This article is part of our Team Previews series.
It's playoffs or bust for the revamped Browns, who haven't made the postseason since 2002. GM John Dorsey has continued to turn over the roster with bold trades and signings, and it finally feels like the formerly win-challenged team is ready to make a run for the AFC North title.
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
QB SEARCH ENDS WITH MAYFIELD
The Browns finally found their franchise signal-caller Baker Mayfield when they selected him with the first overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft, ending years of futility at the quarterback position. Mayfield crafted a successful rookie season after commandeering the job from Tyrod Taylor in Week 3, throwing for 3,725 yards and 27 touchdowns. However, the offense remained inconsistent at times, and it was clear that Mayfield needed more toys. Enter Odell Beckham Jr. and Kareem Hunt. GM John Dorsey played Santa Claus when he executed a stunning trade that brought Beckham – arguably the most-talented wideout in the NFL – from New York to Cleveland. Beckham's skill set goes hand-in-hand with Mayfield's ability to extend plays and make tough throws in and out of the pocket. It's an arrangement that could lead to eye-popping stats for the duo and provide a boost for Beckham's already storied career. The Browns also signed Hunt as a free agent, and he joins a talented running back group, albeit with heavy baggage in tow. The NFL suspended him for the first eight games of the season for violating its personal conduct policy. The fact remains, though, that Hunt is an extremely talented running back (2,151 rushing yards in 27 NFL contests), and the Browns have elected to give the 23-year-old a chance to rebuild his career.
BREAKING DOWN THE BACKFIELD
In addition to solidifying things at quarterback, the Browns have assembled a capable rushing corps, headed by an explosive young back in Nick Chubb. The 2018 second-rounder demonstrated that he was more than just a short-yardage back when he began seeing an uptick in work Week 7. Chubb garnered 18 or more carries in seven of the team's last 10 games and finished with 996 yards on 192 rushes. He also found the end zone a team-high 10 times and racked up a nifty average of 5.2 yards per carry. There's no doubt the Browns expect Chubb to continue that type of production to open the coming campaign. With Kareem Hunt slated to sit out the first eight games of the season, pass-catching ace Duke Johnson – if he's not moved – still will have some role in new coach Freddie Kitchens' offense, though the extent of it remains to be seen. Johnson's 87 total touches in 2018 marked a career low, a contrast to the numerous times his former coaches claimed they wanted to get him more involved. If Chubb can take the next step and prove he's capable as a receiver out of the backfield, Johnson's usage could dwindle even more in 2019, especially with Hunt poised to rejoin the mix Week 10. Hunt's role at that time has yet to be determined, but he certainly has the ability to bolster the team's ground game down the stretch.
KITCHENS TAKES OVER
In advance of Week 9 of the 2018 campaign, the Browns made a pair of predictable changes, firing head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley. In turn, they promoted running backs coach Freddie Kitchens to take over for the latter. Fast forward to the present, and Kitchens is now in charge of the whole team, after winning over Cleveland's brass during his time as OC and throughout the franchise's coaching search. The team's players are said to be fond of Kitchens, particularly Mayfield. When Kitchens took over the play calling, the Browns attack opened up like a sun roof. Over the eight games prior to Kitchens being given the keys to the offense, the Browns averaged 342 yards. In the eight games that followed, they averaged 395 yards, with Mayfield slinging the ball like a Rookie of the Year candidate. The offense quickly went from mediocre to dangerous in the eyes of opposing defenses, and with Kitchens geared to call plays again in 2019, look for continued improvement. Odell Beckham Jr.'s arrival will allow Kitchens to move Jarvis Landry around and line him up in the slot – where he's most effective – while giving Antonio Callaway and Rashard Higgins more opportunities for targets on the outside. With so much attention elsewhere, tight end David Njoku is a prime breakout candidate.
PIVOTAL PLAYER: Baker Mayfield
Armed with an arsenal of upgraded offensive weapons and a new coaching staff that's more aligned with his style of play, Mayfield could be on the verge of taking the NFL by storm. With Odell Beckham Jr. and Kareem Hunt added to the mix, the second-year gunslinger will have no shortage of playmakers to aid him in 2019.
RISING: Odell Beckham Jr.
Beckham Jr.'s improbable move to Cleveland could be exactly the jump-start that his career needed. Baker Mayfield is the ideal signal-caller for the dynamic wideout, and the pair should light up the field in 2019.
FALLING: Duke Johnson
Johnson's workload dipped dramatically last year, and he may not even be on the roster when the regular season opens, with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt (once his suspension ends) slated to receive the bulk of the work.
SLEEPER: Antonio Callaway
Callaway showed his deep-threat potential during his rookie year, but inconsistency plagued him. With defenses likely to zone in on Beckham and Jarvis Landry, Callaway could receive a more consistent share of deep targets.
KEY JOB BATTLE – NO. 3 WIDEOUT
Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry have the team's top wideout positions locked down, but the No. 3 wide receiver spot may be up for grabs. Antonio Callaway – who displayed flashes of talent during his rookie campaign – should be considered the favorite, but Rashard Higgins is capable of seizing the role as well. Higgins is coming off a year in which he posted career highs in receptions, yards and touchdowns. He's more of a physical receiver than Callaway, who uses his speed to beat defenders. Baker Mayfield has already praised Callaway during mandatory minicamp, and if their rapport continues to grow, Higgins may have to settle for a depth role. However, a strong showing in the preseason could put Higgins in line for consistent playing time.
ODELL BECKHAM JR. – WR (from Giants)
He and Baker Mayfield are primed to create an unstoppable tandem.
KAREEM HUNT – RB (from Chiefs)
Set to serve an eight-game suspension to start the coming season.
SHELDON RICHARDSON – DT (from Vikings)
Brings an inside presence to aid Myles Garrett in getting to the QB.
OLIVIER VERNON – DE (from Giants)
A veteran edge rusher who can rack up sacks.
TYROD TAYLOR – QB (to Chargers)
It's Mayfield's team, with Drew Stanton now the top backup.
JABRILL PEPPERS – S (to Giants)
Showed flashes of tremendous upside but was inconsistent.
JAMIE COLLINS – LB (to Patriots)
Releasing him saves the team $9.25 million against the salary cap.
KEVIN ZEITLER – G (to Giants)
His trade paves the way for Austin Corbett to start at right guard.
THE INJURY FRONT
Derrick Willies, WR – After joining the team as an undrafted rookie out of Texas Tech last year, Willies was promoted to the active roster Week 5. He caught three passes for 61 yards in his first taste of action and seemed to have a good rapport with QB Baker Mayfield. Willies broke his collarbone in practice the following week, however, ending his season. All reports indicate that the 24-year-old should be good to go for training camp, and while he'll have to battle to make the final 53-man, Willies' 6-4 frame gives him a slight edge on that front.
Orson Charles, TE – Charles injured his ankle Week 15 last season and was subsequently placed on injured reserve. The tight end re-signed with the Browns in the offseason, and though he'll play behind David Njoku and Demetrius Harris and won't fill the stat sheet, his ability to block and line up in the backfield will be helpful to Cleveland's run game.
Christian Kirksey, LB – Kirksey was placed on injured reserve in early November last year with a hamstring problem, leaving a glaring hole in the middle of Cleveland's defense. With a full offseason to heal up, the weak-side linebacker participated in mandatory minicamp and should be ready to go when training camp begins. The 26-year-old racked up over 130 tackles in both the 2016 and 2017 seasons, and the Browns will be looking for similar production this season.