The Browns — no, seriously, the Cleveland Browns, the team in the orange helmets that plays in the city everybody likes to make fun of — might be Super Bowl contenders this season. That is the shocking reality that came crashing down on a dazed NFL on Tuesday night, when the Browns completed a long-rumored-yet-longshot trade for star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. while sending the New York Giants a relative pittance. The Browns are not a joke anymore. They’re a problem.
It is impossible to find coherence in what the Giants have done since they signed Beckham to a five-year, $90 million contract extension before last season. But the plan Browns General Manager John Dorsey has executed since he seized control of a hapless franchise after a winless season is clear. In less than two years — with help from the draft stash assembled by former football operations head Sashi Brown — he has overhauled the roster, swapped out the coaching staff and found a franchise quarterback.
The Browns are loading up during an offseason in which Baker Mayfield is entering the second year of his rookie contract, which is exactly what they should be doing. There is no greater advantage in NFL roster-building than a young and cheap quarterback, which leaves open resources for the rest of the team. The Chicago Bears and Los Angeles Rams last season showed how quickly a franchise can turn around by building around a young quarterback, and Mayfield can be better than Mitchell Trubisky and Jared Goff. Forget their history: The Browns’ window is right now.
This is what good teams do. The Browns are good now. No, really, the Cleveland Browns.
The Browns, who haven’t made the playoffs since 2002, who have finished in last place 13 times in the AFC North’s 17-year existence. If the season began tomorrow, they would be the overwhelming favorite in the division. The Pittsburgh Steelers have waved goodbye to Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell with nothing to show for it except more than $20 million in dead salary cap space and two mid-round draft picks. The Baltimore Ravens have been decimated on defense, losing safety Eric Weddle, linebacker C.J. Mosley and outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Terrell Suggs to cuts or free agency. The Cincinnati Bengals are aimless.
Beckham comes with an obvious caveat. One NFC executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity after being reached Tuesday, cautioned that the trade “could be” great for Cleveland, calling Beckham a “rare talent” while he pointed out that Beckham “is a handful and a locker room problem.”
That’s certainly how he’s perceived in many NFL circles, and it’ll be a challenge for Freddie Kitchens in his first year as head coach. But Beckham will play alongside LSU teammate and close friend Jarvis Landry, and Browns wide receivers coach Adam Henry coached him at LSU and with the Giants. The erosion of Eli Manning’s arm strength led to some of Beckham’s frustration, and Mayfield has no such issues. Cleveland has had its fair share of problems, but it should be a comfortable landing spot for Beckham.
Beckham makes the Browns different, and he comes at a minor cost. The Browns acquired him for the No. 17 pick, the No. 95 pick — which Dorsey picked up in a trade with the New England Patriots for defensive tackle Danny Shelton — and third-year safety Jabrill Peppers.
It’s reasonable to approach the use of phrases “Cleveland Browns” and “Super Bowl contender” close together with skepticism. Owner Jimmy Haslam has overseen only dysfunction since he took control. But, goodness, look at the talent they have now.
The Browns finished 7-8-1 last season, which sounds mediocre but borders on miraculous. They had gone 1-31 over the prior two seasons under Hue Jackson … and then brought Jackson back. Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley openly feuded, which is not the preferred method of developing a rookie quarterback picked first overall.
Once the Browns canned both of them, they won five of their final eight games as Mayfield blossomed under Kitchens, who took over as offensive coordinator. To an offense that included Landry, promising tight end David Njoku and impressive rookie running back Nick Chubb, the Browns have added Beckham and troubled but supremely talented running back Kareem Hunt. At the skill positions, on paper — and depending on Hunt’s availability should the league suspend him for any length of time after the Chiefs released him following the surfacing of video that appeared to show him pushing and kicking a woman — this might be the most talented unit outside of Kansas City.
The Browns’ defense ranked 21st last season in points allowed, but cornerback Denzel Ward — the draft’s fourth pick — played like a foundational piece, and Dorsey has traded for veteran pass rusher Olivier Vernon and agreed to sign tackle Sheldon Richardson to shore up the defensive line, their weakest point last season. Myles Garrett, the first pick in 2017, is on his way to becoming an elite edge defender.
So, yeah, the Browns are good. “Good” is probably their baseline. In the wake of Beckham’s acquisition, their Super Bowl odds improved to 14-1, behind only the Patriots, Rams, Chiefs and New Orleans Saints. The four conference championship game participants are the company the Browns keep now.
It would be safer to picture the Browns as a Super Bowl-caliber team with a more experienced coach than Kitchens, who began last year as Cleveland’s running backs coach. But Kitchens has already proved he can click with this team — and especially this quarterback. He navigated chaos last year and turned the Browns into a tough out. This season, he’ll have to navigate something utterly foreign in Cleveland: expectations.
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