Oh, how times have changed.
Just two years removed from an 0-16 season that was historic for all the wrong reasons, the Cleveland Browns are suddenly one of the most intriguing teams in the NFL.
With Odell Beckham Jr., Olivier Vernon and Kareem Hunt coming to Cleveland in the offseason to combine forces with a young core than includes Baker Mayfield, Denzel Ward and Myles Garrett, Browns fans are ready to keep the Dawg Pound at capacity all season and put their paper bags away for good.
But with the elevated level of excitement comes elevated expectations, which the Browns are finding out as their every move is analyzed and criticized.
Here are five of the top storylines to watch this offseason as the Browns look to mold all of their talent into a Super Bowl contender.
The Odell Beckham Jr. Effect
It didn’t take long for OBJ to start making headlines in Cleveland.
That’s just life with the three-time Pro Bowler on the roster and the Browns expected as much when they traded for Beckham in March.
But you can’t say he doesn’t have team spirit, right?
Beckham showed up for the first day of OTAs, but that would be it for the former Giant as far as optional workouts go.
After also missing the team’s voluntary portion of off-season workouts, his presence — or lack thereof — has become a hot topic, despite his teammates repeatedly telling the media it’s no big deal.
Jarvis Landry, Beckham’s former LSU teammate, was one of the first to have his back.
“It’s no concern to me, and for the team,” Landry told WKYC.com. “I think they understand the type of player he is and that he’s going to be ready. I know personally that he will be ready. That’s really all that needs to be said about it.”
Browns head coach Freddie Kitchens was a little firmer on his stance, but reiterated that’s he’s not worried — yet — considering the OTAs are voluntary.
“It’s better for him to be here when he can present his best self. Emotionally and physically,” Kitchens said. “I’m not concerned with it until it becomes mandatory and that is June 4.”
With that date now just around the corner, Kitchens was asked what Beckham had missed. The first-year head coach kept it simple.
“A lot — the offense,” Kitchens said.
With Landry nursing an injury, OBJ’s absence certainly has not helped the development of Baker Mayfield, who has been throwing to backup wide receivers for the majority of the offseason so far.
Guys like Colin Cowherd won’t let us forget that. Cowherd issued a list of OBJ’s top 10 most memorable moments, and only one was about his play on the field — his now famous one-handed catch in 2014.
This, of course, elicited a response from Odell, who didn’t hold back on the radio host.
Noted Cowherd combatant and OBJ’s new quarterback Baker Mayfield had some thoughts on the situation as well.
Beckham will be an important presence in the locker room, especially for a guy like Antonio Callaway. The second-year pass-catcher has dealt with his share of off-field issues, but impressed at OTAs and has the potential to develop into a strong No. 3 option for Cleveland.
OBJ should embrace a mentor-type role with Callaway because if he emerges as a real threat, it will minimize double teams and make the Browns passing attack nearly impossible to shut down.
No doubt, Beckham has the talent to be an All-Pro in Cleveland. But if he truly wants to make the Browns the “new Patriots,” in true Belichick-Brady style, distractions need to be kept to a minimum.
How will the team handle Kareem Hunt?
The key word for Kareem Hunt this season will be “trust.” As much was evident when the embattled running back spoke to the media for the first time since signing with the Browns.
“I got to earn people’s trust back and my actions are going to show,” Hunt told reporters at the team’s first set of OTAs.
Hunt is suspended for the first eight games of the season for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. Hunt, who previously played for the Kansas City, was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list last fall following news that he was involved in an altercation with a woman at a Cleveland hotel.
The offseason — and preseason — will have an extra degree of importance as he gets up to speed on the playbook and on the same page with his teammates and coaching staff.
While it seems unlikely, the Browns are reportedly working on a way to keep Hunt around the team during his half-season ban to give him structure and support. This is not the usually the case, but it would aid in helping Hunt mesh with his new team.
If that situation does not come to fruition, now is the time for Hunt to earn that “trust” he was talking about with teammates, coaches and fans, to show he’s not taking his second chance lightly.
After all, Hunt is on a one-year deal with no guaranteed money, so if he slips up, there’s no consequences for the Browns if they want to go another direction.
But early on, Hunt seems to be making some good impressions.
“Good kid. Mistakes happen,” Baker Mayfield told reporters at OTAs. “Everybody that has been around him knows who he is. I think he was given a second chance and he is taking advantage of it.”
Mayfield reportedly talked with Chiefs players Travis Kelce and Patrick Mahomes after the team signed Hunt to get some input.
“Nothing but a lot of good things to say, and that is important,” Mayfield said. “What guys say about you in the locker room speaks more about you than anything you will do on the field.”
A scary prospect for the rest of the league is a Pro Bowl caliber back coming in fresh at the mid-way point of the season.
On the field, Hunt’s numbers are gaudy. In his first two seasons, the Toledo product racked up 2,151 rushing yards, 833 receiving yards and fumbled just once — which came on his first career carry.
And don’t forget about Nick Chubb, who will be getting the bulk of the work with Hunt serving his suspension and has proved he can produce. The Georgia product finished just under the 1,000-yard mark during his stellar rookie season.
And when Hunt returns, Chubb won’t have a problem embracing his presence, being no stranger to working in a backfield by committee. He did it for part of last year and while at Georgia with Sony Michel.
