Life comes at you fast.
And sometimes slow at the same time.
In these strange and trying times, no one needs a reminder that everything can change in an instant, let alone a year. In the relatively inconsequential world of sports, the NFL Draft drove home the point.
It’s hard to believe, but it was only a year ago the Browns seemed poised to become kings of the AFC North. They were coming off a 5-2 finish to 2018, had found their franchise quarterback in Baker Mayfield and had recently traded for receiver Odell Beckham Jr. Across the division, the Steelers were getting older by the minute, the Ravens were in transition, especially at quarterback, and the Bengals were starting over with a new coach.
Then 2019 happened.
Coach Freddie Kitchens wasn’t ready for the job. Mayfield wasn’t the same player. Beckham was slowed by injury and courted drama all season. Myles Garrett’s suspension and a lack of depth doomed the defense in the stretch run to 6-10.
Meanwhile, the Steelers lost Ben Roethlisberger in Week 2 yet still went 8-8, and Lamar Jackson turned into an MVP in Baltimore in his second season — completely overshadowing Mayfield.
The aftermath of the NFL Draft is the perfect time to reset the division. Rosters were reshaped during the offseason and expectations can begin to be set for the season.
After a flurry of activity in free agency and a well-regarded draft by first-time general manager Andrew Berry, Browns fans are optimistic again. It’s amazing how quickly that happens in these parts.
Berry addressed the pressing need on the offensive line by signing right tackle Jack Conklin in free agency and drafting Alabama’s Jedrick Wills with the No. 10 pick. He did the same at safety with free agent Karl Joseph and second-round pick Grant Delpit.
The roster isn’t perfect — linebacker remains unproven as it goes through a youth movement, and depth at receiver and defensive end is questionable — but it’s better and deeper than last year, when the Browns were one of the favorites to win the AFC.
That puts extra pressure on first-time coach Kevin Stefanski — something Kitchens couldn’t handle — and Mayfield. The coach and the quarterback carry the expectations of a franchise.
That’s traditionally been a heavy burden inside the AFC North and won’t get any lighter this season. Keep in mind the Browns have never won a title since the division was formed in 2002.
The Ravens went 14-2 last year, winning 12 straight games to end the regular season before being upset by the Titans in the playoffs. The Ravens are among the favorites to win the Super Bowl after the 2020 season.
Jackson proved last year his variety of skills and rare style of play translate to the NFL. He threw 36 touchdowns to six interceptions and rushed for 1,206 yards and seven touchdowns.
He should continue to improve as a passer, and the Ravens added Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins in the second round to an already lethal running attack. The Ravens received widespread praise for their draft, which included linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison and receivers Devin Duvernay and James Proche.
No matter the quantity and quality of Baltimore’s draft, it wasn’t going to surpass Cincinnati’s for star power.
The Bengals had the No. 1 pick and were locked in on LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, who had one of the best seasons in the history of college football. If he can keep it up in the NFL and live up to the analysts’ projections, the Bengals will become a factor again inside the division. They also drafted Clemson receiver Tee Higgins and linebackers Logan Wilson from Wyoming and Akeem Davis-Gaither from Appalachian State.
The Steelers, of course, round out the division. Their draft ranks at the bottom of the North, but the Steelers showed their mettle last year, challenging for a playoff spot despite the loss of Roethlisberger. With Roethlisberger expected back and healthy, they can’t be underestimated.
So where do the Browns stand?
The odds makers have installed the Ravens the favorite to win the North, followed by the Steelers and Browns. The Browns need to climb that ladder and, at the least, close the gap on the Ravens.
So there’s no getting around it, Mayfield is under pressure. The Browns have surrounded him with smarter coaching, stronger protection and more talent at tight end, so it’s up to Mayfield to rebound from his Year 2 regression and lead the Browns to playoff contention.
It’s overly simplistic to pin all the responsibility on Mayfield, but he can’t be the fourth-best quarterback in the division. And third-best probably isn’t good enough for the Browns to be consistent contenders.
Berry said he didn’t build the roster with Jackson and Burrow in mind but understands the difficulties they pose. Stefanski welcomes the challenge.
“It is a great division,” he said during the draft. “It is a historic division. I have watched the tape of these games, and I can’t wait to hear what it sounds like in these stadiums. I’m excited about it.
“There is no easy out in the NFL. These divisions are just loaded. It is great competition. I think our guys will rise to that competition, but it is certainly something that we are looking forward to.”