Oh my, how times have changed.
After a 1-31 stretch of misery over the 2016 and 2017 seasons, there’s suddenly unbridled optimism in Cleveland thanks to a strong finish to a 7-8-1 campaign a year ago and some high-profile offseason moves that bulked up the Browns roster with Pro Bowl caliber talents like Odell Beckham Jr. and Olivier Vernon.
So with expectations already sky-high, here are three bold predictions to add fuel to the fire as the Browns prepare for training camp next week.
Myles Garrett Sets the Franchise Single-Season Sack Record, Wins Defensive Player of the Year
Coming off a year where Garrett finished with 13.5 sacks, just a half-sack short of the tying Reggie Camp’s 35-year-old single-season franchise record, maybe this isn’t so bold. However, it’s a good starting point for what should be a record-setting season for the Browns.
Garrett was a Pro Bowl pick and got the nod as a second-team All-Pro last season, establishing himself as one of the elite pass-rushing talents in the league. And now he has some more help, with the acquisition of Olivier Vernon to man another end spot and Sheldon Richardson in the middle.
What’s scary for the rest of the league is that the former No. 1 overall pick could just be scratching the surface of his talents. Garrett made some headlines this offseason, saying that former defensive coordinator and interim head coach Gregg Williams limited him during the season, telling him to only use two pass-rush moves.
“I hopefully have more freedom to be the player I want to be,” Garrett said. “[Former defensive coordinator and interim head coach] Gregg [Williams] was more like: ‘You win with these two moves. I don’t want to see anything else out of you.’ It’s kind of hard with two moves.”
Garrett is obviously expecting big things as well, and has a number in mind that would put him firmly in the running for Defensive Player of the Year, ending Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald’s two-year reign. Garrett recently shared a video working out where he was poked about his sack numbers.
“Thirteen and a half sacks ain’t nothing man,” the cameraman says. “I need 20.”
Garrett swiftly responds, “Just wait on it.”
Baker Mayfield Leads the NFL in Passing Yards
Much of the hype around the Browns is linked to Mayfield — the most exciting and outspoken young quarterback in the NFL.
In just 13 starts, Mayfield threw for 3,725 yards and 27 touchdowns during his rookie campaign. The Browns finished 7-8-1 as Mayfield set the record for touchdown passes by a rookie, which was previously held by Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson.
Mayfield was especially outstanding down the stretch with now head coach Freddie Kitchens calling the plays. As the Browns reeled off five wins in their final seven games, Mayfield ranked third in touchdown passes (17), fourth in passer rating (108.4) and first in yards per attempt (8.86) among those with 200-plus passes.
With the addition of one of the league’s elite pass-catching talents in Odell Beckham Jr. to go with Jarvis Landry, Antonio Callaway and tight end David Njoku, Mayfield will have the ability to spread the ball around the field as defenses pick their poison on who they want to concentrate their coverage on.
Mayfield averaged 266 yards per game last season, but there’s a good chance that climbs closer to 300 next season with his new weapons and a year of experience under his belt. A full offseason working with his wide receivers won’t hurt either. Mayfield and his wide receivers worked out on the West Coast in advance of his wedding earlier this month.
“I think obviously it’s getting a little bit of timing down, but for the most part, it’s being around each other, catching up, talking,” Landry told Cleveland.com’s Mary Kay Cabot. “Obviously, we text and stuff like that, but it’s always good when you can physically touch the person you’re talking to and have a relationship with. For us, that’s kind of the biggest thing about going out to L.A. and doing that whole deal.”
Browns Dominate AFC North, Earn First-Round Bye
According to the latest odds from Bovada, Cleveland Browns are currently favorites to win the AFC North at +125, followed by the Steelers (+195) and Ravens (+275). The Bengals are way in the distance at +1600.
With both the Ravens and Steelers losing some key pieces in the offseason, it’s not a shocker to see the upstart Browns at the top of the list. With an aging Ben Roethlisberger at the helm in Pittsburgh and Lamar Jackson still finding his footing as an NFL QB with the Ravens, it’s conceivable that the Browns won’t need to sweat it out for their first division title since reentering the league in 1999.
Last year the Chiefs and Patriots earned the first round byes in the AFC, finishing with records of 12-4 and 11-5, respectively. With a slightly weakened divisional schedule from a year ago, and non-divisional games against the Dolphins, Bills, Cardinals and Broncos on the docket, there’s a path where the Browns finish as one of the AFC’s top two teams, making a road to the franchise’s first Super Bowl just a little easier.
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