Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Strange draft territory

It’s been a very long time since the Browns entered the annual National Football League college draft without a first-round choice.

It sure looks as though that’s where they are headed as the NFL’s three-day extravaganza kicks off Thursday night in Nashville

The blockbuster deal with the New York Giants a few weeks ago cost them their first-rounder this year (No. 17), the club softening the blow of losing the first rounder by rationalizing the trade, suggesting wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. is their first-rounder.

Fans will have to wait until pick #49 in the middle of the second round to welcome the newest member of the club unless General Manager John Dorsey somehow finagles his way back into the first round, which is not out of the realm of possibility given the GM’s fondness for trading.

It will severely test the stamina of Browns Nation to wait tediously through the entire first round, knowing they don’t have a pick, waiting anxiously to see if Dorsey successfully wields his magic wand.

Fans undoubtedly will see several possibilities to jump back in as the lottery unfolds and wonder why Dorsey is not pulling a trigger. The second-guessing is likely to run rampant throughout the night.

If Dorsey is unable to convince a rival general manager to do business, the thrill of celebrating the arrival of the newest Brown will have to wait until the second round Friday night.

If that’s the case, it will be the lowest the Browns have made their initial selection since 2008, when they swapped pick No. 22 and two others in subsequent rounds and wound up picking 104th.

That fourth-round selection was the very forgettable Beau Bell, a linebacker who lasted one season, managed to get into five games and made three tackles. That comprised his entire NFL career.

It has been two decades since the NFL graciously allowed Cleveland to become a member in good standing once again after an undeserved and unwarranted three-year absence.

In that span, the Browns have drafted in the top 10 on 15 occasions and owned a top 15 spot before a trade another two times, a legacy as to just how awful this franchise has been.

Dorsey turned that around about as quickly (13 months) as any NFL general manager in recent memory. His roster magic solidified previous problem areas,, making his job that much easier this season.

With few exceptions, he will target specific areas of need, looking to strengthen the situations at linebacker and the offensive line, as well as the bench and bottom half of the roster.

As the prevarication clouds hover over 76 Lou Groza Blvd in the next 48 hours, all kinds of untruths will be unearthed and dissected. And of course, they are not to be believed.

For what it’s worth, the guess here is the Browns will stay put at 49, running back Duke Johnson Jr. will be dealt for a low-round draft choice and Dorsey will consider mortgaging the future by dangling next year’s No. 1 pick in order to move up, but finally resist.

As he should.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Prime Time Brownies

Question: Are the Browns ready for prime time?

Answers: We’ll find out soon enough, and they had better be.

That’s because the National Football League national television spotlight will shine blazingly on them at least four times this season. And if they pass a severe test early in the campaign, that number conceivably could grow.

The gents and computers who carved out the 2019 season schedule have glommed onto the suddenly very attractive Cleveland Browns and featured them on television nationally three of the first five weeks.

The Browns, who enter this season with hopes of success higher than at any time since the mid-1990s, haven’t played a Monday night game since 2015 or a Sunday night game since way back in 2008. They frankly were not worthy.

The franchise that made the basement of its division a virtual permanent home until last season, the franchise professional football fans have made the butt of jokes for the last two decades has become an overnight sensation.

The reward for the heretofore sad sacks of the NFL? A 16-game schedule unlike any other since the big return in 1999, one that deals a series of severe blows to the circadian rhythms of the players.

Most fans busied themselves with the enjoyment of predicting how the Browns will do when the schedule was unveiled a few days ago. They looked for potential dangerous stretches, soft spots, trap games. You know, the usual.

Overlooked was how this unusual schedule would affect established routines for players and coaches throughout the season.

Most, if not all, players get their bodies ready physically, emotionally and mentally to play games at 1 o’clock local time on most Sundays with perhaps an occasional Thursday night, Sunday night or Monday night game.

Not the Browns this season. Not by a long shot. Their schedule is littered with time inconsistencies the entire season.

Half their games start at 1 local time on a Sunday, but the only time they play consecutive Sunday games at that time is the final two games of the season and even that might get flexed into a later game depending on the importance of the games.

Back-to-back nationally beamed games in weeks two and three, plus a third just two weeks later on the road has to make it difficult on not just the players, but the coaching staff from a preparatory standpoint.

