The Cleveland Browns went into the 2019 NFL season with a lot of hype, only to fizzle at 6-10. With lowered expectations for 2020, the Browns are better positioned to exceed them and get to the playoffs in 2020.
Sporting News has picked the Browns to finish 8-8 and become the final entry in a expanded, seven-team AFC field. That’s only a two-game improvement in the standings, but in a top-heavy conference, that’s still good enough to make them the third AFC North playoff team, behind the still mighty Ravens and stronger Steelers.
That’s a reasonable improvement and is tied much to Baker Mayfield coming out of his sophomore slump and emerging as a more efficient passer under new coach Kevin Stefanski. Where Hue Jackson and Freddie Kitchens failed Mayfield as offensive-minded coaches for a young franchise quarterback, Stefanski will succeed.
Mayfield saw a drop in all of his key QB metrics last season — completion percentage, touchdown-to-interception ratio, yards per attempt, yards per game. His passer rating fell from 93.7 as a rookie No. 1 overall pick to a below-mediocre 78.8.
The biggest issue for Mayfield was responding well to pressure. He took 40 sacks, brought down on 7 percent of his dropbacks. There were some pass protection woes, especially on the edges, but often Mayfield held the ball too long or got skittish to exacerbate the problem. He was looking for some big plays for Kitchens that mostly weren’t there.
The Browns invested heavily in Mayfield’s support system. They signed Jack Conklin for right tackle and drafting Jedrick Willis in the first round for left tackle. They splurged on a tight end, Austin Hooper, despite the presence 2017 first-rounder David Njoku. They brought back Kareem Hunt as a backfield outlet to complement Nick Chubb. As for Mayfield’s marquee wide receivers, Odell Beckham Jr. is fully healthy again and at some point, Jarvis Landry will get there, too, after both were limited in grinding through injuries last season.
Mayfield has a better blocking scheme in place and a coaching staff that will more effectively employ 12 personnel (with the two tight ends) and 21 personnel (with new fullback Andy Janovich). Stefanski also will feed into Mayfield’s adeptness with play-action, something Kitchens horribly underutilized last season. Consider how Stefanski helped Kirk Cousions become a play-action maestro in Minnesota, resulting in the most efficient season of Cousins’ career.
For the first time in a while, the Browns haved meshed scheme with personnel. Mayfield was a misfit with what was around him in both Erhardt-Perkins under Jackson and Todd Haley and then again with Air Coryell under Kitchens and Todd Monken. Stefanski and Alex Van Pelt can get the Browns square with the peg and the hole.
Now Mayfield is a modern West Coast system where he will get the ball out quickly, be well protected and use a strong running game ot his advantage in pushing the ball downfield to a more Beckham-like Beckham. The balance and diversity will make the explosiveness natural rather than forced.
The Browns will go from running a.little more than only 40 percent of the time with Chubb and Hunt to around 50 percent, building on averaging 4.8 yards per rush last season. In turn that will significantly boost Mayfield’s yards per attempt, with a good chance of hitting 8.0.
Of the seven teams who hit at least 8.0 YPA in 2019, five made the playoffs, led by the play-action dominant Titans and including Cousins’ Vikings. The Cowboys and Buccaneers were the two exceptions and like the Browns, both of those NFC teams profile for the playoffs in 2020, too.
An offense that can jump out to leads with big pass plays and can control the ball with power running also helps the defense. The Browns were weak against the run in 2019 and wer disappointed in the pass rush. Both were affected by Myles Garrett missing the final six games.
New defensive coordinator Joe Woods’ versatile scheme will get the most of the defensive front. The Browns will be in more effective attack mode and a talented secondary will be more empowered to aggressively make plays on the ball.
The Browns have struggled to be a complete team for a while, showing flashes but nothing of substance that would lead to winning complementary football. The elements were there and seeing the examples of what didn’t work made the solutions, especially offensively, pretty clear.
Cleveland is in a tough division with Baltimore, Pittsburgh and quickly rebuilding Cincinnati. For a change, the team is forging its own strong identity, instead of working to be a foli to the others. That change will come with the reward of the playoffs as the Browns operate more under the radar this season.
Source: Read Full Article