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Behind Baker and OBJ, the Browns Are Ready to Become the NFL’s Next Big Thing

Cleveland is no longer the NFL’s exemplar for futility and mismanagement. With a franchise QB, a bevy of young talent, salary cap flexibility, and an offseason superstar acquisition, the Browns’ future is as bright as any team’s in the league. 

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The Cleveland Browns are the NFL’s “it” team this preseason. They have a dynamic young quarterback in Baker Mayfield. They have a star wide receiver in Odell Beckham Jr. They have a new coach, a new plan, and renewed hope ... and this time that hope seems warranted. So how did the Browns go from leaguewide laughingstock to potential model franchise of the future? Welcome to Trust the Browns’ Process Week, when we’ll explore how Believeland reached this point—and what comes next.

“What was the risk?” John Dorsey asked me.

The Cleveland Browns general manager was responding to a word I’d used while describing the trade he swung for Odell Beckham Jr. this spring. I clarified that anytime you trade a first-round pick in return for a player who will be the biggest salary on your roster, there is some degree of risk involved, even if the player is worth it.

“26-year-old receiver, in the prime of his career, and by and large one of the top three receivers in the National Football League,” Dorsey said.

“So you didn’t see it as a risk, or an aggressive move?” I asked.

Dorsey cracked a smile. “OK, I did a little bit,” he admitted.

But, Dorsey continued: “I was secure enough with our research that the organization did, in the scenarios we played out—secure with the coaching staff in place,” he said. “If you can help that quarterback be better, then put some playmakers around him.”

The quarterback, of course, is Baker Mayfield, the Browns’ no. 1 pick in the 2018 draft, whose rookie season transformed the franchise. The Browns are, for the first time since their rebirth two decades ago, a legitimately buzzy NFL team, armed with a solid roster and salary cap room. “When you have a quarterback like Baker Mayfield, I’ve always thought, you want to put as many pieces around him as you can in Year 2 to elevate his game because you are into that second year, and you want to see a 25 percent improvement, from my perspective,” Dorsey said. “So you put pieces around him like this.”

Putting pieces around a young quarterback has been an important piece of roster-building since the 2011 collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the players association, as teams like the Seahawks, the Eagles, and the Rams have learned. It’s a particularly important lesson in Cleveland: Mayfield looks to be among the most talented passers in the game, the Browns have a stable of young pieces, and, well, they have a real chance to win big things.

That the Browns have a quarterback as good as Mayfield is itself a feat. The Browns have the same Super Bowl odds as Green Bay, Pittsburgh, and Dallas, an optimistic forecast due in large part to Mayfield’s play last season and the team’s offseason acquisitions. It’s remarkable for Cleveland to be in this position given their history with quarterbacks. The team started three quarterbacks in each season from 2013 to 2016. The last time a Browns quarterback started every game was the underachieving Tim Couch in 2001. Brandon Weeden, Austin Davis, Connor Shaw, Kevin Hogan, and Thad Lewis are among those who have started games in the years in between Couch and now. The Browns planning for the future with their new franchise quarterback is like Charlie Brown planning what to do with the rest of his life after finally kicking the football Lucy was holding: Just getting this far is an accomplishment.

But Cleveland has a plan. The team’s offseason acquisitions included trading a first- and a third-round pick, plus safety Jabrill Peppers, for Beckham. The team also snagged Giants pass rusher Olivier Vernon, defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson, running back Kareem Hunt, and safety Eric Murray. “You have a new coaching staff, so you can get a little aggressive like this,” Dorsey explains. “Because they are really good teachers, and they are sound technically, and they are going to teach fundamentals.”

The new staff is led by head coach Freddie Kitchens, who is the coach responsible for Mayfield’s emergence last year. Kitchens was promoted to offensive coordinator after head coach Hue Jackson, last seen with a 0.088 winning percentage in Cleveland, and offensive coordinator Todd Haley were fired in October of last season. After Kitchens took over play-calling duties, Mayfield went on a tear in the second half of the season that included a 106 passer rating and a 68 percent completion percentage. He finished the season with 27 touchdown passes, an NFL rookie record. I asked Kitchens whether, in building this year’s offense, he targeted any specific players. “A lot of people don’t value speed as much as me. I value speed and guys that catch the ball. And catch the ball in traffic. When you get those guys, we have to find a spot for them,” Kitchens said. He wants a good offensive line and players who have an attention to detail (or can develop one), but mostly he wants good players. And Dorsey seems to be getting them.

So: about the 25 percent jump Dorsey expects. I asked him where that shows up. “The quarterback position is a hard position to master,” he tells me. He said the improvement he’s looking for from Mayfield looks like this: “OK, I’ve now begun to mentally master the offense. Now what I have to do in my head is, I’ve got to really hone my skills on the defense and what they are going to do to me. So it’s that broader-based thinking that you’re looking at and how much depth of thinking and [how he] understands the defense.” The way Dorsey explains it, young quarterbacks like Mayfield process each play in fairly basic terms. Eventually, Dorsey says, the hope is to get them to the point of saying, “OK, let me read the coverage while I’m walking out to the line [of scrimmage]. Can he decipher that fast enough to alleviate the stress points and say, ‘Ah, that’s easy. I just go there because that’s my best advantage’?”

