If the 2019 Browns did not eclipse the 2011 Eagles as the go-to reference for overhyped NFL teams, they came close. Their awful 6-10 season added a “box-office bomb”-themed chapter to Cleveland's diverse disappointment archive.
After the season, the Browns fired head coach Freddie Kitchens and general manager John Dorsey. Cleveland is now on GM No. 6 and head coach No. 8 since Jimmy Haslam acquired the franchise in 2012.
Earned mockery aside, Cleveland has veered too far off the radar in 2020. Their offseason did not land an approval rating on the level of the Buccaneers’ transformation or the Chargers’ uniform change, but key tweaks could make the central principals responsible for the Browns' 2019 hype matter more than they did last season.
Cleveland’s staffing mistakes at head coach and tackle backfired in 2019 even more than certain detractors anticipated. Kitchens and the Greg Robinson-Chris Hubbard offensive tackle tandem burned the Browns. Although other uncertainties remain, the Browns may have addressed their two biggest issues to little acclaim. Kevin Stefanski represents a noticeable upgrade on the overmatched Kitchens, and the Browns using their top two offseason investments on tackles -- $14 million-per-year right tackle Jack Conklin and first-round left tackle Jedrick Wills –- reopens a door that rapidly closed last year.
These augmentations provide a great chance at restoring the relevance of the Browns’ top-flight skill-position corps. Stefanski praise could age poorly -– given the positivity the Kitchens and Hue Jackson hires initially generated -– but these Browns ooze sleeper appeal.
Kitchens and a basement-level tackle tandem stunted Mayfield’s development. Some traditional stats -– 21 interceptions (second most in NFL last season) and a 78.8 passer rating (second worst) –- support that assumption, even if the advanced metrics were a bit kinder. Stefanski’s challenge of repairing Mayfield without OTAs or minicamp because of the COVID-19 shutdown doubles as the Browns’ defining storyline.
Overstating Kitchens’ schematic and game-management struggles is difficult. Stefanski’s experience level is not overly impressive, either. The 38-year-old coach brings less than 1½ seasons as a coordinator. But he enjoyed a stable climb in Minnesota, having coached quarterbacks for nearly seven seasons prior to ascending to the Vikings’ OC role.
Stefanski’s run-heavy, play-action-oriented offense should ask less of Mayfield and increase the importance of Cleveland's Nick Chubb-Kareem Hunt running back coalition -- one probably too talented to share a backfield. Employing a 24-year-old ex-rushing champion as a backup is an overlooked luxury for a quarterback coming off a bad season.
Mayfield’s lack of chemistry with Odell Beckham Jr. infuriated certain fantasy owners, and a second straight offseason in which this pair trains separately (Beckham skipped most of Cleveland’s 2019 OTAs) will not help. Seventeen of Mayfield’s 21 interceptions last season came on passes intended for Beckham or Jarvis Landry. But in the hands of a superior coach, the talent of Beckham and Landry should be more consequential than they were last season. Not throwing a young quarterback behind bargain-buy tackles will help too.
Haslam forcing out Dorsey, who assembled most of the pieces responsible for last year’s promise, was somewhat curious considering the futility of previous Browns blueprints. But replacement Andrew Berry has impressed, if only because he upgraded the area Dorsey could not.
The Browns managed to cut their starting left tackle before Week 1 last year, for roster-arranging purposes, and re-sign him without the threat of anyone else doing so. That should have been a bigger red flag. After another shaky season, Robinson has resided in free agency for three months. Wills, who played right tackle at Alabama, will debut in what will somehow be a tougher year for rookie O-linemen. But taking a swing on a top-10 prospect makes more sense than entrusting a bust to protect a franchise centerpiece. Pro Football Focus graded the Cleveland tackles 30th overall last year.
Signing Conklin at a rate now $8M off the tackle market’s salary ceiling was a coup for Berry. Conklin should still be a Titan, but Tennessee passed on his fifth-year option in 2019. The Browns are set to run a zone-blocking offense; Pro Football Focus placed Conklin in the 94th percentile among zone-blocking tackles last season.
Mayfield is positioned to move closer to the version that set the rookie touchdown pass record in 13 starts and distance himself from 2019’s flop. The Vikings re-routed their offense last year with inferior O-line talent compared to the 2020 Browns, and Cleveland’s five-Pro Bowler skill armada -– which also includes tight end addition Austin Hooper -– surpasses the crew Minnesota rode to multiple playoff berths since 2017.
Almost no team’s weaponry cadre outflanks Cleveland's, and the Browns' offseason bolstered said group's capabilities. Because of this, the Browns –- a distant eighth on Bovada's latest AFC championship odds -– have one of the highest ceilings among the glut of middle-class AFCers. Questions will linger probably for a while into the season, but the Browns are set to make the AFC North and the conference’s wild-card chase more captivating.
Coronavirus changes could impede the Browns more than most, but many AFC contenders are navigating significant transitions as well. The gulf between the hype Cleveland's 2019 version received and the minimal publicity a better 2020 team has generated should be narrower. The outcome of this season could erase the most recent set of unwelcome memories the Browns created and reshape their future.