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A look at the new look/old look Cleveland Browns

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The 2019 Met Gala Celebrating Camp: Notes on Fashion - Arrivals Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

Analysts and writers who feel the need to make predictions with total conviction — that their opinions are in fact not opinions but infallible peeks into the future — are not football experts at all, but carnival barkers. Over a century of evidence in American sports alone tells us that as of yet nobody can predict what will happen in the next season or even the next game with any level of consistency that would make a reasonable person look twice. So there are no predictions in these previews of opponents of the 2019 Seattle Seahawks — only my thoughts and within those thoughts, an opinion of what I believe they will most likely look like in the coming year and straightforward updates on changes to the roster and coaching staff. But any team could be turning over 30% of their entire roster or 100% of their coaches and in some cases, a complete changeover in ownership and/or how they plan to run their franchise. That makes things even more volatile when looking ahead, especially with over three months to go until Week 1, but it’s worth a look ahead anyhow. These are my thoughts, some of which will be wrong, but if I didn’t believe my experience in evaluating football things was at least a little bit valuable, I wouldn’t be writing these. Hopefully that experience gives you a clearer picture of what to expect, while also expecting that these pictures could be erased at any moment.

The 2019 Cleveland Browns

No team in the NFL, perhaps no team in the three most major American sports, has higher expectations of a “change in how they plan to run their franchise” than the Browns. After going 4-44 from 2015-2017, the Browns started 2-6-1 last season, firing Hue Jackson after the fifth of those six losses. They started 0-1 under Gregg Williams before winning five of their final seven games; consider that from 2008 to 2017, Cleveland won more than five games over the course of an entire season only one time.

After finishing 7-8-1 in 2018 and suffering two overtime losses, plus two more losses by three points or less and a tie, the Browns are now considered the favorites in the AFC North by more people than ever ... and even if that number only needed to be one or two people to make that a true statement, it’s still fair to believe that Cleveland is in fact the best team in the division finally.

Finally.

The Seahawks travel to Cleveland in Week 6 as the Browns look to their bye in the following week while Seattle will be going back home to face the Baltimore Ravens, perhaps the first or second-best candidate to win the North. What sort of team will the Seahawks be facing?

With 2018 offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens picked to take over for Jackson, things can’t be expected to change a ton for Baker Mayfield. And if you honestly think that Mayfield is already the best quarterback in modern Browns history, then you’re honestly right. But if you think he’s arguably the best quarterback in franchise history dating back to Otto Graham in the early 50s ... then you’re honestly still right, probably.

That being said, I can’t go back on my rule of anointing any player as anything with only one season of experience under his belt. In the case of Mayfield it’s even less than that, but given that he played so well as a rookie, and so much better after Jackson was fired, it’s fair to wonder if we might be debating “Mayfield or Mahomes?” as the best quarterback in the AFC over the next decade. (Of course, Patrick Mahomes needs a second season first as well. Thankfully, Seattle has already gone 1-0 vs Pat, which is nice for a trophy case that’s not real or very meaningful beyond getting to write sentences like this one.)

Mayfield had 23 touchdowns and a rating of 103.3 over his final 10 starts. His biggest issues came on interceptions, as Cleveland went 0-4 when he threw multiple picks, including three against the Texans and Ravens, and two each against the Raiders and Chargers. He did enough to warrant an offseason war with Colin Cowherd, which must endear him to at least a few more Seattle fans as of late.

But Mayfield played these games with Jarvis Landry as his number one option — which Landry really isn’t meant to be — and little else beyond that. That is not expected to be the case in 2019 after the addition of Odell Beckham, Jr. via trade.

Beckham still has a good case as the best receiver in the league and he may soon be the best receiver in franchise history. Consider that Josh Gordon is the only player in Browns history to top 1,300 receiving yards, a mark that Beckham topped in each of his first three seasons with the New York Giants. He’s only 26 and another 1,300+ yard season should be expected if he’s healthy for most of 2019 with Mayfield as his quarterback and Kitchens calling a similar offense to what he had a year ago with lesser talent. 2017 first round pick David Njoku returns at tight end having finished second in targets, catches, and yards on the team last year. He’s not yet 23. Receiver Antonio Callaway was a rookie a year ago, is around the same age as Njoku, and finished with 79 targets, 43 catches, 586 yards, and five touchdowns.

