Having been the butt of every joke over the last 20 years, for the first time since they re-entered the NFL in 1999 the Cleveland Browns will go into the new season as the most talked-about team in the league.
Only two years ago the Browns appeared to have hit rock bottom when they followed up a 1-15 season with a winless 0-16 campaign just 12 months later, but in an astonishing turnaround no team will be under the spotlight in the coming season more than Cleveland.
Much of the credit for this revival has been credited to new General Manager John Dorsey who has attracted some huge names to a team who have done little of note since winning their last NFL championship back in 1964.
It may have been 30 years since the Browns last won their division, but they should have every confidence of equalling this in 2019/20 thanks to their massively upgraded roster, not to mention a period of transition in the AFC North which firmly opens the door even further for the perennial whipping boys of the NFL.
The Browns now boast some of the most talented names in the game, particularly in offence, with quarterback Baker Mayfield being joined by a host of elite receivers led by cover boy Odell Beckham Jr., whose acquisition in a trade with the Giants was Dorsey’s crowning moment in the job so far.
In trading for Beckham, the team added arguably the most dangerous downfield threat in the league right now and a player with four 1,000-yard seasons and three double-digit touchdown campaigns over his five years in the NFL and it’s not as though he’s joining a steam bereft of talent
Starting QB Baker Mayfield certainly made a name for himself in his debut season, setting a new rookie record for touchdown passes with 27in 14 games while partner-in-crime Nick Chubb was just short of 1,000 yards on the ground as a rookie and averaged over five yards a carry while veteran receiver Jarvis Landry has averaged over 96 catches and 1,000 yards a season over his career.
The only fly in the ointment for Cleveland is that they will be missing running back Kareem Hunt for first half of the season due to an eight-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy, but the 23-year-old led the NFL in rushing with 1,327 yards in 2017 and had more than 1,200 total yards in 11 games with the Kansas City Chiefs a season ago, and assuming the Browns are still in the chase, should be able to hit the ground running on his return.
Even the prospect of a rookie head coach who a year ago hardly anyone in Cleveland, or nationally for that matter, had even heard of doesn’t seem to be able to halt the hype juggernaut which is travelling at full speed out of Ohio.
Freddie Kitchens was the running backs coach on a side coming off an 0-16 season but now he’s the head coach of the most talked-about team in the NFL right now and while most rookie coaches inherit teams in need of a major overhaul, Kitchens finds himself at the helm of a star-studded bunch that are looking to finally provide some glory for the NFL’s longest-suffering fans.
Interim coach for the second half of the season after the departure of Hue Jackson, Kitchens was thrown in at the deep end somewhat, though the players appeared to respond positively to his leadership as the Browns made a late and somewhat unexpected charge for the post-season.
On paper, the Browns look like being the real deal but perhaps the biggest hurdle is their own expectations as how they deal with being in the unaccustomed position of division favourites is anyone’s guess.
As we’ve seen so many times before, pressure can do strange things to sports organisations and with so much talk surrounding the Browns during the offseason, whether the hype can be justified will be an ongoing subplot throughout the 2019 campaign.
So assuming all the key players on offence perform to their potential and the much-improved defensive unit remain healthy and productive, the Browns should be a fascinating watch this coming season, not to mention a safe bet for the playoffs, something they have not achieved since 2002.
*Odds subject to change