Two of those national games are Monday night affairs on the road (New York and San Francisco after a road game the prior week). It’s hard enough to prepare for games when there is rhythm to a season and the bodies are ready to play those 1 p.m. games, let alone the unevenness of the season.

The Browns get a break for the fourth national TV game, a Thursday-night date at home with Pittsburgh in mid-October. It’s also the middle game of a three-game home stand in the second half of the season.

How the Browns finish this season will depend largely on how well they do in the first eight games, easily the tougher half of the season. They face only one team that made the playoffs (Baltimore) in the second half, five of which are at home.

The harshest stretch by far in the schedule, a four road-game minefield (at Baltimore, San Francisco, New England and Denver) in six weeks (including a bye in week seven), most likely will be a determining factor where the club resides coming down the stretch.

If the Browns emerge with no worse than a 5-3 or 4-4 record, they’ve got a great shot at winning the AFC North. (That feels so strange typing.)

Winning on the road the last several seasons was merely a dream. Last season, though, the Browns were much more competitive, winning twice and having a third unfairly snatched by a terrible call late in the Oakland loss.

The Browns catch another break in the second half of the season, playing five of their remaining eight games against AFC North opponents after running back Kareem Hunt returns to the lineup after serving an eight-game suspension.

Not to be overlooked is the season opener at home against Tennessee, a game that involves one of the last vestiges of disappointments and embarrassments this franchise has endured the last 20 seasons. There is something about season- and home-opening games that seems to elude the Browns’ grasp at emerging victorious.

During that span they are 1-18-1 (1-14-1- at home) in season-opening games, the tie a 21-21 overtime affair last season at home against Pittsburgh, which snapped a 13-game losing skid in season lid lifters. The winless streak stands at 14.

The only victory in that span was a 20-3 beat down of Baltimore in 2004, a season the club finished 4-12. Fourteen of those season-opening 18 losses have been at home.

The last time the Browns and Titans teams met was week seven of the infamous winless season in 2017, the Titans winning, 12-9, in overtime in Cleveland in a touchdown-less game.

A reason to be excited about this season’s opening game? That Browns team was far inferior to this season’s edition.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Worst to first

 It wasn’t long ago – just a couple of years, in fact – that the Browns had arguably the worst set of wide receivers in the National Football League.

They owned that title prior to that for a few long, arduous, mind-numbing seasons as quarterback after quarterback tried to accomplish the impossible: Win football games.

Season after agonizing season for five years, the Browns’ front office failed miserably at fixing the problem. And then along came John Dorsey in the latter stages of the 2017 season.

That, you’ll recall, was the season the Browns reached the nadir of their once-proud history by underwhelming all 16 opponents, a feat accomplished only once before in the annals of the NFL.

In that span, the Browns fielded the likes of Corey Coleman, Ricardo Louis, Jordan Payton, Brian Hartline, Darius Jennings, Marlon Moore, Kasen Williams and Sammie Coates.

In 2016 alone, the Browns (Sashi Brown) selected four receivers in the college draft – Coleman, Louis, Payton and Rashard Higgins – in an effort to strengthen the position, probably figuring quantity should produce some quality.

He figured incorrectly. Only Higgins has survived the last three seasons and his contributions have been relatively minimal.

Those forlorn days of below average to just plain bad wide receivers wearing Seal Brown and Orange are long gone, now. The worm has definitely turned and outsiders have noticed.

Conor Orr of Sports Illustrated has certainly noticed. We’re in just the infant stages of the 2019 season, but that didn’t stop him from ranking the NFL’s best wide receivers corps entering the college draft in a couple of weeks.

After Dorsey somewhat successfully addressed the wide receivers room, the label of “awful” disappeared quickly, helping Baker Mayfield set a league record for touchdown passes by a rookie with 27. The wideouts had 14 of them.

Orr, who delights in listing his pre-draft position rankings, tackled the wide receivers this week on line and, in stunning fashion, ranks your Cleveland Browns as his No. 1 team. This is not a typo.

From abject misery, as recently as two seasons ago, to the pinnacle (at least in the preseason) of the mountain is quite a leap.

With the likes of Jarvis Landry, the recently acquired Odell Beckham Jr., Antonio Callaway and Higgins, Orr justifies his ranking by labeling Landry and Beckham “two of the best talents in the league right now.”

