passes, with his adjusted completion percentage ranking in the top-5 in both categories, according to PFF. The area where he struggled was intermediate throws, where he was below average in every significant metric. Enter Odell Beckham Jr., whose route-running precision should be a major boon for Mayfield, and whose big-play ability from anywhere on the field will further stress defenses.
The numbers for Mayfield are already good, and there are plenty of reasons to think they will get much better. But numbers don’t tell the whole story of what makes him great. What is unquantifiable about Mayfield will serve him and the Browns well this season.
Mayfield’s uncanny ability to lead and inspire was obvious during his time at Oklahoma. His confidence was infectious, and watching him, you’d swear his teammates raised their games to match his. That quality has followed him to the NFL, and it was evident in his first appearance in a real game, when he rallied Cleveland from a 14-0 deficit against the Jets to a 21-17 win, the franchise’s first victory in 635 days.
When Mayfield got to Cleveland, the Browns weren’t your run-of-the-mill bad team. They were comical, a laughingstock, a franchise for which one of the biggest roadblocks to success was the crushing weight of their own failures and dysfunction. Mayfield’s attitude changed all that.
Inspired by that attitude, and also by Mayfield’s affordable rookie contract, the Browns made bold moves to push the team over the top.
Adding Beckham gives the Browns the best cast on offense in the division. Trading for Olivier Vernon, while it cost them guard Kevin Zeitler, gives Cleveland a legitimate pass-rusher opposite Myles Garrett. Hiring Steve Wilks to fix a defense that was second in the league in turnovers forced, but first in the league in missed tackles, was smart. The even-keeled Wilks could be a more steadying influence than the notably mercurial Gregg Williams. Bringing in Kareem Hunt, however distasteful it may be, gives the Browns incredible depth at running back.
Most skeptics have grudgingly conceded that Cleveland now fields the division’s most talented roster. What they won’t admit yet is that the Browns also have the division’s best quarterback, their trump card in the race. Give them time, because by the end of the season, Mayfield will have removed all room for argument, and will have the Browns —yes, the Cleveland Browns — sitting atop the AFC North.
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