Baker’s Dozen - 13 Reasons Why The Browns Will Be Contenders In The 2020 NFL Season
It’s far from controversial to say that the Cleveland Browns have been one of the very worst teams in professional football over the course of the previous decade; in fact, the last 10 years have left the side with a frankly woeful 42-117-1 record—rock bottom of the NFL. But at last, the tide seems to be turning in Northeast Ohio as the Haslams’ franchise is set for a serious comeback campaign in 2020 due to the recent changes that have been made across the league, within the AFC North, and specifically Cleveland itself. As such, here are 13 reasons why the Browns will contend in the upcoming season, and potentially emerge as the conference’s dark horse en route to Raymond James Stadium next February.
Better protection, additional weapons and a new playbook for Mayfield points towards a serious comeback season for the former first-overall pick (Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
1. Baker’s Blindside Has Been Addressed
After ranking 23rd in offensive line gradings for the 2019 season according to PFF—well below average and in need of serious renovation—the Browns rightfully addressed their issues at tackle by taking Jedrick Wills with the 10th overall selection in April’s draft. Undeniably one of the top prospects at the position with some analysts holding him as the premium pick, the Bama blocker played right tackle during his Junior Year due to quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s left-handedness—allowing only a single sack all season—and represents the most likely candidate to move over to the left tackle spot and protect Baker’s blindside. Mayfield will have significantly more time in the pocket to work with this season, and Willis will be a huge reason why.
2. Conklin Contributes To Improved Protection
One of the top free-agent lineman options on every GM’s shopping list this offseason, former Tennessee Titan Jack Conklin represented the best available pickup after the Colts resigned Anthony Castonzo to a two-year, $33 million contract extension on 15 March. And Browns fans everywhere breathed a sigh of relief after new GM Andrew Berry decided to hand Conklin a three-year, $42 million deal which was signed some five days later. The 2016 first-round pick is the perfect replacement on the right side of Mayfield’s offensive line, and the third-year quarterback can sleep easy at night knowing the bookends are all sorted.
3. The Browns’ Offensive Weapons Haven’t Gone Anywhere
The more I read, the more I get the impression that football fans and journalists everywhere seem to have forgotten about the weapons at Baker’s disposal: running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, wideouts Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, and tight ends David Njoku and Austin Hooper will all be wearing Cleveland uniforms in the upcoming season, and that alone is enough to keep opposing defensive coordinators up at night as they scheme the best they can to slow down Mayfield’s surrounding talent. While it’s true that all but one of these players were on the Browns in 2019, the franchise now appears to have the right people in place to maximise these individuals’ potential.
New head coach Kevin Stefanski is the breath of fresh air this franchise desperately needed (Joshua Gunter/cleveland.com)
4. Kevin Kicks Kitchens To The Curb As The New Head Coach
The Browns will have a new man on the sidelines for them each Sunday this year in the form of Kevin Stefanski. The 38-year-old arrives in Cleveland after spending no fewer than 14 years in Minnesota adopting a variety of different roles—most recently offensive coordinator—and resultantly brings both a well-informed mindset and well-rounded skillset to his rookie campaign as a head coach. Young, innovative and educated by both Brad Childress and Mike Zimmer at the Vikings—whom each won two division titles—Stefanski represents a new era of Browns football as we enter a fresh decade of the NFL.
5. Berry Brings Youth To The Front Office
John Dorsey’s departure following the conclusion of the 2019 regular season left a vacancy in the Browns’ GM position, filled 27 days later by none other than Andrew Berry. The youngest GM in NFL history at the time of his hiring, the Harvard graduate possesses a strong pro scouting background and is familiar with the Haslams’ franchise after spending three seasons as the team’s vice president of player personnel. Perhaps more encouraging for Browns fans though is the fact that Stefanski and Berry have known each other for the past ten years after being introduced by then-Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, and already possess a pre-existing relationship. When speaking on his new GM, the head coach said “I’ve always respected him for the way he’s carried himself in this profession… Andrew is extremely knowledgeable and is always looking to improve himself. We share a vision on the type of team we need to build to have the success our fans deserve. I'm excited and very much looking forward to getting to work with Andrew and developing the type of partnership needed for sustained success.” The two already being in lockstep is a good sign of things to come for the city of Cleveland.
6. New Coordinators Confirm State-Of-The-Art System Put In Place
Both coordinators of either side of the ball for the Browns will look different in the 2020 NFL season: out go Todd Monken and Steve Wilks, who are replaced by the more successful pairing of Alex Van Pelt and Joe Woods. Van Pelt boasts a decade and a half of professional coaching experience including four years directly tutoring future first-ballot Hall of Famer and Super Bowl XLV MVP Aaron Rodgers, while Woods has a ring of his own as a member of coaching staff that saw the Broncos defeat the Panthers in the title game for the 2015 NFL season. These two additions to the Browns’ sideline personnel will prove especially useful in returning Mayfield to his rookie-season form and solidifying that secondary to turn FirstEnergy Stadium into a No Fly Zone of its own—a repeat of the original one Woods was responsible for creating in Denver.
7. O’Shea Opens Up Passing Game Possibilities
The addition of long-time Patriots wide receivers coach Chad O’Shea to Cleveland’s staff is one that Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry among others should be very satisfied with. The three-time Super Bowl champion as a coach in New England played a significant part in the team’s wide receiver core hugely overperforming for the ten years he spent there—only one member of which topped 6,000 receiving yards and ranked in the league’s top 30 list for the decade: Julian Edelman. In addition to having previously worked with Stefanski during the pair’s stint in Minnesota, scheming open DeVante Parker last year to have an impressive 1202-yard, 9-touchdown season on the Dolphins, and perhaps most importantly being a Belichik disciple—O’Shea brings a wealth of experience and knowledge which Beckham Jr. in particular could prosper from after underperforming in 2019.