And, he wrote, they will be “playing with a budding star at quarterback (Mayfield), a sought-after offensive coordinator (Todd Monken) and their college position coach (Adam Henry).”

Undoubtedly realizing what he has done – ranking the Browns No. 1 in anything these days is brave in and of itself despite the vast improvement – Orr understands that “I’m going to get killed for this.”

But he at the same time realizes that when he lines up all the wide receivers of the other 31 teams, none can, at least on paper, match what the Browns are capable of doing, especially after what they accomplished in the last of half of the 2018 season.

The astonishing climb from worst to first for this position subtly suggests Dorsey is more than likely to concentrate on other positions on the roster come draft time. This one for the time being is set.

All of which, of course, ramps up the pressure to justify the ranking. That’s a story line that will be closely watched throughout the coming season.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Don’t deal Duke

So Duke Johnson Jr. wants to become an ex-Cleveland Brown. The sooner, the better.

The fifth-year running back took his first step toward that goal by not reporting for the Browns’ voluntary offseason program that began Monday in Berea.

Johnson’s representatives reportedly believe the running back is no longer in the club’s long-range plans and envision him dropping even deeper on the depth chart with the signing of free agent Kareem Hunt.

The versatile Johnson, whose talents have been misused ever since being drafted in 2015, played relatively sparingly last season with rookie Nick Chubb getting most of the reps after the Browns traded Carlos Hyde midway through the season.

When Hunt returns in the second half of the 2019 season after serving a suspension, the backfield all of a sudden becomes crowded with an embarrassment of riches should General Manager John Dorsey resist the temptation of trading Johnson.

It makes no sense for the Browns to deal Johnson elsewhere in the National Football League right now, especially after coach Freddie Kitchens is on record as stating he would find playing time for all three backs when Hunt returns.

“Duke Johnson will have a role on our football team,” he said at the NFL owners’ meeting last week in Phoenix. “All these guys . . . will have a role.”

Kitchens is going to have to convince Dorsey of that since he is fielding offers from other teams. Reportedly, three teams have expressed interest. The determining factor most likely will be how high a draft choice he can fetch for Johnson.

That market was established recently when the Chicago Bears shipped running back Jordan Howard, who has racked up a couple of 1,000-yard seasons, to the Philadelphia Eagles for a sixth-round pick that could become a fifth depending on how much he is used.

If Dorsey can’t get anything higher than a fifth-round pick – and that possibility resides somewhere in fantasyland – or a marginal player in return, he might as well hold on to Johnson.

In his first four seasons, Johnson touched the football 534 times and gained 3,456 yards as a runner/receiver. That’s 6.47 yards per touch. It can be argued he scored only 13 touchdowns. That’s because he was rarely used close to the goal line.

What also makes Johnson valuable, besides his versatility, is the cap-friendly contract he signed last summer, a three-year, $15.6 million deal.

As it stands right now, there is no reason to believe Kitchens and offensive coordinator Todd Monken can’t figure out how to make the Chubb-Hunt-Johnson troika work. It has been done before.

New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels worked his magic with rookie Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead and James White last season as the Patriots won another Super Bowl.

The worst move Dorsey can make is trading Johnson just for the sake of trading him. If he cannot get fair value in return, he might as well stay put and let Kitchens and Monken work their magic.

There's an old expression in sports that is so true. It goes something like this: Sometimes, the best trades you make are the ones you don't make.

Monday, April 1, 2019

A dream come true

 The smile on Odell Beckham Jr.’s face said it all as he met with the Cleveland media for the first time Monday.

It became apparent early on that the initial shock of the March 12 trade that swept him up from the New York area and dropped him in Cleveland had dissipated.

Love was in the air all around. Beckham’s five seasons with the Giants were clearly in the distance and disappearing quickly in the rearview mirror.

“I’m very excited about this,” the three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver declared. “I think it’s going to be one of the best things that ever happened to me in my life.”

Asked his impression of new head coach Freddie Kitchens immediately replied, “I love him. I gave him a bug hug. . . . He’s straightforward and authentic. . . . I could feel the love walking in.”

Seated to his immediate right at the table was Jarvis Landry, his closest friend in not just the National Football League, but life. It all seemed almost surreal to the newest member of the Browns.

