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Analysis

Offseason brings a strange emotion: Optimism

The season had just about everything.

Including wins.

Finally.

The excitement is already building for the 2019 season — that’s right, season, not draft — after five wins over the final seven games. A 7-8-1 record moved the Browns out of the AFC North basement for the first time since 2010, and they will draft No. 17, a huge sign of progress.

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Change is coming in the division, and the Browns are a large part of it. The expectation is they’ll contend for the playoffs next season. They haven’t reached the postseason since 2002.

But before we can move on to what promises to be a bright future, let’s take another look back at a turnaround season filled with drama and progress.

The regularly scheduled coaching change saw Hue Jackson fired at midseason and Freddie Kitchens hired Jan. 12 after coming out of nowhere.

Quarterback Baker Mayfield exploded onto the scene when he finally was let off the bench in Week 3 and put up a Rookie of the Year-type season. The hope for the future starts with him.

General manager John Dorsey’s rebuilt roster was night-and-day better than anything Sashi Brown assembled.

We examine the best and worst of what looks like a pivotal season in franchise history, and what lies ahead in what should be an interesting offseason:

Browns by the numbers

  • Minus-33: Point differential  for the season,  392-359
  • 3: Carries for rookie  Nick Chubb against Oakland, the fewest in NFL history for a player to gain 100 yards and score two touchdowns
  • 3-36-1: Former coach  Hue Jackson’s record before he was fired Oct. 29
  • 4: Yards shy  of 1,000 rushing  by Chubb, who lost 5 on his final carry
  • 4: Overtime games
  • 5: Sacks allowed in the final eight games,  fewest in the league
  • 5: Receiving touchdowns by rookie  Antonio Callaway, most on the team
  • 5-3: Record under  interim coach Gregg Williams
  • 7: More wins than the zero in 2017, the greatest turnaround in franchise history
  • 18: 20-yard runs by the Browns, second  in the league to Kansas City’s 19
  • 20.5: Sacks in his first two years by Myles Garrett,  a franchise record
  • 27: Touchdown passes by Baker Mayfield,  an NFL rookie record
  • 31: Takeaways by the defense, second in the NFL and 18 more than in 2017
  • 104: Team-leading tackles by Jamie Collins, one more than Joe Schobert, who led the team last year
  • 115.7: Mayfield’s passer rating in the red zone, second in the NFL behind the 118.5 of New Orleans’ Drew Brees
  • 368.8: Net yards gained per game, second in franchise history behind 369.7 in 1981

Key moments

Hello and goodbye
If the Browns win a Super Bowl with Baker Mayfield, Cleveland fans will flash back to the night of Sept. 20 as the start of something historic.
Mayfield came off the bench in the second quarter when Tyrod Taylor suffered a concussion and rallied the Browns to a 21-17 win over the Jets in primetime. The stadium was electric from the second Mayfield stepped on the field.
The win will be remembered for Mayfield’s NFL debut, but it also marked the end of a 19-game winless streak. The confluence of events seems fitting.

Sweet sweep
The Hue Jackson story was just a sideshow. What really mattered was the Browns swept the Bengals for the first time in 16 years.
The Browns went to Cincinnati and dominated, scoring 28 points in the first half — their most in a half since 31 vs. the Colts in 1991 — and hanging on for a 35-20 victory. Four weeks later they hosted the Bengals and ended the home schedule with a 26-18 win.
The Browns finished with their best record in the AFC North since it was formed in 2002, 3-2-1. They climbed out of the cellar for the first time in eight years and expect the ascension to continue.

Good riddance
The decision should’ve come at least 10 months sooner, but the tardiness doesn’t diminish its importance.
The firing of Jackson on Oct. 29 changed the course of the franchise. Gone was arguably the worst coach in NFL history and all the losing that included — 36 defeats in 40 games.
Unburdened by his incompetence and agenda, the Browns were free to win games in the second half of the season and did just that. Under the direction of interim coach Gregg Williams (right), offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens and Mayfield, the Browns went 5-3, including a 5-1 stretch.
The finish not only recaptured the attention of fans, it showed Mayfield’s ability to succeed in the NFL. Most importantly, it gave Kitchens the opportunity to shine as a play caller and coordinator and earned him a shot at the head coaching job. He landed it after the season.