There are still a lot of questions to answer, but if all goes as planned, the Browns will have a mighty two-headed monster at their disposal.
The development of Baker Mayfield
The Browns haven’t made the playoffs since 2002, back when Baker Mayfield was just a fresh-faced peewee football player. If they hope to get back to the postseason, the former Heisman winner will have to play a big role both with his play and leadership.
During his rookie campaign, Mayfield proved he could be a top-tier quarterback in the NFL, showing off all the attributes that made him the No. 1 pick.
After usurping Tyrod Taylor as the starter in Week 3, Mayfield passed for 3,725 yards and had and 27 touchdowns to 14 interceptions. If it were not for the Giants’ wunderkind running back Saquon Barkley, Mayfield would have surely been rewarded with rookie of the year honors.
But now, with one of the league’s most talented receiving corps at his disposal, a strong running game and Super Bowl talk growing by the day, the spotlight will be on Mayfield to have a successful sophomore campaign.
But it’s not like Mayfield is one to avoid the spotlight. He usually embraces it, a la Brett Favre, who Odell Beckham Jr. compared his new quarterback to in a GQ interview this offseason.
“Brett Favre was my favorite quarterback growing up so it got me a little fired up,” said Mayfield. “If you don’t have that mentality to be the best that ever played then I think you’re doing it for the wrong reason.”
Last year, Mayfield excelled once now head coach Freddie Kitchens took over the play-calling duties on offense midway through the season. Cleveland averaged 23.8 points per game with Kitchens calling the plays and scored on 79.2 percent of its red zone trips. That should only improve with the new weapons in the Browns’ arsenal.
But there will also be an increase of big personalities floating around the locker room. Mayfield has shown his leadership traits early on, but will have to develop those even further for the Browns to have success — especially if things don’t go exactly according to plan early.
Kitchens isn’t worried, and had some simple advice for Mayfield.
“I just want him to keep being himself,” Kitchens told Cleveland.com.
Who will fill the holes?
There’s no shortage of new, big names on the Browns depth chart — that much is obvious.
But while Cleveland brought in a bunch of shiny new toys, there are still holes at key positions that need to be filled.
After dealing Jabrill Peppers to the Giants in the Odell Beckham Jr. trade, one of the most notable needs is at safety, where the Browns will be relying on veteran Morgan Burnett.
Browns GM John Dorsey was part of the staff that drafted Burnett with the Packers in 2010, and it was that familiarity that led to him landing with the Browns this offseason as free agent.
But is Burnett still a starting-caliber player? He’s coming off a year where he underwhelmed with the Steelers and was cut just one year into a three-year deal. Burnett played in just 11 games and his 30 tackles were his lowest total since his rookie season.
That being said, Dorsey has said that he believes Burnett can still be the starter in defensive coordinator Steve Wilks’ scheme.
“With regards to Morgan, I think over the years he has shown his ability to play the game of football,” said Dorsey. “I think he is a nice fit into what Steve Wilks is looking at.”
There’s a need on the offensive line as well, with Kevin Zeitler also being dealt to the Giants in the offseason.
According to Pro Football Focus, the Browns interior offensive lineman gave up just 39 pressures during the season. Left guard Joel Bitonio and center J.C. Tretter are back, but the Browns were hoping second-year guard Austin Corbett can slide into Zeitler’s role.
Cleveland.com columnist Doug Lesmerises pointed out that early Corbett looked like “the new guy” during the first set of OTAs.
Practice squad pull-up Kyle Kalis has seen some time as the starting guard during OTAs, while Corbett has played center with the second unit. It’d be a big disappointment for the Browns if their second round pick from a year ago was beat out by an undrafted player.
While it’s not the main event on the card, the battle for the kicker position is brewing.
Greg Joseph took over for Zane Gonzalez last year and is currently holding down the starting role. He hit 17 of 20 field goals as the starter, but yanked some PATs wide, going just 25 of 29.
Cleveland drafted Austin Seibert out of Oklahoma in the fifth-round this year, so he’ll likely be given the reins if he can show some potential.
The Browns could also be in search of a short-term solution for a backup running back for the first half of the season during Kareem Hunt’s suspension.
Chubb is more than capable for the starting role and has been working on his pass-catching skills. However, if the team ends up parting ways with third-down specialist Duke Johnson Jr. — who requested a trade after Hunt was picked up — Dontrell Hilliard would be next on the depth chart.
Hilliard was acquired as an undrafted free agent a year ago out of Tulane and did not receive a carry last season. He did catch nine balls for 105 yards.
Does Dorsey make another splash with Gerald McCoy?
John Dorsey has shown no hesitation to make big moves, and with the Browns loading up to make a run at a title, could the Cleveland GM have one more move up his sleeve to land a big piece?
The Browns have long been interested in recently released defensive tackle, Gerald McCoy — a six-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro with Tampa Bay. The Browns were the first team McCoy visited after his release, although he has drawn interest from other teams around the league.
Adding the veteran defensive tackle to a unit that already includes Sheldon Richardson, Myles Garett and Olivier Vernon seems to be something Odell Beckham Jr. could get behind.
Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times reported the New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Chargers were among the teams in the mix at the time McCoy’s release. He has visited the Browns, Carolina Panthers and Baltimore Ravens and a decision on McCoy’s future could come as early as Friday.