“At 17, we dreamed about this,” Beckham said of their growing up together in Louisiana and three seasons together at Louisiana State University. “Now, it’s real.”

Landry, who campaigned, lobbied and prodded Browns General Manager John Dorsey to reunite the LSU products in the NFL, couldn’t have been more pleased. “It’s more of an honor to take the field with him again,” he said of his new teammate.

Beckham and Landry spoke last season after the Browns had obtained Landry in a trade with the Miami Dolphins. “He came over here last year and I joked with him that I was coming (to join him in Cleveland),” he revealed. “I was just messing with him. We never thought we’d be here.”

Beckham dismissed the notion that his abundant talent is counterbalanced by his reputation as a free spirit and that he might have trouble adjusting to a completely different way of life in Cleveland as opposed to New York. “Nothing bothers me because I know who I am,” he said.

Quarterback Baker Mayfield and defensive end Myles Garrett joined Beckham at his debut. “I called him and talked to him (after the trade),” Mayfield said as he exchanged smiles with his newest wide receiver. “The thing we kept saying was this can’t be real.” 

The quarterback also pointed out Beckham will be valuable off the field as well. “(Getting him) is great for the locker room,” he said. “The impact he can have with who he is as a person speaks much more than anything he will ever do on the field. That’s why it’s such a big deal for us. That’s why we are all excited and pumped up.”

The inevitable question regarded ball distribution in the passing game came up. Both men like to be targeted frequently and are not shy about complaining if their target totals lag.

Mayfield handled it as deftly as he escapes the opposition’s pass rush when in trouble. “I just close my eyes,” he said, “and hope one of them catches it. I’m not worried about that. They know I’m going to do my job and hope they trust me to do that.”

As thoughts of a potential Super Bowl appearance by the suddenly strong Browns this season hovered inside and around 76 Lou Groza Blvd. in Berea, the Beckham rollout merely added more fuel.

It has been a very long time since Browns Nation can justify feeling this good this early in the season. 
*       *       *
Roster moves: Say goodbye to wide receiver Ricardo Louis, safety Derrick Kindred and cornerback Howard Wilson (all waived) and defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah, traded Monday to Kansas City for safety Eric Murray. And hello again to defensive tackle Trevon Coley, wide receiver Rashard Higgins and defensive backs Juston Burris and Jerome Whitehead, all of whom were signed.

Updating the two-season draft scorecard for Sashi Brown (2016 and 2017): 24 selections, only six (one shaky) left. Middle linebacker Joe Schobert, tight end Seth DeValve (shaky) and Higgins remain from the 14-member 2016 class. Garrett, tight end David Njoku and defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi have survived from the 10-member 2017 class.

Eight members of Dorsey’s nine-man 2018 class are still with the team. Five are starters and/or major contributors  (Mayfield, cornerback Denzel Ward, running back Nick Chubb, wide receiver Antonio Callaway and linebacker Genard Avery) and a sixth (guard Austin Corbett) ostensibly will be a starter this season.

Brown provided the draft capital, but had no idea what to do with it. Dorsey wisely filled in many of the blanks.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Will he or won’t he?

 So the Browns have assigned only 15 players with first-round grades in next month’s college football draft. Because they had a much-better-than-expected record last season, they were scheduled to draft 17th in the opening round.

But since they sent that selection to the New York Giants in the Odell Beckham Jr. blockbuster deal, they now have to wait until midway through the second round to dip into the college lottery.

Meaning, of course, that even if they had held on to that 17th pick, they probably wouldn’t have used it because all of those 15 would theoretically be gone. A convenient excuse to be only spectators on opening night of the three-day extravaganza.

It’s also an interesting way of rationalizing shipping that pick to the Giants. It’s like saying, “We had the 17th pick and awarded first-round grades to only 15 prospects, so why not deal it because it would have been second-round talent, anyway?”

Logic suggests there is no way the Browns will participate in the opening round, watching instead as the top players fall, giving the club’s fans, who are no doubt sick and tired of watching their cub drafting so high on an annual basis, the night off.

Unless, that is, General Manager John Dorsey, whose star has now risen to celestial heights, somehow finds a way to move up to grab one of those 15 prospects who falls unexpectedly into his crosshairs.

