Oct 16, 2016; Nashville, TN, USA; Cleveland Browns wide receiver Ricardo Louis (80) is forced out of bounds by Tennessee Titans cornerback Jason McCourty (30) after a reception in the first half at Nissan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
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With rookie minicamps out of the way, and with the whole team set to report to OTA’s next week, early impressions of the 2017-18 Cleveland Browns are universally positive. They say that first impressions matter in life. They also matter if you’re a rookie or grizzled veteran in the NFL, but per local reports coming out of Northeast Ohio, DE Myles Garrett, SS Jabrill Peppers and TE David Njoku have been turning heads in Berea. Mind you, this is only rookie minicamp, and the veterans haven’t reported yet, nor has the real hitting begun yet in training camp, but if Garrett, Peppers and Njoku can live up to their first-round billing, then the Browns may struck proverbial pay dirt in building the once-proud and now perennial division doormat into a competitive team. Before the draft, I opined on why the Browns will go 8-8 and finish with a .500 record. After the draft, not only will I double-down on it, but I will also state that this will be the first year in a turn-around, that will turn the Browns into a division contender. Laugh all you want, leave your snarky and dismissive comments below in the comments section, but the off-season vibe that I’m getting is that this team is tired of losing, being overlooked, the proverbial punch line of ESPN and seen as an easy win on the schedule. Again, this is just my opinion, but here are my five reason why Cleveland will surprise many and finish .500 No Pressure: Thanks to finishing 1-15, there are low expectations outside of Berea of the Browns being competitive. Thanks to the off-season moves and the money that Cleveland spent in bulking up the OL and drafting DL in the draft, Cleveland can play with house money every Sunday. Building Of The Lines: I’ve said this one, I’ll say it again, but to properly build a competitive football team, capable of contending, you do not need to draft a QB first, as many Browns fans tend to think, but instead, you build the lines first, THEN insert your quarterback. Look no further than the Oakland Raiders—one of Cleveland’s many role models—in how they built from the line out in drafting Khalil Mack in the first round, then took Derek Carr—while Cleveland took Johnny Goofball—in the second round. Other painful examples are the longtime nemesis Pittsburgh Steelers, who consistently have a system in place of drafting the best player on the board, instead of reaching for need. Ever notice how they always seem to have good offensive and defensive lines? Point being is that Cleveland finally seems to have a coherent draft strategy in place in addressing the lines in the last few years in the form of Myles Garrett, Danny Shelton, Larry Ogunjobi, Emmanuel Ogbah, Joel Bitonio, Shon Coleman and Cameron Erving, and signing free agents such as JC Tretter and Kevin Zeitler. With both lines finally addressed, pay attention to how well both play, and that will be a good indicator of how far Cleveland will go in 2017. Naming QB Cody Kessler Starter Going Into OTA’s: This may not seem like a big deal now, but head coach naming second-year player Cody Kessler starter heading into OTA’s is a sign of internal continuity being formed. For too long, many would wonder and debate as to who would land the most dangerous job in America—starting quarterback for the Cleveland Browns—and too long, many fans would see this train wreck of a reality show play out well into training camp and be decided right before Week 1. Yes, I’m talking to you Romeo Crennel and Mike Pettine! No coin flips here and no drawn-out faux machismo to worry about in Berea no more, as Jackson confidently picked Kessler and dared the likes of Brock Osweiler, Kevin Hogan and DeShone Kizer to try and take it from the former Trojan. I feel it is wise for the Browns to see what they really have in Kessler first, before deciding to go in another direction, in what will be a QB-rich 2018 class. Underrated Defense: One year after trading for OLB Jamie Collins, perhaps the Browns biggest off-season addition is former Super Bowl champion defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and his aggressive 4-3 defense. Known to be aggressive and blitz-happy, Williams will lead a revamped defense with lots of potential to be a sleeper top-ten unit that has top overall pick in edge rusher Myles Garrett, fellow rookie defense tackle Larry Ogunjobi, Danny Shelton, Emmanuel Ogbah, Christian Kirksey, the forementioned Collins and a suddenly upgraded secondary that has Pro Bowler defensive back in Joe Haden, newly-signed DB Jason McCourty and a dangerous x-factor and wildcard/joker in Jabrill Peppers. Thanks to this combination of talented rookies and veterans, Cleveland could have one of the best defenses in the league. Taste of 1-15 Season, Reason For Motivation: They say that experience is our best teacher, and an indication of one’s character. If last year’s 1-15 debacle of a season taught the still-young Browns anything is that, building character is nice, but learning how to win in the NFL is never easy. While they would avoid going winless thanks to a narrow 20-17 win over the now-Los Angeles Chargers, Cleveland was very competitive in every game, with six of their 15 losses being by single digits. While such a stat offers no comfort to long-suffering Browns fans, who continue supporting a one-win team, a lot of this year’s young nucleus gained valuable experience as rookies such as the fore-mentioned Kessler, Ogbah and former first-round pick in WR Corey Coleman. Thanks to some quality off-season additions in WR Kenny Britt, Tretter, Zeitler, McCourty to the starting lineup, don’t be surprised of Cleveland is not only competitive, but in the think of what will be a wide-open AFC North in 2017.

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