With training camps set to start soon, now is the time fans finally get a glimpse of what their respective team may look like on the field this coming season. In the case of the 1-15 Cleveland Browns, they could very well surprise a few in 2017.
While many will be quick to dismiss and underestimate Cleveland, due to their record, and for other obvious reasons in being the NFL’s perennial dysfunctional train wreck of a laughingstock, but if early reports from OTA’s and minicamp are any indication, the Browns could be THE sleeper team in the AFC North—if not the entire NFL.
Yes, you heard me. I said it before, and I will DOUBLE DOWN on my 8-8 proclamation, again right here. Right now.
Some may laugh, smirk and easily dismiss this blog or even the reasons I’ve outlined below, but overall, Cleveland has the look and attitude of a different team with an entirely new culture thanks to the additions of veterans such as wide receiver Kenny Britt, defensive backs Calvin Pryor, Jason McCourty and offensive linemen JC Tretter and Kevin Zeitler.
Second-round selection DeShone Kizer is challenging projected starter Cody Kessler, wide receiver Ricardo Louis set to take a big leap, thanks to Corey Coleman’s injuries, Isaiah Crowell is primed for a breakout 1,000-yard season behind a rebuilt offensive line and first-round pick in tight end David Njoku is making Cleveland quickly forget about Gary Barnidge.
Combine that with perhaps the biggest off-season addition in Super Bowl-winning defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and top overall pick in the draft, in defensive end Myles Garrett and strong safety Jabrill Peppers—still unsigned, as of press time—Christian Kirksey and Jamie Collins inked to new contract extensions and overall you have the makings of what could be a legit borderline top-ten defense.
Will it be enough for them to challenge and win the always-rugged AFC North?
The NFL is littered with teams who have gone from worst to first such as the 1999 Indianapolis Colts and the 2004 San Diego Chargers and Pittsburgh Steelers, who were led by younger versions of NFL Hall of Famers such as LaDainian Tomlinson, Peyton Manning and current two-time Super Bowl champion in Ben Roethlisberger.
Additionally, NFL.com’s noted scribe Gil Brandt, named Cleveland as one of the teams to watch in making the worst-to-first leap in 2017.
So, based on all of the moves Cleveland made to revamp their OL and DB in free agency and bulk up their DL in the draft, why not the Browns?
Below are my three reasons why Cleveland will shock everyone and win the AFC North.
Last-Place Schedule and Low Expectations: If there is one benefit of the Browns horrendous 1-15 season, is their 2017 schedule. Thanks to having the 11th-easiest schedule in the league that features early favorable games against the hated Steelers, Bengals, Jets and the Vikings in London, Cleveland has a legit chance of being at or near .500 by the bye.
With three of their remaining eight games at home including a critical back-to-back set against Aaron Rodgers and Joe Flacco in what will be a very cold and windy—and possibly snowy—December, the ball bounces the right way a couple of times, then the Browns will be deep in the hunt.
Aging Big Ben and Suspect Steelers Offensive Line: While it comes without saying that football is a violent and dangerous game, no other quarterback has been able to withstand—and dish out—punishment like Big Ben. Roethlisberger, the Lima, Ohio-born nemesis of the Browns, has a career mark of 21-2 vs. Cleveland, since coming into the league.
And in addition to painfully reminding Cleveland fans of the Browns many past draft-day blunders—yup, talking about you, Kellen Winslow II, where you at, by the way?—Pittsburgh fans annually swarm and take over FirstEnergy Stadium turning it into Heinz Field West. At 35, and looking a bit slower and beaten up, Roethlisberger doesn’t run as much as he used to, but has one of the greatest deep balls since Dan Marino.
With Cleveland assembling a young and hungry defensive line composed of the aforementioned Garrett, Emmanuel Ogbah on the edges, Danny Shelton and rookie Larry Ogunjobi on the inside, and what can best be described as an average Steelers offensive line, that has shown a history of suspect pass protection, 2017 could be the year that the Browns finally solve Big Ben.
Ravens and Bengals, Rebuilding or Reloading? The other two heavyweight contenders for the Steelers divisional crown, in the form of the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals, have some question marks of their own most notably in The Queen City as the Bengals hope that first-round pick in John Ross can replace the departed Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu in being the deep vertical threat to complement All-Pro A.J. Green, that they sorely missed in 2016.
While the Bengals defense will be its normally stout and rock-solid and led by the NFL’s newest villain in Vontaze Burflict, the key to the Bengals success is whether or not Andy Dalton will take his place as one of the so-called “elite” NFL signal-callers or remain being a glorified middle-of-the-pack good one.
In Baltimore, the Ravens must find a way to end a rare playoff drought under head coach John Harbaugh, as Baltimore hasn’t tasted the postseason in three of their last four seasons.
At 32, former Super Bowl XLVII MVP in quarterback Joe Flacco is coming off of one of his worst seasons ever, and 2017 isn’t looking much better.
Steve Smith is now at NFL Network, longtime safety blanket in tight end Dennis Pitta was released, and former first-round pick Breshard Perriman was hit-or-miss. Despite adding free agent Jeremy Maclin to a revamped passing attack that features the aforementioned Perriman and speedster Mike Wallace, Baltimore may be playing more for pride than the playoffs this year.
T-Sizzle is 34 and not getting any younger, Elvis Dumerville is now in San Francisco and C.J. Mosley young and hungry, but outside of their linebackers and secondary that has Jimmy Smith, Eric Weddle and free agent additions such as Brandon Carr, Tony Jefferson and rookie cornerback in Marlon Humphrey out of Alabama, the Ravens much-storied defense of years past could be in flux.