It won’t take much. The rhythm of a draft is such that it can be upset by just one major surprise in the top five. One shocker can create a domino effect and knock everyone else down.

The only problem there is Dorsey, who loves to deal, does not own enough trade capital with his personnel. After unloading Kevin Zeitler and Jabrill Peppers to the Giants, he has little to work with beyond the growing array of core players he won’t deal.

The only weapon he can wield is next year’s first-round pick. The likelihood of that eventuating, however, ranks somewhere between “no way” and “is he crazy?” Or does it?

Dorsey’s expected non-participation the first night is the price he has paid to mold the Cleveland offense into one of the strongest and scariest in the National Football League. In other words, it was well worth it.

No sense is pushing the envelope unless someone he has totally fallen in love with tumbles and pushes him to search for a trade partner. Considering his reputation as a risk taker, though, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him swing into action.

It potentially gives the expression “stay tuned” an entirely different meaning

Monday, March 18, 2019

Pressure cooker 

In the midst of the glee and euphoria surrounding the trade that set the National Football League aflame a few days comes a caveat with regard to the immediate future of the Browns.

There is no question General Manager John Dorsey has cobbled together a roster in just 15 months that qualifies as one of the best in the NFL. The talent quotient is right there with Kansas City, New England and the Los Angels Rams.

The big question is whether the coaching staff under rookie head coach Freddie Kitchens is seasoned enough to handle this vast array of talent, the likes of which hasn’t graced the Cleveland football landscape in a very long time.

Dorsey believes so. “From a planning standpoint, you want to surround a first-year head coach with quality coaches at all levels,” he told the Cleveland media last week. “I think we’ve done that. Surround him with a strong coaching staff.”

Kitchens’ star has risen so rapidly, so majestically, the fact he has never been the lead whistle of a football team on any level has been shunted to the background in light of all the personnel moves.

There is no question whatsoever the new boss of the locker room has the chops to handle an offense. That was more than evident in the second half of last season when he transformed the Cleveland offense into one of the league’s most dangerous.

But there is more, a lot more, to being a head coach than shepherding just one side of the football. It is an entirely different world because he now has the ears of the entire team. He is the man who sets the tone for everything going forward.

Initial observations from listening to Kitchens indicate he will be a players’ coach. Instead of separating himself from the players in a somewhat aloof manner, he genuinely cares about them on a personal basis.

The NFL head coaching landscape is dotted with coaches who prefer their relationships with the players to be strictly on a coach-player plane, a business basis. Kitchens is too down home to bend in that direction.

I get the impression he believes his success will be determined on how close he gets to the players, planting seeds in an effort to get them to play that much harder for him because they really want to.

As a neophyte to the head coaching ranks, he has to straddle a fine line as he tries to please his many bosses in the Ivory Tower and, at the same time, maintain a close relationship with his team.

He has to identify and then put out fires that are bound to occasionally erupt in the locker room. With strong and somewhat unpredictable personalities like Baker Mayfield, Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. in that room, anything is possible.

That’s not to say trouble will always be lurking. But part of Kitchens’ job entails sniffing out the fire before it becomes a blaze and snuffing it out. Establishing harmony in a room of 53 players is quintessential to the performance of the end product.

Kitchens obviously has the ringing endorsement of his general manager. “This head coach is very direct, very honest,” Dorsey said. “He’s going to tell it like it is. . . . He will hold players accountable. He’ll let players express themselves as he should do.”

That includes Beckman, whose unpredictability in New York greased the slide that saw him dealt to the Browns. “(Kitchens) will tell Odell like it is,” the GM said. “. . . We really like Odell. He’s passionate, He’s competitive. He wants to be great. You can’t have enough of those guys. . . . We’re thrilled to have him.”

There is also no question Mayfield loves his new head coach. He has made that clear since the appointment in January. It will be interesting, maybe even fascinating, to see how much of an influence he can be on the rest of the offense in that regard.

At the tail end of last season, members of the offensive line practically rhapsodized in their praise of the rookie quarterback. The trickle down effect was astounding. That bears watching in 2019.

This is a football team that is loaded with talent, especially on offense. You can bet Dorsey, along with owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam III, and the fans expect positive results almost immediately.

