You can expect to see a major rise from the Cleveland Browns in the 2019 Cold Hard Football Facts Quality Stat Power Rankings. How major? It might just be historic.
First, let's reset just what we saw in the span of fewer than 48 hours from the Browns, because it's absolutely dizzying. Here's who the Browns have agreed to add to their roster beginning with the 2019 season:
— Former New York Giants WR Odell Beckham Jr. (trade)
— Former Minnesota Vikings DT Sheldon Richardson
— Former New York Giants LB/EDGE rusher Olivier Vernon (trade)
— Former Kansas City Chiefs RB Kareem Hunt (free agent, previously agreed to and confirmed)
The cost of those two trades with the Giants were the team's 2019 first round pick, a 2019 third round pick (the Browns have two, and this will be the latter), second-year safety Jabrill Peppers and offensive linemen Kevin Zeitler. A first round pick always hurts, and Peppers and Zeitler are both solid players with standout upside (with Peppers in particular), but this is arguably the best receiver in football and a truly terrifying (when healthy and focused) pass rusher we're talking about. Those kind of players are typically get-able, and the Browns got them both in (technically) one trade.
To call that a monstrous start to the free agency period is a significant understatement. The Browns significantly enhanced the offensive weapons for breakout rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield. The enhanced their already impressive pass rush. And while the loss of Peppers could prove to be a setback for the defensive backfield, the team's general manager John Dorsey is known to feel he has more depth than others believe at that unit, and is entering a draft with significant resources and a deep stock of talented defensive backs to choose from in the early or mid rounds.
So what kind of improvement can these changes realistically usher in? Our Bill Enright already touched on just how much Beckham Jr. is likely to mean to Mayfield, but that only scratches the surface. That's in part because the true change in the team's fortunes was already underway once new head coach Freddie Kitchens became the offensive coordinator at the halfway point of the 2018 campaign.
Kitchens took over under interim head coach Gregg Williams after then coach Hue Jackson and Todd Haley were both unceremoniously dismissed following the team's Week 8 setback. That loss, an ugly 33-18 setback to the Steelers, came with the Steelers heading into a matchup with the then-undefeated Chiefs and a game against the also-struggling Falcons on the horizon. The lost the first, won the second, then headed into their bye week to further solidify some of the early changes we saw from Williams and Kitchens.
To reinforce how drastic that sudden shift was, consider the team's rankings in the Quality Stat Power Rankings before and after. Following the Week 8 loss, The entirety of Jackson's 2018 coaching workload left the Browns ranked 25th in the Power Rankings. Despite the loss to Kansas City, the Browns actually moved up to 21st in the Power Rankings and the win against the Falcons pushed them to all the way to 18th. They finished the 2018-19 season in 16th, exactly the midway point of the rankings, after making a wild, madcap attempt at stealing the AFC North crown (it didn't happen, but the drama sure was fun).
To properly examine just how significant the incoming improvements could be for Cleveland, it's only fair to judge based on two different timelines: 1) the end of the 2018-19 regular season, and 2) the end of the Hue Jackson era, following Week 8.
First, the offense. The emergence of Baker Mayfield had a huge impact on the Browns' fortunes, from the moment he took over as the starting quarterback, first in Week 3 in relief of the injured Tyrod Taylor in the team's first win of the season (21-17 against the Jets), then for the rest of the season as the starter.
Here's how the team's offense looked like after the first two weeks, with Taylor under center, followed by the next six with Mayfield as the primary quarterback:
Browns QB Play Weeks 1-8
|21-21 Steelers, Taylor||Scoreability 16th||Real Passing Yard/Attempt 31st||Real QBR 24th||Offensive Passer Rating 28th|
|18-21 at Saints, Taylor||21st||29th||29th||29th|
|21-17, Jets, Taylor/Mayfield||20th||28th||30th||29th|
|42-45, at Raiders, Mayfield||13th||29th||30th||30th|
|12-9, Ravens, Mayfield||21st||29th||30th||30th|
|14-38, Chargers, Mayfield||25th||30th||31st||30th|
|23-26, at Buccaneers, Mayfield||24th||30th||30th||30th|
|18-33, at Steeler, Mayfield||22nd||30th||30th||29th|
Obviously, that's an abject horror show of quarterback statistics. It would have been reasonable for Browns fans to go for the markers to draw through another two names on the back of their jerseys. But wait, perhaps it was just a horrendous fit between Jackson, offensive coordinator Todd Haley and Mayfield?
Well, with Kitchens helming the offense and calling Mayfield's plays, here's how the Browns finished:
|7-8 record, Mayfield||Scoreability 24th||Real Passing Yards/Attempt 13th||Real QBR 20th||Offensive Passer Rating 22nd|
Now, those aren't anything to erect a statue for, but considering where the team had been through half the season, those are dramatic improvements. Now factor in Beckham Jr., Hunt and now another tight end (Demetrius Harris, formerly of the Chiefs) and Mayfield should see increases, perhaps significant ones, across all these categories. They shouldn't be small.
As for the defense, the Browns under Williams proved to be a resilient, tough group. It will be fascinating to see if they can be so again in 2019 with Williams far afield. One thing that should be even easier is the team's ability to get to the quarterback, something for which they had the pieces for success, but didn't quite put things together, at least statistically. The Browns finished the season ranked 18th in the Defensive Hog Index, though that ranking was skewed up by their seventh-place finish in Third Down Success Percentage. They struggled to 24th in Rushing Yards/Attempt and 26th in Negative Pass Play Percentage.
Should Sheldon Richardson and Olivier Vernon help there? Yeah, you think? While Richardson may not be the elite run defender he was with the Jets, he still has the potential to be an impact player, particularly when lining up alongside the likes of Myles Garrett. Ditto for Olivier Vernon, who is coming off a career year in New York where he earned an 86 pass rush grade from Pro Football Focus, among the top 15 in the league.
As for the loss of Pepper's, Cleveland's defensive backfield was a strength and perhaps the one area where they could afford to withstand a departure. The Browns finished ranked fifth in Defensive Passer Rating and sixth in Defensive Real Quarterback Rating. While whoever fills Peppers' shoes may not be a perfectly seamless fit, if they do a decent job the unit shouldn't far too far back, assuming they maintain their consistency and play with a similar scheme to the one used by Williams in 2018.
All of this sets the table for potentially enormous gains in the statistical standings come the 2018 season. Everyone knows that games aren't played or won in the offseason, but at the very least, Cleveland's flurry of moves puts the Browns in position to be among the contenders statistically if coaching and execution follow in the footsteps of the front office's best plans.