Cleveland Browns Coach Freddie Kitchens runs a drill at the team's training facility in Ohio. (Ron Schwane)

It has been 11 years since the Cleveland Browns finished the regular season with a winning record, and you have to go back to 1989 to find them at the top of the division, which was called the AFC Central back then. It’s been 16 years since they made the playoffs and 21 years since they won a postseason game. All that should change in 2019 — a new coach, revamped defensive line and the addition of star wideout Odell Beckham Jr. sparks optimism in Cleveland. So much so they should be considered Super Bowl contenders.

I feel something in the air,” Beckham told the Associated Press earlier this month. “Something special that Cleveland hasn’t had for a while.

"Obviously, the goal is always going to be the same — to hang banners, that’s what you play this game. We know we got a lot of expectations. We got a lot of work to do and I think we’ll get there.”

The oddsmakers in Vegas are optimistic, too. The weekly preseason point spreads released by CG Technology in May for Weeks 1 through 16 had the Browns as favorites in eight games this season. Week 17, a road game against the Cincinnati Bengals, could also see Cleveland as the favorite — the Browns are eight-point favorites at home against the Bengals in Week 14. If we convert these point spreads to win rates, there is a 49 percent chance Cleveland wins nine or more games in 2019. There is a 30 percent chance they win the AFC North and a four percent chance they win Super Bowl LIV. A four percent chance may not sound high but that’s on par with other contenders such as the Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, Philadelphia Eagles, Los Angeles Chargers and Pittsburgh Steelers.

If there is one obstacle standing in the way of the Browns returning to glory it is their offensive line, but there isn’t a consensus of how well this offensive line played last year. Pro Football Focus had the Browns as the second-best pass-blocking unit behind the Steelers but just an average (18th) run-blocking unit. Football Outsiders ranked Cleveland 16th for pass-blocking (via their adjusted sack rate metric) and 18th for run blocking (according to their adjusted line yards formula).

The benefits of a stout offensive line are obvious, and it should be no surprise quarterback Baker Mayfield, the No. 1 overall pick of 2018, performed better when not facing pressure in the pocket (100.2 passer rating vs. 73.5 under pressure, per PFF). Running backs Nick Chubb, Duke Johnson and Kareem Hunt, eligible to return in the Brown’s ninth regular-season game, could also use some help up front — Cleveland’s rushers were stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage 23 percent of the time last year, the fourth-most in the NFL. They were stopped half the time from achieving a first down or touchdown on runs on third or fourth down with two yards or less to go, the worst in the league.

To be fair, the unit’s performance on passing downs got markedly better after the firing of Coach Hue Jackson — the Browns allowed 46 total pressures during Weeks 9 through 17, the second-fewest in the NFL per the game charters at Pro Football Focus, but most of the team’s upgrades were focused on the defensive side of the ball, sometimes at the expense of the offensive line, leaving holes in the front five.

Starting left tackle Greg Robinson started eight games in 2018 and was ranked 63rd out of 80 tackles playing at least 25 percent of his team’s games by Pro Football Focus. Right tackle Chris Hubbard ranked 53rd. Right guard Kevin Zeitler, the fifth best guard of 2018 per PFF, was traded to the New York Giants for pass rusher Olivier Vernon, putting pressure on Austin Corbett, a second-round pick in 2018, to step up. Corbett played just 14 snaps in 2019, 11 of those as a run blocker. On the other side, left guard Joel Bitonio is a standout. The 27-year-old allowed one sack and 12 hurries over 694 pass-blocking snaps last year, earning him his first Pro Bowl nod of his career. Center JC Tretter was also solid and ranked as the seventh-best center of 2018.

We need to get better in all areas. We really do,” Kitchens told reporters after the team’s first mandatory minicamp. “We need to get a better base of what we want to do from a protection standpoint — which we were pretty good in the second half of last year — but still there was some opportunities where we could have been better than we were. I do not know where this is going to end up. I just know that our football team is going to keep our head down and we are going to keep working to get better every day in all areas.”

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