All this is new to Kitchens, who will matriculate through his rookie season as a head coach under as much, maybe even more, pressure to succeed than any Browns head coach since, well, since Bill Belichick took over back in 1991. How he handles it will be a determining factor on how successful the 2019 Browns are.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Dealing Duke a mistake

 Now that the Browns know they won’t have the services of running back Kareem Hunt until the second half of the 2019 season, it’s time for Browns General Manager John Dorsey to stop shopping Duke Johnson Jr.

There is no logical reason to continue to solicit any kind of activity that would land the versatile running back/wide receiver on the roster of another National Football League team.

Besides, there is no guarantee Hunt, who received an eight-game suspension by the NFL Friday and will be a restricted free agent at the end of this season, will return to the Browns for the 2020 season.

The Browns rescued the Willoughby native after the Kansas City Chiefs cut him late last season following violations of the league’s personal conduct policy. He obviously is grateful, the Browns signed him, but in the business world, that goes just so far.

Unless Dorsey, who drafted Hunt as the Chiefs’ general manager, can extract a promise from Hunt that he will sign a long-term contract with Cleveland after this season, it makes no sense to deal Johnson now. That’s not going to happen.

It’s difficult to understand why Dorsey is thinking of dealing Johnson when he says, “Duke Johnson is a really good player. He’s a very valuable asset on this team.” And “you can never have enough talent on a team.”

Now that Odell Beckham Jr. is aboard, that virtually eliminates Johnson from being part of the pass offense. All of which pigeonholes him at running back and he is a decided No. 3 behind Nick Chubb and Hunt, once he returns from suspension.

Now Dorsey is clearly gambling – so what else is new? – that Hunt will see the light and remain with the team that tossed him a lifeline. Then again, there is a chance he just might say adios next year when a team looking for a stud running back with the résumé he owns and offers him more money than the Browns are willing to match.

Also take into consideration Hunt, once he returns, will share reps with Chubb, a situation he might not like considering he was the man in Kansas City and rarely missed plays.

That’s part of the conundrum. There are too many possibilities of losing Hunt next year for Dorsey with regard to dealing Johnson. Unless, of course, he genuinely does not believe Johnson is a fit with this team.

Unfortunately, the last two Browns coaching staffs have not maximized his talents. So if Dorsey insists on looking for a trade partner, a team like the New England Patriots and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels would be a perfect fit.

About the best the Cleveland GM can hope for in return is a fifth-round draft pick or a marginal player best suited for special teams.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The future has arrived

At the recent National Football League Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, the media asked Browns General Manager John Dorsey about his team and what the future looked like.

The question, prompted by the club’s surprisingly good showing last season, drew the following answer: “I don’t think we’re a team yet to go for it.  We have a young, talented team. Let’s build a foundation here. Let’s build a team of substance, OK?”

Now maybe Dorsey was being overly modest about what the Browns accomplished in his first full season as GM. Then again, maybe he knew what the immediate future held and was merely pretending.

After stunning the NFL – and the entire sports world, for that matter – by trading for New York Giants superstar wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr, Tuesday, it turned out the audacious Dorsey clearly was playing his cards close to the vest.

When the blockbuster news arrived shortly before 8 o’clock Tuesday night that the Browns had shipped their first-round pick and the lower of two third-round choices in next month’s college draft and safety Jabrill Peppers to the Giants for the peerless Beckham, it shook the NFL Universe to its core.

The future is clearly bright now in Berea and Dorsey, even more clearly, is as all in as a poker player sitting with a straight flush and equally straight face.

His aim is higher, a whole lot higher, than the AFC North championship, which seemed like an achievement just a few short months ago. The championship thoughts now coursing through his mind are much closer to the Super Bowl.

All of which makes the almost-miraculous transformation of this franchise in the last 15 months, or since Dorsey took charge, as remarkable as any in recent NFL memory.

This franchise was setting numerous records for futility as recently as a couple of years ago. They became only the second team in league history to lose all 16 games in one season (2017) and won only once in 32 games in consecutive campaigns.

The Cleveland Browns were an embarrassment to the league, wandering aimlessly. Finishing in the basement was an annual event. Fans jumped off the bandwagon in droves.

Then along came Dorsey, who keeps topping himself, with a simple objective. Change the culture. He methodically dismantled half the roster he inherited and went to work shaping the immediate future in his image.

