What a difference a year makes.
This time last March, the Cleveland Browns were the NFL’s perpetual laughing stock on the heels of an 0-16 season, the feather in the cap of nearly two decades of incompetence.
Twelve months later, the Browns have Odell Beckham Jr. on the roster — writing those words will never feel right — and are betting favourites to win the AFC North in 2019.
How did we get here? From a Hue Jackson-Todd Haley coaching power struggle that resulted in both being fired just a few short months ago to now being tied for the third-best odds to win the Super Bowl?
Tuesday night’s stunning acquisition of OBJ, along with a handful of other deft roster moves from GM John Dorsey, has done wonders for Cleveland’s chances to turn their franchise around. Beckham joins former LSU teammate Jarvis Landry and sophomore Antonio Callaway — plus third-year tight end David Njoku — as dynamic pass-catching threats for Baker Mayfield, while Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt could form a formidable backfield duo (after an expected suspension for Hunt).
Defensively, another trade with the Giants means pass rusher Olivier Vernon will line up opposite Myles Garrett, and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson is expected to join that now-vaunted defensive line on a three-year deal.
But the upgraded talent on the Browns depth chart isn’t the only reason Freddie Kitchens’ team is favoured to win a division title for the first time since 1989.
As the Browns have transformed into contenders, the rest of the AFC North has taken significant steps backwards over the last 72 hours. The Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals now find themselves in an extremely unfamiliar position: staring up at the Cleveland Browns.
Ravens defence cut to the core
The Baltimore Ravens made a splash in the market on Wednesday afternoon, agreeing to deals with All-Pro safety Earl Thomas and running back Mark Ingram.
But the reigning division champions and owners of 2018’s second-ranked defence have seen much of its core move on over the last couple of days: Starting middle linebacker and leading tackler C.J. Mosley signed with the New York Jets; Sack leader Za’Darius Smith has agreed to a $66-million deal in Green Bay; and franchise legend Terrell Suggs is now with the Arizona Cardinals. Plus, Eric Weddle was released last week.
In those four players, Baltimore has lost 252 tackles, 17 sacks and a whole lot of experience. Yes, Thomas is a likely upgrade on Weddle, but nowhere else in that defence have the Ravens improved.
Steelers go from Killer B’s to Killer B
Who are the Steelers heading into next season?
Made up of a trio of dangerous playmakers just two seasons ago, the Steelers have seen two of the franchise’s biggest superstars in decades move on in dramatic fashion. Antonio Brown’s months-long divorce led to an underwhelming return in a deal with Oakland, while Le’Veon Bell held out all season long before signing in the Big Apple.
Brown and Bell combined for 36 touchdowns over the last three seasons, and the Steelers have done nothing in the early stages of the off-season to make up for that loss. Sure, JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner offer hope for the future, but the receiver depth behind Smith-Schuster leaves much to be desired and Conner’s production fell off a cliff late last season before an ankle injury ended his season.
With Ben Roethlisberger’s leadership very much under the microscope, the Steelers face one of their biggest transition seasons in recent memory.
Zac Taylor’s Bengals yet to make a splash
At the time of this writing, the Bengals are one of just three teams yet to sign an outside free agent and, like the Steelers, are entering a new era after moving on from long-time head coach Marvin Lewis after a disappointing end to last season.
So far, under Sean McVay disciple Zac Taylor, Cincinnati has re-signed tackle Bobby Hart and linebacker Preston Brown, but have yet to make any significant additions to a roster badly in need of them.
While it’s not unthinkable that this Bengals team finishes with five or six wins next season, competing for the 2020 No. 1 pick feels more likely.
Can the Browns live up the hype
We’ve seen this play out before: Team X stuns the league with big off-season move after big off-season move only to flounder when the games actually count (see: 2011 Philadelphia Eagles).
If the reaction to the Beckham trade is any indication, the hype may be impossible to live up to. In all likelihood, the Browns won’t be playing in the Super Bowl next February. But this team has the look of a division title contender, and if Kitchens can use the weapons provided to him by John Dorsey accordingly, football fans in Cleveland may finally have something to cheer for.