I mention a nearly identical conversation I had last year with former Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon, who told me that young quarterbacks think about the play call at the line of scrimmage. One day, they learn to diagnose the defense almost as soon as they break the huddle, and that makes all the difference. Dorsey wants Mayfield to flip that switch. Dorsey said he tells his players to stop “thinking then reacting” instead of just reacting. It’s a process to remove the thinking part. “You hope the coaches will bring it out—[where he’ll] be strong enough mentally, where he’s relaxed and thinking about that defense. That’s what you’re looking at.”

“You know it’s important and I know it’s important,” Dorsey said. He’s talking about building around a young, cheap quarterback. Mayfield’s cap hit is $7.4 million, 217th in the NFL. “That’s why it is so important to hit that quarterback with your draft pick. You can build around that. The way the NFL salaries are going for quarterbacks, you have to rethink on how you build a football team when you have that big of an asset allocation going to the quarterback. It is hard.”

I ask him whether he’s ever thought about the somewhat revolutionary idea of a team operating by continually turning over cheap quarterbacks and never signing one to an extension. “We’ve talked about it,” Dorsey said. “And I deal with the present, and the present is I like our situation right now.”

One of the pitfalls teams face in this era is giving a lot of money to mediocre quarterbacks, when truly great ones make just slightly more. Given Mayfield’s production and trajectory, whatever mega-extension the Browns offer him will likely be a bargain. That’s the balance: working out how to put as many pieces around Mayfield as possible while knowing that those pieces, and Mayfield himself, will eventually become more expensive.

“I don’t think you get more aggressive now [after this offseason]. You have to begin to forecast the future and see what’s out there three years from now in terms of asset allocations,” he said. “I think you have to be very smart about how you construct your team the next three years, because you know these two years you can be a tad aggressive, but you know that along the way you’re going to have to pay for being that aggressive if you get to the path you think you’re going to.” Dorsey’s talking about maintaining cap flexibility for when their budding stars need new contracts.

The Browns have a remarkable cap situation: No player on their team in 2019 accounts for more than 6.94 percent of the cap—that number belongs to Beckham and his $17 million hit. Olivier Vernon, Jarvis Landry, Richardson, Damarious Randall, and Travis Carrie are all making between 3.6 and 6.3 percent of the cap. All of those players, notably, came from another team via trade or free agency. The highest-paid homegrown player is Myles Garrett, who will count $8.3 million against the cap this season, or 3.4 percent.

If the Browns’ core develops, the players they have now will get very expensive, and the dreamy cap situation will not last forever. “With success comes reward. I think it’s our responsibility that if a player plays at a high level and understands your culture, why not extend them?”

By 2020, Beckham’s cap hit will rank 12th among the league’s receivers, behind Allen Robinson, Davante Adams, and teammate Landry. All are fine players, but none are at the same level as Beckham.

Here is the important thing to remember about Beckham: A superstar under contract in the NFL is almost always a bargain. So even the Browns’ “big contracts” are well worth the price. That won’t last forever, but it will certainly help in 2019.

The Browns’ core of young talent is not limited to one side of the ball. As Dorsey discusses the idea of stacking the deck for Mayfield, he mentions that he’s trying to do the same for the other side of the ball, for another young star. “You go out and get a Sheldon Richardson and Olivier Vernon for a reason. That’s to help Myles Garrett,” Dorsey said. “If you can create enough of a threat on the pass-rushing front four, guess what. It gets a lot more difficult for the offensive line. If you have a stout enough defense, that helps alleviate pressure off the quarterback, too.” The Browns would be far less exciting if they did not have budding defensive stars like Garrett and cornerback Denzel Ward. Pro Football Focus graded Garrett higher than any Browns defender since it started keeping track in 2006. As with the Browns’ quarterback position, this is not exactly like being the best center fielder in Yankees history, but it is not nothing.

“This may sound crazy, but I talk to Myles about this all the time: Myles has to learn how to compete against himself. When you’re so gifted, so talented, blessed—what Mom and Dad have given him, God has given him—sometimes his 85 percent is going to be better than everyone else’s 100 percent,” Browns defensive coordinator Steve Wilks told me. “But I know his expectations. I know his goals. He has all the potential to be one of the best, if not the best pass rusher in the league and, projective, all time.”

Wilks sees Garrett “competing on every down” this camp. “I tell you what I was really impressed with when I got here. You talk about pass rush, pass rush—this guy is solid in the run game. He’s strong as hell. He can anchor the point,” he said. “He’s going to free some things up for O.V. [Vernon] on the other side and for Sheldon and Larry O[gunjobi] on the inside.”

On paper, this means the Browns have probably the most enticing collection of prospects in the league. No team outside Indianapolis has built such an intriguing roster so quickly on both sides of the ball. The Chiefs and the Rams have prospects, but not all collected in two years.

This has, not surprisingly, made Browns fans excited as hell. When I visited with Dorsey, we briefly stepped out from the field house to the field, and Dorsey was hounded by fans thanking him for the franchise’s offseason acquisitions (he was recently stopped while on vacation in Germany, too). He is quite popular for an NFL general manager. The pieces he’s put around Mayfield—and the presence of Mayfield himself—will do that to a fan base. “They love football. It holds true in the 100 years of football that five of the original teams [in 1920] were from the state of Ohio,” Dorsey said. He jokes that his friends in Wisconsin, where he worked as a Packers executive, get upset when he says Cleveland fans are as passionate as any fans in the league.

“Football is important here, and it shows you: Who better deserves to have the hope of winning than the Cleveland fan base of the last 20 years? After what they’ve had to endure.” They’ve had to endure a lot, and now they get to watch a very crucial three years: the last inexpensive years of Mayfield’s career.

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