And now comes the piece de résistance. Landing one of the genuine superstars of the NFL at a time when doing so was merely a pipe dream, a thought bubble that kept exploding because it was not doable.

After signing him to a new five-year, $98.5 million contract last summer the Giants maintained they would not trade Beckham, but would certainly listen to offers. Giants GM Dave Gettleman repeatedly told the media, as recently as the Scouting Combine, “We didn’t sign Odell to trade him, OK?”

As much as Browns Nation dreamed of such a deal, they realistically couldn’t help but think it had no chance of happening.

Until it did. And it instantaneously labels the Browns relevant in a spectacular way.

Helping Dorsey pry Beckham loose might have been a story floating around New York that Beckham was not a favorite of Giants coach Pat Shurmur, who would not be unhappy to see him leave. Gettleman ostensibly had two choices: Trade Beckman or fire his coach.

Dorsey and Gettleman, who successfully negotiated the Kevin Zeitler-Olivier Vernon trade just a few days ago, probably expanded their discussions to Beckham before agreeing on the second swap.

To make matters a little easier logistically, the clubs have agreed to combine the two deals, making it Zeitler, Peppers, a one and a three for Beckham and Vernon. That’s outright thievery in broad daylight either way.

I was of the belief it would cost at least a pair of ones, a two and a higher profile player than Peppers, who has not lived up to expectations, although he did appear to put together a much stronger second half last season after being totally misused as a rookie.

The King’s ransom thought to be the key to dislodging Beckham from the Giants’ roster turned out to be a pawn’s ransom by comparison as Christmas and New Year’s arrived in Cleveland 10 months early.

The gravitas Beckham brings to Cleveland, added to that of Baker Mayfield, now places the Browns in the upper echelon of relevance from a media standpoint. Networks will scramble to land as many nationally televised Browns games as they can.

With the likes of Beckham, his college buddy Jarvis Landry, Mayfield, Nick Chubb, the distinct possibility of Kareem Hunt, emerging tight end David Njoku and a defense that ultimately could be the most improved in the league this season, Browns fans should have no problem getting used to the national spotlight.

The acrobatic and highly entertaining Beckham, who has averaged 93 yards a game and scored 44 touchdowns in five seasons, legitimizes a Cleveland offense that flirted with being one of the most dangerous in the league in the second half of last season. Some national media observers are calling the Browns “scary good.”

Keeping the mercurial Beckham happy in his new environment should not be a problem, Besides rejoining his former Louisiana State teammate Landry, he also will be coached by Adam Henry, their position coach at LSU.

The domino effect on offense should be felt almost immediately and serve as a supreme challenge to the creative minds of new head coach Freddie Kitchens and offensive coordinator Todd Monken.

The mind boggles at what these guys can do with the talents of Mayfield, Beckham, Landry, Antonio Callaway, Njoku, Chubb, Hunt, etc. There is so much talent on that side of the football now, the only problem might be keeping everyone engaged and happy.

The deals have also had an immediate impact on betting odds for this season. The team that annually scraped the bottom of the NFL for nearly two decades went from 25-1 to 14-1 to win the next Super Bowl and from 12-1 to 7-1, behind only New England and Kansas City, to win the AFC championship.

Social media exploded with the news as prominent athletes around the sports world chimed in. Former Cavaliers great LeBron James, a Dallas Cowboys fan, tweeted: “OH!!!! S*#% just got REAL!!” Might he be thinking of switching allegiances?

“Movement.” was all Mayfield needed to tweet. Added Dez Bryant, “The whole New York Giants fan base just switched to Cleveland . . . SMH”.

The seismic aftershocks of this deal will be felt for quite a while, dominating the headlines before simmering down and then firing up again as teams prepare for the upcoming season with OTAs, minicamps and then summer camps.

The Browns and their fans had better get used go the national attention this team is certain to attract. The whole new culture in Berea also will take some getting used to after all these years of futility and frustration and being ignored. It’s pretty safe to say now the Factory of Sadness that sits by the lakefront will take on a brand new name.

At the same time, I cannot adequately describe how utterly strange it seems to be typing Super Bowl and Cleveland Browns in the same sentence. It’s a strange and somewhat surreal feeling.

