After an eventful offseason, the Cleveland Browns are entering their most anticipated season since the team returned to Cleveland in 1999. The roster is filled with playmakers and should be one of the most entertaining groups in the NFL. The 2019 NFL season is expected to be a good one for the usually embattled franchise.
Here are five bold predictions for the season which could see the Browns return to the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
5. The defensive line generates 35+ sacks
Cleveland was middle-of-the-pack in terms of sacks in 2019, and general manager John Dorsey made it a priority to improve the pass rush, adding two Pro Bowlers in Sheldon Richardson and Olivier Vernon. Combined with Larry Ogunjobi and Myles Garrett, the Browns have arguably the best defensive line in football. The four totaled 30.5 sacks last season, and that number should increase as they’ll all be playing next to each other.
In the third preseason game against Tampa Bay, starting Browns defenders totaled seven sacks as the starters played the first half, but Garrett played only the first series. It was a glimpse of things to come in 2019. Garrett has slimmed down and looks noticeably faster than before (when he was already lighting quick) and should sport an increased repertoire of pass rushing moves.
Vernon missed five games last season and still managed seven sacks and 21 QB hits; when healthy, he has been among the league leaders in QB hits for a while now, and should be able to convert more of those pressures into actual sacks with the presence of three other great rushers. Each defender on the line needs to be double-teamed, but there are only five offensive lineman. 35 sacks for the front is completely realistic, and they could perhaps reach 40 in total.
4. Nick Chubb has 1,400+ all-purpose yards
The 35th overall pick in 2018 had a great rookie season; he averaged 5.2 yards per carry on his way to 996 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns. He also added 149 yards and two scores through the air. Chubb actually reached 1,000 yards in the final game of 2018, but was tackled behind the line of scrimmage, bringing his total back down to 996.
What makes his season even more impressive is that he started just nine games, and over the first six weeks, touched the ball just 16 times. He’s been working on his pass-catching ability this offseason, and while he’ll have to share the backfield with Kareem Hunt after the former Kansas City Chief returns from his eight-game suspension, Duke Johnson has been traded, meaning Chubb will be Cleveland’s bell cow for the first half of 2019.
3. Two rookies start at some point
It seems as if the Browns have always had a few rookies starting every season, but that ends in 2019. Without a first-round pick, Cleveland was still able to add some great talent, but none of those players will be starting Week 1. However, that doesn’t mean that a rookie won’t start at all.
Second-rounder Greedy Williams is currently behind Terrance Mitchell on the depth chart, but as long as the Browns are playing more man coverage than zone, Williams will be too good to keep on the bench. Sione Takitaki and Mack Wilson are both behind one of the best linebackers in the league in Joe Schobert, along with a bounce-back candidate and team leader in Christian Kirksey. They’ll see the field on defense, but will be primarily special teamers since the Browns will play with only two LBs most of the time.
Sixth-round pick Drew Forbes played left tackle at Southeast Missouri State, but has moved inside in the NFL. Cleveland has journeyman Eric Kush starting at right guard, but he has struggled mightily in the preseason. Forbes has been up-and-down, but the potential is there. He still needs to adjust to the speed of the pro game and improve his field awareness, but he will have a chance to replace Kush in the starting lineup at some point during the season.
2. Baker Mayfield makes the Pro Bowl
Perhaps this isn’t so bold with the news of Andrew Luck’s retirement, but saying a Browns QB belongs in the Pro Bowl still sounds weird. It would be the first time since Derek Anderson in 2007 that this has happened, only this time it won’t be a one-year fluke.
Last season’s AFC representatives were Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady, and Philip Rivers, with Luck and Deshaun Watson as alternates. With perhaps the best skill players in the entire league, Mayfield should have a huge year, especially if he improves as much as other recent rookie QBs have in their second season.
1. The offensive line holds back the offense
Expectations for the Browns are high, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t significant concerns surrounding the team. Yes, Cleveland has a great young QB and a plethora of elite weapons for him to use, but if he doesn’t have time to throw the ball, it’s all useless. Using heavy 12 personnel and play-action, the Browns were able to give up just nine QB hits over the final eight games of 2018.
But now right guard Kevin Zeitler, perhaps the best in the league, is gone. He is replaced by the struggling Kush. Joel Bitonio and J.C. Tretter are both great players, but Kush and the tackles, Greg Robinson and Chris Hubbard, are highly questionable.
The Buccaneers don’t have a great defensive line and were still able to consistently pressure Mayfield, leading to plenty of throws that were just slightly off. This offense has the potential to be the best in the NFL, but the OL has to hold up. If the unit ranks towards the bottom of the league, the Browns should still be a top-five O, but won’t reach their potential.