Browns are headed to the playoffs and four more bold predictions for Cleveland's 2019 season
Big years from Baker Mayfield and Myles Garrett lead the Browns back to the postseason
Travel back in time with me for a minute, all the way to 2002.
The NFL has just expanded to 32 teams for the first time in its history, as the expansion Houston Texans are playing their first season in the league. The Rams play in St. Louis and are coached by Mike Martz. The Drew Brees-led Chargers play in San Diego. The No. 1 overall pick is David Carr. Ten picks later, the Colts land a pass rusher named Dwight Freeney. Thirteen picks after that, the Ravens select a safety named Ed Reed.
A young man by the name of Tom Brady, fresh off his first Super Bowl victory, is in his first full season as the starting quarterback of the New England Patriots, who have a defensive assistant by the name of Josh McDaniels and a 30-year old kicker named Adam Vinatieri. Star quarterback Brett Favre of the Green Bay Packers, 33 years old, has yet to contemplate retirement.
By the end of the season, the NFL MVP is Rich Gannon, who leads Bill Callahan's Oakland Raiders to an 11-5 record after the team trades head coach Jon Gruden to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the offseason. The offensive and defensive rookies of the year are Clinton Portis and Julius Peppers. The league leader in rushing yards is Ricky Williams of the Miami Dolphins, who was acquired during the offseason for multiple draft picks.
John Dorsey is in his third year as the Director of College Scouting for the Green Bay Packers -- a job he will ultimately hold for 11 years before becoming the GM of the Chiefs. Freddie Kitchens is a running backs coach at North Texas University. He'll spend four more years coaching running backs and tight ends in college before making the jump to the NFL as the tight ends coach for Bill Parcells' Cowboys. Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry are nine years away from teaming up at LSU. Baker Mayfield is seven years old.
Folks, that is how long ago it was that the Cleveland Browns last played in the postseason. This year, that streak comes to an end. Seriously.
Browns make the playoffs for the first time since 2002
Incredibly, the Browns are -140 to make the playoffs this season. They have the same odds to win the division as the Steelers! Their Super Bowl odds are in the same range as teams like the Colts, Eagles, Chargers, and Rams. Expectations are high. Consider this a vote in favor of the Browns meeting them.
Sportsline has the Browns pegged for 9.2 wins, fourth-most in the AFC and most in the NFC North. Cleveland has the league's 13th-easiest schedule, according to Warren Sharp at Sharp Football Stats, with four games against bottom-five opponents and four more against teams in the bottom 10. That's half the schedule right there. They'll have to get off to a strong start against the Titans and Jets early on, but if they can do that, they should be able to carry some momentum into their tougher mid-season stretch before things ease up again toward the end of the year.
In the AFC, it shouldn't take more than nine wins to get into the playoffs, and with the Browns having won seven (plus a tie) last season and adding a whole bunch of talent, that total seems extremely doable for them.
Browns finish top 10 in offense and defense
The Browns finished last season ranked 17th in offensive efficiency, per Football Outsiders' DVOA, and 12th in defensive efficiency. Even from those benchmarks, they were not all that far away from the top 10 on both sides of the ball. But they were even closer if you include only the games where they were coached by Not Hue Jackson.
In Weeks 10-17, no team was more efficient offensively than the Browns, who posted an offensive DVOA that would have ranked second behind only the Chiefs over the course of a full season. Cleveland's defense fell off during the second half, but an infusion of talented players like Olivier Vernon, Sheldon Richardson, Morgan Burnett, Eric Murray, and rookies Greedy Williams, Sione Takitaki, Mack Wilson and Sheldrick Redwine, they should be able to improve in 2019 -- especially since they will be coached by Steve Wilks rather than Gregg Williams. Add in the fact that this team should be playing with the lead more often than it did a season ago and you've got the recipe for a jump into the top third of the league.
Baker Mayfield throws for 4,000+ yards and 30+ touchdowns
Given how good Mayfield looked over the second half of last season, this may not sound too crazy. But consider this: If Mayfield actually hits both of those marks, he would be just the sixth quarterback in NFL history to reach them in one of his first two seasons in the league. And if he also completes greater than 65 percent of his passes (a pretty good bet, considering he was at 63.8 percent last year), he'd be just the third quarterback to do so. The other two are Kurt Warner in 1999 and Patrick Mahomes last year.
There's also reason to think that the 4,000-yard and 30-touchdown marks are readily achievable for Mayfield. In the eight games he started where Freddie Kitchens was at the controls of the offense last season, Mayfield threw for 2,254 yards and 19 scores. Obviously, that's a full-season pace of 4,508 yards and 38 TDs. Even in the unlikely event that he experiences a drop-off, he can afford a nearly 12 percent drop in yards per game and 21 percent drop in touchdowns and still get there. And considering the Browns added Odell Beckham Jr. and now have David Njoku in his third NFL season and have Kitchens and Todd Monken running the offense and Nick Chubb installed as the full-time back and etc. etc. etc., well, let's just say we're optimistic.
Myles Garrett leads the league in sacks
Garrett finished seventh in the NFL with 13.5 sacks last season. He also finished seventh among all edge rushers with 67 pressures, per Pro Football Focus. And he finished fifth with 16 additional quarterback hits. He did all that while playing on a defensive line that did not also include Olivier Vernon rushing from the opposite side or Sheldon Richardson pushing the pocket alongside Larry Ogunjobi up the middle. And he did it while being coached by Gregg Williams, whose schemes ... left something to be desired.
Cleveland's defensive coordinator is now former Cardinals coach and Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, who tends to put players in far better position to succeed and whose secondaries have played far more aggressively than those of Williams, rarely yielding the kinds of easy completions the Browns gave up last season and the season before by playing their safeties so far off the ball. Better play-calling plus better coverage plus better teammates to draw the offensive line's attention equals a monster year for Garrett, who could conceivably get into the high teens in sacks. And then, all it takes is a slight regression to the mean from the very best pass rushers for Garrett to lead the league.
Nick Chubb is so good that Kareem Hunt is a clear backup upon return
Chubb was Pro Football Focus's highest-graded running back in 2018. He led the league in elusive rating (103.3), while also averaging 4.47 yards after contact per attempt, which ranks best by any running back this past decade. I'm going to have to double-check with our research department, but I'm pretty sure that "highest-graded" and "best in this past decade" are good things.
There's also this: Over the aforementioned final eight games of the 2018 season, Chubb averaged 19.8 touches per game, turning those touches into a line that would have translated to 1,356 yards and 10 scores on the ground and 278 yards and four scores through the air over the course of a full season. And he did that while playing only 57.7 percent of the team's offensive snaps.
With Duke Johnson now in Houston and Kareem Hunt suspended for the first eight games of the season, Chubb seems extremely likely to see his snap rate spike and take on the workload of a true feature back. We're talking 22-25 touches per game. The Browns' first-10 weeks schedule is also far tougher against the pass than it is against the run, potentially making Chubb a higher-efficiency play than usual while Hunt is out. And if he gets that kind of workload against that kind of schedule, he is going to explode, and the Browns simply won't be able to justify taking him out of the lineup.
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