(KDKA/CBS Local) — Don’t look now, but the Cleveland Browns could actually be good. The operative word in that sentence is ‘could.’ They could also stumble and bumble to a 7-9 finish that keeps them from reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2002. The Browns will take that first step Sunday afternoon, in whatever direction, when they host the Tennessee Titans on CBS.
With recent draft picks and key free agent acquisitions, Cleveland now has the talent to compete in the AFC. That’s quite a turnaround for a team that went win-less just two seasons ago. But how will new arrivals and veteran Browns meld on the field in week one and beyond? And can first-year coach Freddie Kitchens turn the various ingredients into a recipe for success? Those are key questions that will start to be answered.
The Browns showed promise last season, going 7-8-1 in the typically bruising AFC North. And a lot of that can be credited to the emergence of rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield. The first overall pick in 2018 started his first game in Week 3 and went on to throw for 3,725 yards, with 27 touchdown passes and 14 interceptions. Those are strong numbers for a rookie QB.
The team brought in superstar wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. in maybe the biggest move of the NFL offseason. The Mayfield-Beckham paring has the potential to be among the most dangerous in the League. But let’s not forget Jarvis Landry, Beckham’s college teammate, who should continue his production with another receiving threat in the lineup. Running back Nick Chubb, who started last season buried on the Browns’ depth chart, ran for almost 1,000 yards in 2018 and seems poised to pick up where he left off.
The Browns should continue to put up points. Can they keep points off the board? Stud defensive end Myles Garrett — now lighter, faster and even more of a pass-rushing threat — has even more company on the line. The team signed Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson in free agency to bolster an already strong group. Once past the line, the Browns’ linebacking core remains a bit of a work in progress. But the secondary, with Denzel Ward and Terrance Mitchell at the corners, can shutdown receivers.
None of that bodes well for Marcus Mariota, who has still yet to really prove he can lead the Titans offense. The fifth-year quarterback suffered career lows in attempts (331), completions (228), yards (2,528) and touchdowns (11) last season. Is he the problem, or is it the players around him?
Titans fans will find out soon, if they haven’t decided already. The team shored up the offensive line and wideouts, bringing in free agent guard Rodger Saffold and receiver Adam Humphries and drafting guard Nate Brown and receiver A.J. Brown. Add in new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, and perhaps that will be enough to help the team improve on its 9-7 mark in 2018, which left them a game short of the playoffs.
For now, Derrick Henry remains the team’s only reliable source of production. While not a pass-catching threat, the running back piled up 1059 yards on the ground last season, averaging nearly five yards per carry. If the Titans remain a run-first offense, he’ll certainly keep up those numbers over the course of a season. He could struggle this week, if the Browns determine they can key in on him.
Which brings everything back around to Mariota and whether he can complete enough passes to make the offense more than one-dimensional
The stout Titans defense returns almost unchanged from last season’s unit, which ranked top five in fewest points allowed per game (16.2) and top 10 in fewest yards (331). Tennessee also did a good job at preventing the big play. While the Titans feature talent at all three levels, the secondary should once again be among the best in the NFL. Corners Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan and Adoree Jackson could limit what looks to be a potent Browns passing attack.
The Browns and Titans both start the 2019 NFL season with reasonable dreams of the postseason. That quest starts Sunday at 1:00 ET on CBS.