The offense line was a focus in some previous offseasons and that’s how they’ve wound up with Joel Bitonio at left guard, J.C. Tretter at center, and Chris Hubbard at right tackle, but left tackle Greg Robinson may be the best find yet if he’s finally tapped into the talent that made him the second overall pick five years ago. Behind them, running back Nick Chubb rushed for 996 yards, eight touchdowns, and had zero fumbles as a rookie. Duke Johnson is a versatile number two back who few people dislike in that role. And Kareem Hunt is maybe more talented than both of them as he looks to rebuild his reputation and give himself a second football opportunity without much pressure to do so at the moment because Cleveland is already so talented on offense as is.

And what you’ve just read is a very full list of offensive players who have a lot of exciting qualifiers like “young,” “prospect,” “elite,” and “sleeper.” I wouldn’t dream to deny that Cleveland’s offense is perhaps the most exciting and interesting going into the 2019 season but I’d also caution those people that “young” can also be a detriment and “inexperienced” may come to haunt them when facing defenses coached by Mike Tomlin and John Harbaugh. The Chiefs had a young and exciting offense in 2018 with Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Hunt, and Travis Kelce, but how far are we willing to go to compare Kitchens to Andy Reid?

Offensively, it’s hard for me to say what the Browns are going to actually be when they face the Seahawks. Talent? Undeniable. Is it going to fit together and will that be during the first two months of next season? We will find out.

Fortunately for Cleveland they won’t exclusively be relying on their offense.

The defense features one player who could be considered “the defensive Mayfield of the NFL” right now in Myles Garrett. As the number one pick a year before Mayfield, Garrett now has two years under his belt of playing like an elite pass rusher, totaling 20.5 sacks and 47 QB hits in 27 career games. Next to him, the defense will replace Emmanuel Ogbah with Olivier Vernon (Ogbah: 3 sacks in 2018, Vernon: 7 sacks in 2018) and Trevon Coley with Sheldon Richardson at defensive tackle.

2017 Pro Bowler Joe Schobert is at middle linebacker and Christian Kirksey returns after missing nine games last season. The secondary features Denzel Ward, the fourth overall pick a year ago who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie and second round pick Greedy Williams at cornerback. They’ve also got Morgan Burnett and Damarious Randall at safety, which doesn’t make it the strongest position after they also included Jabrill Peppers in the Beckham trade, but doesn’t necessarily make it weak.

In some ways, the defense looks to be more stable and reliable than the offense, even if Mayfield, Beckham, Landry, Njoku, Chubb give the offense a more “higher ceiling” look. The defense — which moved from Williams to another former 2018 head coach in Steve Wilks, who got a couple of looks at Seattle last season when he was with the Arizona Cardinals — has a few more players at key positions with longer track records.

The Browns finished 17th in offensive DVOA, 12th in defensive DVOA, and 30th on special teams in 2018. They were seventh against the pass but 25th against the run, signaling (albeit way too early) that Pete Carroll and Brian Schottenheimer may be savoring an opportunity to give the ball to Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny as often as possible in Week 6.

Though is it ever “too early” to believe that Carroll and Schottenheimer salivate at the prospect of running the football?

That being said, the Browns may not be done adding players and while this section may be outdated immediately, they have plenty of room to add someone like Gerald McCoy to the mix over Larry Ogunjobi.

Regardless, Cleveland appears to be one of the most difficult to assess teams in a league where, as I said, it’s difficult to assess most teams. They are both extremely talented on paper and deeply unproven. The Browns could go 13-3 and they could also Browns. And they could go 8-8. It’s all on the table.

Biggest advantage over the Seahawks: Homefield

Biggest disadvantage against Seahawks: Carroll’s experience vs Kitchens, Russell Wilson’s experience vs a young defense and new defensive coordinator, short week vs long week.

Expectation: This could be a difficult one for Seattle as the Browns may be difficult to plan for due to Mayfield’s aggressive and unpredictable nature combined with rare talent and upgraded weapons. However, the Seahawks will also be coming off of a long week, having faced the LA Rams on Thursday Night Football 10 days earlier compared to a short week for Cleveland, who will face the San Francisco 49ers in Week 5 on Monday Night Football.

This should not be the most important game of the season for either team but it is one of the most exciting and anticipated on the schedule. Seattle’s secondary and pass rush may struggle against Mayfield, the offensive line, and Cleveland’s weapons, but a rested Wilson against an equally questionable secondary (one may argue) isn’t to be discounted.

I’d say the Browns have noticeable advantages at pass rush, secondary, offensive line, and receiver, but the Seahawks have a stable foundation of success under Carroll that Cleveland has not had under any coach they’ve had since joining the NFL. Does that change in 2019? We can’t say in May, but I think most of us are eager to find out.

What’s your opinion of the Browns? Can they compete for the AFC championship in 2019 or is 2020 the earliest return date on their investments?