Rough weekend
The trouble came early for the organization.
On the second Saturday of the season, receiver Josh Gordon showed up late and reported a hamstring injury sustained outside of practice. The Browns were done with him after years of second chances and waiting around.
Gordon didn’t make the trip to New Orleans, but unfortunately Zane Gonzalez (below with holder Britton Colquitt) did. He missed four kicks in the final 21:43 minutes as the Browns wasted a golden chance for a big upset, falling 21-18.
The next day Gonzalez was cut and Gordon traded to the Patriots. The long weekend was a lost cause.

All wrong
The Browns couldn’t sustain momentum in the first half of the season. After beating the Jets, they went to Oakland and led a bad Raiders team 28-14 in the third quarter and 42-34 with 1:41 left in regulation. They couldn’t finish.
A controversial overturn of a first down on Carlos Hyde’s third-and-2 run gave the Raiders life, and the Browns let them turn it into a victory. The punt coverage gave up a 14-yard return and the defense allowed a 53-yard touchdown drive in 88 seconds, then couldn’t stop the
2-point try to force overtime.
A three-and-out on offense and more bad defense in overtime turned a sure win into a bitter defeat.

Not ready
The Browns needed to win out to have a shot at the playoffs and headed to Houston to play a Texans team that had won eight straight. The Browns weren’t ready.
Baker Mayfield threw three interceptions in the first half as the Texans took a 23-0 lead. Mayfield didn’t wilt, kept firing and was much better in the second half, but it was too late.
It was the first time the young team got a taste of
playoff-level competition and atmosphere and didn’t handle it well. The Browns played much better later in Denver and Baltimore, but the playoff dream was gone.
Until next year.

Top Five Players

Baker Mayfield, quarterback
He was the clear MVP of the team, reminding everyone in Cleveland what a good quarterback looks like and the huge impact that has on a team. Despite not seeing the field until Week 3, Mayfield had a season worthy of the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award. He was the best rookie quarterback in franchise history, and one of the best in NFL history.
Myles Garrett, defensive end
An argument can be made for him to hold the top spot above Mayfield, because Garrett’s already among the best in the league at his position. He ranked sixth in the league with 13.5 sacks but has yet to reach his full potential or dominate like he has the talent to do.

Joel Bitonio, left guard
The team’s repeat “Good Guy” Award winner can play a little bit, too. He was voted second-team All-Pro and
a Pro Bowl alternate, and Profootballfocus.com gave him the fourth-best grade among guards, second as a pass blocker.

Kevin Zeitler, right guard
He has the reputation and disposition of a mauler but excelled in pass protection with PFF’s highest grade at 91.7, allowing a pressure once every 58 snaps. He, Bitonio and center JC Tretter played every snap.

Damarious Randall, free safety
He stabilized the secondary and proved to be a playmaker. He played through injuries and helped at cornerback when his size was needed. He led the team with four interceptions and was third with 84 tackles.

Honorable mention
Running back Nick Chubb, cornerback Denzel Ward, middle linebacker Joe Schobert

Bottom Five Players

Desmond Harrison, left tackle
He probably shouldn’t have been the starter for the first eight games, but he was and struggled. His lack of strength, or perhaps proper technique, left him vulnerable to the bull rush and that left Mayfield compromised. When the switch was made to Greg Robinson, the sacks dropped from 33 in the first eight games to five in the last eight. Harrison has great feet and athleticism but wasn’t ready for the NFL.

Trevon Coley, defensive tackle
Was a surprise starter and success in 2017, but his performance fell off this year. He’s supposed to be a run stopper but the team ranked 28th against the rush. He had 39 tackles, a half-sack and fumble recovery in 14 starts and 16 games.

Zane Gonzalez, kicker
He played only two games before getting cut, but an argument can be made he kept the Browns out of the playoffs. His 43-yard field goal at the end of overtime in the opener was low and blocked, leading to the tie with the Steelers. It got worse in New Orleans the next week, as he missed two field goals and two extra points in the second half.

