CLEVELAND — After laying claim to arguably the most preseason hype in the NFL last preseason, the Cleveland Browns wound up being one of the league's biggest disappointments.
But even after they turned in a 6-10 record en route to missing the playoffs for a 17th consecutive year, ESPN's Bill Barnwell remains bullish on the Browns -- at least as far as Cleveland's skill players are concerned.
With teams two weeks away from reporting to training camp, Barnwell has released his annual rankings of each team's offensive weapons. After ranking third a year ago, the Browns don't just remain high on Barnwell's list, but they have actually improved, placing second behind only the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.
Writes Barnwell: "The Browns are back toward the top of these rankings for a second consecutive season. There are fair questions about whether their offense will be effective after a disastrous 2019 campaign, but their weapons aren't the problem. In some places, they're better than they looked a year ago. Free-agent signing Austin Hooper's production was inflated by garbage-time numbers in Atlanta, but he is still a significant upgrade on David Njoku.
"Nick Chubb kept up his second-half performance from 2018 over a full season in 2019, and while he needs to be more efficient, the idea of Chubb playing in a Gary Kubiak-style rushing attack under Kevin Stefanski in 2020 is scary for opponents. Kareem Hunt was productive in a limited role after returning from suspension, ranking in the top 15 in both yards per target and yards per route run."
As Barnwell went on to note, the biggest question mark about the Browns' offensive skill players is at wide receiver, which was thought to be one of Cleveland's clear strengths entering 2019. Yet despite their undeniable talent, both Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry underwent surgery this past offseason, with a big bounce-back year from Beckham being a potential key to success for the Browns in 2020.
"If he is the guy from Years 1 to 3, the Browns should be No. 1 here," Barnwell wrote of the 3-time Pro Bowl selection. "If Beckham has another season in which he fails to live up to that level of play, we probably need to reevaluate our expectations for one of the league's most talented receivers."
Of course, as Cleveland showed a year ago, skill position players only mean so much if the team's quarterback is struggling and the offensive line is struggling to protect that quarterback. But after making offseason investments in the latter, the Browns are counting on Baker Mayfield to return to his record-setting rookie season form.
If Barnwell's assessment is correct, Cleveland has all of the pieces in place to help the former No. 1 pick accomplish just that.