And that rapidly shrinking bandwagon is loading up again and should reach capacity, if there is such a thing considering the international reach of Browns Nation, well before the start of the 2019 season as visions of a return to the glory days of this once-proud franchise dance around.

Fans who have stuck around and been patient through the last two decades despite all the losing will now be rewarded for their patience and loyalty with the kind of football team they expected when the NFL allowed it to return in 1999 after an undeserved three-year absence.

Bottom line: OBJ in Cleveland is one of the most joyous OMG moments in not just Cleveland Browns history, but Cleveland sports history, ranking right up there with the LeBron James era. Two transcendent, generational athletes performing for the great sports fans of Cleveland.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Defensive line sports new look

 John Dorsey, the mad scientist of Berea, emerged from his underground laboratory Tuesday with yet another piece of the puzzle along the Browns’ defensive line.

In agreeing with defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson on a three-year, $39 million contract, which will be announced officially Wednesday, Dorsey all but assured the 2019 revamped defensive line will look nothing like the one that performed in 2018, especially from a quality standpoint.

With newly-acquired Olivier Vernon partnering with Myles Garrett on the edges and Richardson lining up next to Larry Ogunjobi, journeys deep into to the offensive backfields of opponents should ostensibly become much more frequent and productive.

The question, however, is what Sheldon Richardson have the Browns signed? The one who played defensive end so well for four seasons with the New York Jets? Or the one whose production fell off after being switched to tackle the last two seasons in Seattle and Minnesota?

Does he still have the skills that earned him defensive Rookie-of-the-Year honors in the National Football League? Or have they eroded to the point where he has become an NFL vagabond, playing with his fourth team in four years?

Dorsey is clearly gambling (shocking, I know) that Richardson, same age as Vernon at 28, sill has plenty left and playing with a team clearly on the rise will serve as motivation. Theoretically, both men are in the prime of their careers. Playing with Garrett certainly won’t hurt.

The big problem on defense last season was the inability – with Garrett the lone exception – to make life uncomfortable for opposing quarterbacks. Add the inability to stop the run game and fixing the defensive trench all added up and became priority No. 1.

There is no reason to believe Dorsey will stop there. The college draft is loaded this season with quality defensive linemen and it would not surprise to see the Cleveland general manager attempt to strengthen the depth there.

Enough skill players taken early in the draft should push a high quality defensive lineman or two down to the Browns’ slot at No. 17. Unless, of course, Dorsey feels the need to move up and grab someone he has identified as a must-get.

The two latest moves, in addition to the continuing growth of second-year hybrid linebacker Genard Avery, relegate second-year disappointment Trevon Coley to a situational role inside and seriously jeopardize Emmanuel Ogbah’s stay in Cleveland.  

It will also give new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks and his staff a chance to unlock the mystery of why Chad Thomas, a third-round draft pick last year, all but disappeared during the season and contributed less than zero.

The 67th overall selection in the lottery should not become a cipher in the grand scheme of things with a professional football team. His team biography says he is “a working music producer when not playing football and produced tracks for (several) recording artists.” The Browns need him to produce . . . on a football field.
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One less concern on offense: Breshad Perriman somewhat surprisingly signed a one-year, $4 million contract Tuesday, 24 hours before his contract would have expired.

The former first-round draft choice by Baltimore, whose career took off with the Browns last season after three disappointing seasons with the Ravens, was rumored to be using last season’s success as a reason to test free agency.

It is being labeled a prove-it signing, as in prove last season – the speedy wide receiver caught 16 passes for 340 yards and a pair of touchdowns in 10 games – was no fluke and further success this season would act as a bridge to a much more lucrative future contract.

It is widely believed Perriman had become one of quarterback Baker Mayfield’s favorite receivers, averaging 21.3 yards a reception, but he was targeted just 25 times in his 10 games.

The Perriman signing might also influence Rashard Higgins, more of a possession receiver whose production increased markedly in his third year last season, to re-up with the club.

There is no question the contributions of Perriman and Higgins were significant as the Browns displayed one of the NFL’s most dangerous offenses in the second half of last season.

Together with veteran Jarvis Landry and rookie Antonio Callaway, what once was a club weakness at wide receiver has arguably become a strength. And if Dorsey somehow manages to land free agent Tyrell Williams, Mayfield becomes that much more dangerous.