It has been a long time since there has been this much excitement over the Cleveland Browns. Ending 2018 with a 5-2 run over the final seven weeks of the seasons, the Browns added plenty of talent to the roster this offseason to mix with its host of young superstars.
How does everything come together in 2019? Let’s examine my preseason superlatives.
Breakout Guy: OL Austin Corbett
I loved Corbett as a prospect but I do not love how Cleveland managed him as a rookie which directly impacted his ability to acclimate to the NFL. A 48-game starter at left tackle in college, it wasn’t difficult to study his tape and realize his best position in the NFL would come inside at guard. By the time Week One of the 2018 season came, Corbett bounced around between tackle, guard and center. Riding the bench as a rookie after a shaky preseason, Corbett is the projected starter for Cleveland at right guard, an opportunity that opened up when the Browns traded away Kevin Zeitler.
The summary section of my pre-draft scouting report on Corbett discusses a player primed to entrench himself as a long-term fixture at guard for the Browns moving forward:
A college left tackle, Corbett projects best inside at guard in the NFL. His mobility, power and technique make him a scheme-transcendent player and option for every team. A balanced blocker, Corbett offers upside as a pass blocker, run blocker and as a move blocker. Proving he can perform consistently on the inside where the opponents are bigger and the action unfolds quicker is vital, but he fared well at the Senior Bowl at guard. In year one, Corbett has plug and play potential given his experience and physical traits. By year three, Corbett should be an excellent starter who is considered a foundational piece of his offensive line.
Comeback Kid: LB Christian Kirksey
Racking up nearly a combined 300 tackles across 2016 and 2017, Kirksey emerged as a tackling machine and impact player on the second level of the Browns’ defense. Unfortunately, a season-ending hamstring injury cut his 2018 season short after just seven games.
For a defense facing high expectations in 2019, Kirksey’s role in Steve Wilks’ defense is a critical one, especially with last season’s leading-tackler Jamie Collins no longer in the mix. Kirksey should be able to quickly find his form and anchor the linebacker corps once again.
Rising Star: QB Baker Mayfield
I don’t want to get weird but when Mayfield took the field in Week Three against the Jets and replaced Tyrod Taylor, what ensued is one of the most magical sports moments I’ve ever experienced. Watching Mayfield lead the Browns who were down 14-0 with a bumbling offense to a 21-17 victory, giving Cleveland its first win in 19 games was chilling.
Mayfield proceeded to pass for 3,725 yards in 2018 and set a new NFL rookie record for passing touchdowns in a season with 27. He was a seven-time Rookie of the Week award winner and he looks primed to be one of the faces of the NFL for years to come. Mayfield was arguably the league’s best rookie regardless of positions in 2018.
Browns fans, your quarterback is the envy of most of the league. Let that sink in. Finally.
Don’t Forget About: RB Nick Chubb
Despite not receiving more than three carries in a game until Week Seven, Chubb finished in the top-10 of the entire league in both rushing yards and yards per carry. A dominant runner in the SEC, Chubb looked like he was still playing in college with the way he dashed and plowed through NFL defenses.
Being Cleveland’s lead back from Day One in 2019 could put him in contention for a rushing title.
Needs to Rebound: The Run Defense
The Browns defense allowed the fifth-most rushing yards of any team in the NFL last season while giving up 4.7 yards per carry and 20 rushing touchdowns. New defensive coordinator Steve Wilks’ Arizona Cardinals defense from 2018 was even worse. Not great.
LB Christian Kirksey’s return to the lineup in addition to the arrival of Sheldon Richardson at defensive tackle should make things better moving forward but it needs to happen. Not being able to stop the run can demoralizing for a defense and for the Browns to meet expectations in 2019, they’ll need to get this right.
Dark Horse MVP: CB Denzel Ward
The Browns took some heat for drafting a smallish corner with pick No. 4, but after the way Ward performed in his rookie season, nobody is questioning the selection now. His career got off to a blazing start, picking off Ben Roethlisberger twice in Week 1 and was a standout the rest of the way.
Ward finished his rookie season with 53 tackles, 11 pass breakups and three interceptions in 13 games. His dominant season landed him Pro Bowl Honors as a rookie.
Under the Radar: It all coming together
There’s a lot to love about this star-studded roster. Baker Mayfield is one of the league’s most exciting young quarterbacks and he’s surrounded with playmakers. The defensive line is stacked and the back seven of the defense features a mix of young talent and proven vets.
The challenge ahead for this football team is putting it all together and meeting the lofty expectations that have been placed on this team. To complicate that becoming true, first-year head coach Freddie Kitchens is a wild card. Listening to his media sessions, Kitchens is saying all the right things but what does this product ultimately look like once the ball is snapped in Week One and how does it handle the inevitable adversity that comes with an NFL season.
There’s reason to be optimistic, but winning on paper is much easier than doing it on the field.