The dynamic duo of Beckham Jr. and Landry combined for 2,209 yards and 10 touchdowns last season in their first season playing together since their college days at LSU (Ken Blaze/Scott Galvin, USA TODAY Sports)
8. Callahan Comes To Cleveland To Coach Up Renovated Offensive Line
While the aforementioned additions of Wills and Conklin is certainly promising for Browns fans everywhere, their value could be significantly diminished if not coached and installed into the new offensive scheme properly. Enter: Bill Callahan. The 2020 NFL season will mark the veteran coach’s 40th year in the profession—one of which he spent as the head coach that lead the Oakland Raiders to an AFC Championship and a Super Bowl appearance—so attempting to describe his knowledge, experience and success within the sport simply wouldn’t do it justice. But one thing that is easily explainable is Callahan’s prowess in Dallas, whereby he was solely responsible for Tyron Smith’s, Zack Martin’s, and Travis Frederick’s 2014 All-Pro Team inclusions and cemented himself as undeniably one of the best offensive line coaches in all of football. Both Baker Mayfield and Nick Chubb are licking their lips at the thought of the improved protection coming their way in September.
9. The New Playoff Format Hugely Benefits The Browns
This one is simple: the passage of the new CBA in March means that a total of 14 teams will be playing January football and no fewer than seven teams per conference will feature in playoff games. As such, Cleveland’s chances of making the postseason, ceteris paribus, automatically increase by 6.25% before they even take to the field in Week 1. And while this percentage obviously applies to all 32 teams in the NFL, by being a member of the AFC North and therefore the corresponding conference—the consensus weaker of the two given the top-heavy nature of the NFC—the Browns’ hopes of playing meaningful football a week or two after 18 other teams have been eliminated just went up a notch.
10. The Dawg Pound’s Division Is Far From The League’s Most Competitive
While each new NFL season continues to give rise to unlikely contenders and previously-dismissed teams—see last year’s San Francisco 49ers—it’s not outrageous to claim that the AFC North doesn’t contain four of the very strongest franchises in the league; other divisions collectively represent much stronger contenders to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy in early February. The Ravens unequivocally remain one of the conference’s and NFL’s most dangerous franchises with Lamar Jackson coming off of a record-breaking MVP season, yes, but the Steelers live and breathe by the health and performance of Big Ben (emphasised by Rudolph’s and Hodges’ struggles last season when filling in for the injured Roethlisberger) and the Bengals remain a question mark until they can put it all together on the field—especially being led by a quarterback with no experience at the pro level. These chinks in the armour of the two teams that account for a quarter of the Browns’ schedule each year—further facilitated by Cleveland’s ease of schedule in 2020—give the franchise a real opportunity to capitalise and emerge from the division as a playoff team in January.
11. Keenum Can Keep Browns In The Hunt If Needed
As asserted by former Texans GM Charley Casserly: “The second most important person on the team is the backup quarterback;” in the case that the primary passer does go down, all eyes turn to the QB2 on the roster who more likely than not has big boots to fill left by the injured starter—see the aforementioned milquetoast 2019 Steelers options. In line with this, Cleveland have made a significant upgrade at their backup spot by bringing in Case Keenum on a three-year, $18 million deal—a man who led the Vikings to a 13-3 record and the doorstep of the Super Bowl in 2017 after filling in for the injured Sam Bradford, as recently as three seasons ago. Having worked with Stefanski directly in Minnesota as the 38-year-old was Keenum’s quarterback coach for that aforementioned miraculous playoff run, and given the quality of weapons available to the veteran passer should Mayfield go down, I think it’s fair to say: Don’t worry, Browns fans—your team is in safe hands should your 2018 first-overall pick get injured.
Baker has a new toy in the form of Austin Hooper who arrives from the Falcons on a new long-term contract (Patrick Gorski/USA TODAY Sports)
12. Addition Of Austin Augments The Playbook Significantly
The best available tight end free agent this offseason, Hooper headed for Cleveland after being offered a four-year, $44 million-dollar deal by the franchise back in March and represents the perfect complement to David Njoku. Why? Because the Browns are going to be able to have both weapons on the field simultaneously, creating mismatches and keeping defensive coordinators guessing; Kevin Stefanski is no stranger to multiple tight-end sets (as best exemplified by the Vikings’ 38-20 blowout of the Eagles last October whereby Kyle Rudolph, Irv Smith Jr., C.J. Ham and Tyler Conklin all lined up in tight-end packages for 70, 38, 34 and 11 snaps respectively). Austin Hooper therefore not only brings an average production of 561 yards and 4 touchdowns per season, but also a versatility to the Browns’ offense due to Stefanski’s scheme and willingness to use tight ends. The Pound just added another Dawg.
13. Dominant DBs Make For A Scary Secondary
There’s no other way of putting it: on paper, the Browns’ starting secondary looks nasty. Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams at cornerback with recently-signed Kevin Johnson in the slot, and then fellow new arrival Karl Joseph and second-round rookie Grant Delpit at safety. All those calling offensive plays in the AFC North against those Cleveland DBs have got their work cut out for them—at an average age of 23.8 years old, these guys are young, quick and hungry to turn the fate of the Haslams’ franchise around against all of the odds. And as aforementioned, Joe Woods—the man responsible for coaching up that famous Broncos secondary—is now Cleveland’s defensive coordinator; he’s done it before so don’t rule him out doing it once again in Northeast Ohio. This DB core has a LOT of potential, and there’s few coaches I trust more with maximising it than the creator of the No Fly Zone.
The Browns may just be about to go from the NFL’s biggest laughing stock to its greatest shock—and if so, it’ll be because of this Baker’s Dozen of reasons.
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