The last time the Browns didn’t finish last in the AFC North was the 2010 regular season. They ended the season at 5-11, narrowly beating out a 4-12 Bengals team for the third best spot in the division.
The last time the Browns didn't finish last in the AFC North was in 2010. They ended the season at 5-11, just above a 4-12 Bengals team. pic.twitter.com/NoGrjnc8a6
— cover32 Browns (@cover32_CLE) June 28, 2017
Ah, the good old days?
Since then it’s been a cycle of painful seasons and rebuilding the team and front office before finally arriving at the Sashi/Jackson era. In the debut of the pairing last year, the Browns went 1-15 and while they were competitive at times, they were clearly outmatched by almost every team they played. Early season success, little as it was, was predicated almost entirely on a strong offensive line performance and thus good rushing numbers out of Isaiah Crowell. Quarterback play was mediocre to poor for the majority of the season, the defense couldn’t stop quality offenses and even special teams gaffs ended up costing the Browns games.
This year, the Browns (on paper) have only gotten better. The loss of Pryor may hurt them in the short-term, but the addition of Kenny Britt should help this offense to keep developing. Whether or not Britt is an upgrade from Pryor is debatable, but either way Britt should give the Browns a solid wide receiver to work with. Last year Britt caught 68 passes for 1,002 yards, and he had arguably some of the worst quarterback play in the league.
The offensive line has also gotten better, recently ranked by PFF to be the second best in the entire NFL.
The top-5 offensive lines heading into 2017
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) June 28, 2017
Of course, none of that truly matters this season because the simple fact is that on paper the Browns roster pales in comparison to that of their division rivals. The Steelers are an AFC powerhouse and a near shoe-in for the playoffs if they stay healthy, the Bengals are a team that are looking to bounce back and have added some big offensive pieces and the Ravens perpetually have their ups and downs but are seem like they’re still going to be in the running in December.
While the Ravens are the most beatable team for the Browns, even if they somehow manage to sweep them it’s not going to matter in the long run, because in year two of this latest rebuild, the Browns still don’t have the talent it takes to beat out anybody in the division race.
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This is by no means breaking news, anybody who knows football can look at the AFC North and realize that the Browns aren’t quite there yet. What’s it going to take for the Browns to get there?
For starters, Cleveland needs to get consistent quarterback play. It doesn’t necessarily have to be great or even good, just consistent enough to keep everybody on the offense on the same page. That coupled with a solid running game (which they already had for large chunks of last year) and continually developing receiving threats (Coleman needs to come into his own and Njoku needs to flourish in year one) can give the Browns the offense they need to be competitive in what is one of the tougher divisions in football.
Here’s where yet another issue arises. What’s best for the Browns in the long-term is not necessarily what’s best for them in the short-term. With a big quarterback draft coming up, Cleveland needs to see what they have in DeShone Kizer, the sooner the better. Unless Cody Kessler plays sensational football, don’t be surprised to see Kizer start fairly early in the season (a traditional spot for his first start would be coming off of the bye week). Kessler, with his experience and budding chemistry with the receivers may give the Browns the best chance to win week to week, but the Browns almost have to play Kizer just to see what kind of quarterback they have in him.
On defense, the Browns need to drastically improve their pass rush, which was next to the league’s worst last season. The addition of Myles Garrett is going to be huge for this defensive front, but time will tell just how dominant Garrett is going to be for the Browns, especially in his rookie season.
They also need to create more turnovers as a team. Last year they ended the season with a turnover differential of -12, giving the ball away 25 times and taking it away only 12. Only the Jaguars, Bears and Jets were worse with -16, -20 and -20 respectively. Good defenses stop offenses, but great ones create opportunities and force turnovers. The Browns are far from being a good or a great defense, but if they can start to improve their turnover differential they can give themselves a fighting chance.
The Browns are still in year two of this most recent rebuilding process, so it’s important to keep expectations realistic heading into the new season, especially when the Steelers and Bengals are two teams that have the potential to showcase two of the league’s top offenses. If everything breaks right for the Browns they have the potential to beat a team like the Ravens, but either way temper expectations in regards to the rest of their AFC North success.