CLEVELAND — There has been no shortage of optimism surrounding the Cleveland Browns as the 2019 regular season approaches and it is not just players talking about Super Bowl aspirations or coach Freddie Kitchens looking to establish the same kind of sustained success the New England Patriots have had over the last 20 years.
The Browns have garnered some optimism within the national media, including a long-time critic, Jason La Canfora of CBSSports.com, as the veteran NFL reporter picked Cleveland to win the AFC North Division Championship in 2019.
“I’m buying the Browns. Big time,” La Canfora wrote Friday. “All this talk about juggling personalities and keeping all the receivers fed and happy is a debate for another day. Right now, Freddie Kitchens is in a honeymoon phase and I expect this team to be young and hungry and out to make some noise.”
La Canfora recognized that the AFC North Division could be for the taking with the three other teams, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers, “in turmoil” by going through transitions, be it scheme-related or from one coaching staff to another.
“That ownership group will always give you pause, but I will ride this team in 2019,” La Canfora added.
Unlike past years, there is reason for Browns fans to be optimistic heading into the 2019 season.
At 2-5-1 following a 33-18 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on October 28 and in the middle of an unprecedented midseason coaching staff upheaval following the dismissals of Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley, the 2018 Browns looked to be anything but a team capable of the greatest year-to-year turnaround in franchise history.
But a 5-3 record over the second half of the season and three-game winning streak in December secured the Browns’ greatest single-year turnaround in team history, as they finished plus-7.5 in victories over 2017’s winless campaign.
Also, there is the matter of having the starting quarterback figured out after 20 years of searching for the next “franchise” signal-caller.
No rookie in the near 100-year history of the NFL has thrown more touchdowns passes than Baker Mayfield.
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Mayfield broke the rookie record with his 27th touchdown throw of the season with 3:24 remaining in the fourth quarter of a 26-24 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in an AFC North Division clash at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore on December 30.
After taking over the first-team offense in the second quarter of a Week 3 win over the New York Jets, Mayfield completed 310 of his 486 attempts (63.8 percent) for 3,725 yards and 27 touchdowns against 14 interceptions.
Under the direction of new Browns coach Freddie Kitchens, the interim offensive coordinator for the second half of the 2018 season, Mayfield completed 180 of his 263 attempts (68.4 percent) for 2,254 yards and 19 touchdowns against eight interceptions.
Then, there is the presence of wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. in an offense that features fellow Pro Bowler Jarvis Landry, athletic tight end David Njoku and a three-headed monster at running back with Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt and Duke Johnson Jr.
Over 59 regular-season games, including 56 starts, in five years with the New York Giants, Beckham Jr. turned 622 targets into 390 receptions for 5,476 yards and 44 touchdowns. Beckham Jr. averaged 92.8 yards per game, including a league-best 108.8 during the 2014 season.
Last year, Beckham Jr. turned in a 77-catch, 1,052-yard, six-touchdown effort for the Giants.