Tyrod Taylor, quarterback
It’s not his fault the organization decided to start him over Mayfield in Week 1, but he deserves blame for how he played before losing the job. He completed 49.4 percent with 473 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions, 13 sacks and a 64.5 rating in 2½ games.

Emmanuel Ogbah, defensive end
He failed to take advantage of Garrett drawing a lot of attention on the other side, managing only three sacks in 14 starts. Too many games passed without a noticeable impact.

Honorable mention
Receiver Josh Gordon, nickelback Briean Boddy-Calhoun, tight end Seth DeValve

Five offseason issues

Keep ’em
Before general manager John Dorsey can rank the positions to address, he must know if he needs a starting left tackle and an extra receiver. That means deciding whether to re-sign left tackle Greg Robinson and receiver Breshad Perriman, who will be eligible for free agency in March.
Robinson, the No. 2 pick of the Rams in 2014, came off the bench to start the final eight games and stabilized the line. He wasn’t perfect, but the line allowed a league-low five sacks with him on the field and quarterback Baker Mayfield trusted him. Dorsey must determine if Robinson can be the long-term answer, and is worth a significant raise, or he should look for a better solution in free agency and the draft.
Perriman, a first-round pick of the Ravens in 2015, was a flop until the Browns signed him out of desperation at midseason. They took advantage of his speed and size and he finished with 13 catches for 295 yards, a 22.7 average and a touchdown.
He’s worth keeping at the right price.
Other potential free agents are: quarterback Tyrod Taylor, cornerback EJ Gaines, nickelback Briean Boddy-Calhoun (restricted), fullback Orson Charles and receiver Rashard Higgins (restricted).

Get ’em
Pass rushers are coveted throughout the league, which means they’re expensive. That shouldn’t stop the Browns from opening the Haslams’ wallet for a free agent defensive end to pair with Myles Garrett.
The list of potential candidates is impressive, including Kansas City’s Dee Ford, the Rams’ Dante Fowler and Philadelphia’s Brandon Graham. A veteran who could teach Garrett a few things and also produce at a high level could make the defense dominant.
The Browns also need a proven receiver to add to the pile. Jarvis Landry, Antonio Callaway and possibly Perriman are a nice start but not enough.
With Taylor on his way out, Dorsey must figure out what to do at backup quarterback. He could trust Drew Stanton as the backup and find a youngster to groom, or sign a top backup in case Mayfield were to get hurt.

Trade ’em?
Plenty of fans aren’t happy with the linebacker play, especially that of Jamie Collins and Christian Kirksey. They both signed big extensions before the 2017 season but haven’t met the high expectations that come with all the money.
That doesn’t mean they’re not starting-caliber players, or the Browns could do better. But it does mean Dorsey may consider trading one or both and look to improve through the draft. If he can’t find a trade partner, the Browns have the cap room to stick with Collins and Kirksey for another year.

Draft targets
If Robinson isn’t re-signed, left tackle becomes a top priority that should be addressed in the draft. The rest of the line is experienced and reliable and able to handle and incorporate a young, talented left tackle.
Desmond Harrison fit the bill last year, but after he struggled as the starter through eight games, the Browns can’t trust him to protect Mayfield’s blind side.
Defensive tackle, cornerback and linebacker would be next on the list of draft needs. Dorsey has already built the roster to the point where he can take the best player available with each pick. But he should do extra work at the positions mentioned above, and moving up a few spots from No. 17 to get a defensive tackle he covets would be a wise move.

No rest
The anticipated jump in the standings next season won’t happen without dedication. The Browns aren’t talented enough to just show up and take the next step.
So the work that started this season must continue throughout the offseason and into training camp. It begins with Mayfield.
The greats are never satisfied and use the off months to strengthen their weaknesses. Mayfield says he’s driven to be the best and needs to prove it with an All-Pro work ethic that rubs off on his teammates.

Browns writer for The Chronicle-Telegram and The Medina Gazette. Proud graduate of Northwestern University. Husband and stepdad. Avid golfer who needs to hit the range to get down to a single-digit handicap. Right about Johnny Manziel, wrong about Brandon Weeden. Contact Scott at 440-329-7253, or email and follow him on and Twitter.

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