The feel in Cleveland is just very different from what we’ve gotten used to. Just two years after the second 0-16 campaign in NFL history, the team is among the favourites to win the Vince Lombardi Trophy, with Vegas placing the Browns with 18/1 chance to win it all, ironically the same odds as division rival Pittsburgh Steelers.
The rebuild was radical but didn’t last too long. It started with selecting Oklahoma Sooners product Baker Mayfield first overall in 2018. In addition, the Browns also landed running back Nick Chubb with their second first-round pick. That gave them a seven-win year-to-year improvement, the biggest of the 2018 regular season. After firing head coach Hue Jackson, the team went 5-3.
But this year’s offseason was even busier. Cleveland traded for Giants star Odell Beckham Jr., and also acquired another star in free agency – Kareem Hunt, who will miss the first eight weeks of Browns football with suspension. Jarvis Landry will be a proven weapon for the second straight year with Mayfield, while David Njoku is ready to show his full potential at TE. A solid defence got even scarier with former first overall pick Myles Garrett set to play even bigger role in addition to the signing of former Jets and Seahawks defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson. It’s all fascinating on paper.
But as much as they’re expected to start the new era of contention in Cleveland in convincing fashion, the tables can easily turn and the Browns might have a nightmare start of their season. That’s because they’ll have to face one of the most underrated teams in all of football this year in the Tennessee Titans, led by QB Marcus Mariota and HC Mike Vrabel.
Last season Mariota had his third consecutive year with a winning record, throwing 11 TD and 8 INT. He managed a career-low in interceptions thrown with his eight, one less than in his phenomenal 2016, when his TD-INT ratio was 26-9. Meanwhile, with career-low 11 touchdown passes might be an indication of the Titans’ transition to playing more snaps on the ground. That brings us to our next focus on the offense – RB Derrick Henry.
Henry had the only 99-yard play of the 2018 NFL season in a 238-yard showing against the Jaguars in Week 14. The Jags defence had a weak year for their established standards – but it was still the Jaguars, and Henry tore them apart. He finished 7th in total yards. The new wide receiving corps for Mariota is also intriguing, with addition Adam Humphries being the key in the air game alongside Corey Davis.
Clearly outshined by the Browns’ individuals, the Titans are actually a very solid side. They will visit FirstEnergy Stadium in an early Sunday game to kick off their season, and they are certainly ready to do it on a high note. Mariota & co. have the annoying habit of starting their campaigns slow but for a squad with so much potential and a quarterback with so much pressure in a make-or-break season, it’s something you have to either deal with or outright overcome.
The Browns were eight in allowed yards through the air last year, despite cornerback Denzel Ward making the Pro Bowl in his rookie year. The key for the Titans is to get Mariota protection in order to exploit the weaknesses of the defence against the slot receivers. Expect TE Delaine Walker to be a helping hand in the pocket on 1st downs, as well as on everything over five for a first down.
Henry is expected to have tough day against that defensive line and trio of linebackers. But he can be a tool to a more equal play selection, and situational sparks could be a vital luxury.
But the Browns have good receiving depth for both short and long downs and Chubb in the backfield. They’re too complex a unit not to find weaknesses in the Titans secondary. The defence has its own question marks but expectations are Myles Garrett will make up for those. To clarify, that’s all based on assumptions. It’ll be a group of players we haven’t seen together for the most part so predictions for their playing style could seem a little dry.
The Browns are a five-and-a-half-point favourite, and rightfully so. But the Titans stack up more than well against Cleveland and could be a team quickly rocketing in their playoff odds, and a very deserving Week 1 underdog pick. 24-21 Cleveland.