BEREA, Ohio – Signs of life and hope and progress and optimism abound all around the Cleveland Browns practice facility.
Myles Garrett, a potential Defensive MVP candidate, was playing catch with young fans in the stands between drills at Sunday's practice, Odell Beckham Jr., a potential Offensive MVP candidate, gave his cleats to some youngsters after individual drills and quarterback David Blough – okay, I admit I have no idea who this rookie out of Purdue is and he is not going to make the team – was literally sprinting through the stands in full uniform at one point leading the diehards in cheers they were ever-so-eager to follow.
The Browns are back.
The moribund Hue Jackson era seems long gone (it featured three wins in roughly three years), the promise of Baker Mayfield and a new day was fulfilled as the Browns went an previously-unfathomable 5-2 down the stretch, including pushing eventual AFC North champ Baltimore to the limit on the road in Week 17. I expect the Browns to pick up where they left off, and to seriously challenge for the AFC North title.
If the Browns had a modicum of head coaching acumen before turning things over to interim Gregg Williams at midseason, or had a decent kicker for much of the season or had started Mayfield from Day One, they very well could have been in the postseason a year ago. Now, after a series of huge acquisitions – OBJ, Sheldon Richardson, Olivier Vernon and what could be another hotshot draft class, too – expectations are high, and with actual football games upon us and the bright lights of all those prime-time kickoffs creeping closer, this franchise is trying to manage the hype, harness expectations and not get caught up in all of the hoopla.
"We're trying to stay in the moment," as rookie head coach Freddie Kitchens, who served as offensive coordinator after Jackson was fired and Williams promoted to interim HC last season, put it. Everyone seems a little restless about reliving the turnaround of 2018, as it insures nothing for this season and, well, all the clichés apply (games are not won on paper/you can't win a Super Bowl in July/you are what your record says you are) and 7-8-1 last year wasn't enough to get to the postseason.
"I don't care about last year anymore," Kitchens said at one point Sunday, echoing sentiments his owners had expressed a few minutes earlier at their media availability. Asked if the playoffs should be the expectation, owner Jimmy Haslam responded: "I think that's unfair." They strained not to project much about the future and preached the mantra of one practice at a time. "Clearly it looks like we put together a good team, but everyone is focused on getting better today," Haslam said, and later offered: "Enough talk. We've got to go out and win games now."
The players seem to be enjoying the new vibes around the team, and receiver Jarvis Landry, who was talking Super Bowl a year ago, isn't backing down now. "That's our goal," he reiterated.
I joked with Garrett about the Browns becoming America's Team. "We just want to be Cleveland's team right now," Garrett said. "That's where we are. These fans have loved and supported us through all of these years, and whoever else comes on with us, we're going to appreciate."
Left tackle a spot to monitor
Despite all of GM John Dorsey's shrewd moves – his applause walking to the practice field Sunday as loud as almost any player's, for good reason – you have to wonder a bit about the left tackle spot. Greg Robinson, a former top pick, has held his own early in camp for the most part, and the front office believes he can do the job … but if he falters, expect a proactive response from an aggressive GM. Facing Garrett everyday should help, though at times it's not going to look pretty on the practice field. I'd put Browns left tackle up there with Texans left tackle and Steelers No. 2 WR and Bears kicker as some of the most important roster spots to monitor the entire preseason.
Kicker taken in fifth round struggling
Speaking of kickers, fifth-round pick Austin Seibert is not off to a great start in his first camp. He was only one-for-four on Sunday and had missed half his kicks to that point early in camp. Greg Joseph is a holdover from a year ago, but when you draft a kicker, you expect him to win the job. "Hopefully he comes out tomorrow and does better," Kitchens said.
Verbal sparring between Mayfield, defense
Garrett told me the defense loves some of the verbal sparring that goes on with Mayfield during practice, especially a spirited full-pad session like Sunday. "Oh man, he gets hype," Garrett said, "and we just have that mentality to shut him up. You can't start talking if you ain't making plays. So you know if he is getting like that and getting fired up, he's either mad, or he's throwing darts on you. So you've got to take that away from him. To his credit he's a great player and we've seen it and we're just seeing the beginning." Chubb said the offense feeds off that intensity. "He has great energy, he leads the team," Chubb said. I'd pencil Mayfield in for at least 32 touchdowns and a top 10 passer rating.
More notes from Browns camp
- Don't hold your breath for a Duke Johnson trade anytime soon. Maybe around the midseason trade deadline, if the team is in great health and Hunt is still on track to return. But this club is about having as much veteran depth as possible right now.
- Would not be surprised at all if Kareem Hunt is recovered from his groin injury by midweek and back at practice. The Browns are still negotiating with the league about allowing him to remain with the team during his eight-game suspension for striking a female outside his apartment last year, Jimmy Haslam said. Dee Haslam noted how much hard work he will have to continue putting in off the field to walk the right path. Hunt, who looked explosive in spring practices, has clearly been embraced by his teammates. "That's my boy," said second-year running back Nick Chubb, who stands to lose some work when Hunt returns. "Kareem, he is really cool. He came in and we hit it off right away. Just picking up the playbook and having fun. He's a lot of fun to be around."
- Rookie Greedy Williams is earning rave reviews early. He may have fallen far in the draft after being projected a top-10 pick at one point, but his transition to his zone duties seems smooth and he had several nice breakups Sunday going against starting receivers. Dorsey's work drafting corners has been superb.
- The Browns may have the biggest tight end group I have ever seen. Seth DeValve, at 6-3, is dwarfed by David Njoku (6-4) and Pharaoh Brown (6-6) and then they added Demetrius Harris (6-7) as a free agent this year. Watching them work 11-on-11 in the red zone -- with Landry and OBJ underneath and Harris and Njoku working the back of the end zone, and Chubb running in spread formations -- options abounded for Mayfield.
- Hiring Todd Monken as offensive coordinator will prove to be one of the best moves of the entire offseason. He provides a tremendous sounding board and resource for Kitchens – who is calling the offense but could get spread thin by the other requirements of the job. Monken was a finalist for head coaching jobs a year ago and I would be shocked if he is not running his own team in 2020. His work in Tampa did not go unnoticed.
- Kitchens quickly broke up a skirmish Sunday involving largely backups and then made the entire team run laps. It was a minor flare-up but would have drawn penalty flags in a game, which clearly perturbs him. "We just don't practice penalties," he said, adding, "If we do something wrong on the field there are consequences."
- Former AAF quarterback Garrett Gilbert looks intriguing. He received abundant reps on Sunday with Drew Stanton getting a veteran's day off and made some nice throws and has looked the part thus far of a guy who could at least hold a clipboard in the NFL.