11Click “NEXT” to see our bold predictions
The Cleveland Browns look like an NFL team on the rise in 2018, but let’s be real, there’s nowhere to go but up from a 0-16 record.
New general manager John Dorsey appeared to have a decent draft, which is an anomaly in Cleveland. Dorsey just ejected 2016 first-round pick Corey Coleman from the roster, trading the lackluster receiver to Buffalo.
It marks yet another draft failure in a long line of recent horrible front office regimes, but Dorsey and Co. may finally be turning a corner. With the roster easier to determine as the Browns’ preseason is soon to begin, here are 10 bold predictions for the team this year.
10Denzel Ward wins Defensive Rookie of the Year
For the second season in a row, an Ohio State product will take home the hardware for this prestigious award. Marson Lattimore transformed the New Orleans Saints’ secondary in 2017, and Ward will have a similar impact in Cleveland.
Stud pass-rusher Bradley Chubb was still on the board when the Browns went on the clock with the fourth overall pick in April. They went with Ward instead, a lockdown corner with elite speed who’s already ascended to the starting lineup with ease.
Ward isn’t the biggest corner but any lack of stature is made up for with impeccable technique, swift change of direction and the ability to thrive in man or zone coverage. Watch for the ripple effect of his individual performance.
9Myles Garrett racks up 18 sacks
The chief beneficiary of Ward’s breakout maiden season will be Garrett, the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s draft. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams defended the drafting of Ward by saying he has tape of 28 snaps where Garrett was two steps or less from quarterbacks before they got rid of the ball.
Despite all the personnel deficiencies around him on a winless team, Garrett still had seven sacks in 11 games as a rookie after sitting out the start of the year injured. With a far better secondary at his back, it stands to reason Garrett will rack up a little more than a sack per game.
Emmanuel Ogbah is an underrated edge player opposite Garrett and will command attention as well. The two should feed off each other, but Garrett is the superior talent, and it’ll show in the monster numbers he posts en route to an All-Pro selection.
8Tyrod Taylor has best quarterback season since Browns’ NFL return
Taylor is in line to be Cleveland’s 29th different starting quarterback since 1999. He led the Bills to the playoffs last season for the first time since 1999, so maybe there’s a good omen embedded in there somewhere.
Derek Anderson’s 2007 campaign is the Browns’ best in their post-expansion era. He was a Pro Bowler who threw for 3,787 yards and 29 touchdowns. However, he had only a 56.5 percent completion rate, 19 interceptions and a passer rating of 82.5. The worst rating Taylor had in three years in Buffalo was 89.2.
Also one of the game’s best running quarterbacks, Taylor has thrown 51 touchdowns to only 16 interceptions the past three seasons, and should continue that efficiency to stave off top overall pick Baker Mayfield as the starter.
7David Njoku becomes NFL’s newest matchup nightmare at tight end
Saddled with awful quarterback play thanks to DeShone Kizer, is a massive upgrade, Njoku managed to produce decently well under the circumstances with 32 receptions, 386 yards and a team-high four receiving touchdowns this past season.
Now the Browns have one of the best underneath receivers in the game in Jarvis Landry, whose playmaking ability will free up Njoku to stretch the field vertically. Coming out of the University of Miami, Njoku a 4.64-second 40-yard dash, and had a vertical leap of 37.5 inches, showing how explosive he can be.
If he can improve his inconsistent hands, there’s no limit to Njoku’s ceiling in 2018 and beyond. He’ll at least show flashes of being the next pass-catching dynamo at the tight end position this year.
6Antonio Callaway’s play justifies Corey Coleman trade
That aforementioned deal to ship Coleman away had to be triggered by the rookie fourth-round pick exceeding expectations in training camp. Callaway was suspended for all of 2017 at Florida, but Dorsey took a gamble on him, and it seems to be paying off.
Until Josh Gordon returns from his self-imposed absence, opportunities for Callaway to continue making a strong impression will be plentiful. The only competition Callaway faces even when Gordon comes back is Rashard Higgins, who’s been released before by the team.
A superior athlete with better explosive, big-play ability, Callaway should eclipse Higgins, and make fans quickly forget about Coleman, the latest first-round bust to be dumped by Cleveland.
5Joel Bitonio earns Pro Bowl bid at left tackle
Replacing Joe Thomas is impossible, but Bitonio was recently kicked out to the recently retired legend’s position due to a dearth of superior alternatives.
Bitonio has the entire preseason to settle in at his new but familiar spot. He started multiple years at left tackle at the University of Nevada, and fellow Wolfpack alum Austin Corbett was the longtime starter after him. Now Corbett is a rookie second-rounder in Cleveland and will take Bitonio’s spot at left guard.
What looked to be a perilous position outlook has suddenly gained stability with Bitonio’s presence. He’s a nasty run blocker with excellent athleticism. With reps and adequate time to increase his stamina, Bitonio should prove adept in pass protection when the regular season rolls around.
4Damarious Randall transforms into top-tier free safety
The Browns acquired Randall from Green Bay this offseason in a trade, and immediately converted him to the position he played in college. Cleveland likes to line up the free safety way off the line of scrimmage, which Jabrill Peppers couldn’t do last year.
Randall is the type of rangy playmaker with ball skills who can shore up the back end of the Browns defense playing deep center field, allowing Ward and other corners to be more aggressive. It allows Peppers to move into a role more suited to his strengths, an in-box safety.
Cornerbacks tend to attract more attention than free safeties, and Ward’s sensational year will overshadow Randall’s transition. However, this position change will have a huge impact and see Randall emerge as one of the better players at the spot.
3Duke Johnson emerges as the star of a crowded backfield
The Browns signed free agent Carlos Hyde to a three-year contract and also brought in rookie Nick Chubb with the 35th overall pick in the draft. Hyde and Chubb are similar in style with a one-cut, north-south style of power running and aren’t particularly known for their receiving prowess; they’re rather interchangeable.
Johnson, on the other hand, boasts underrated power but is slippery as can be in the open field and has proven to be one of the most overlooked, but best, pass-catching backs. He led the 2017 Browns with 74 receptions and 693 yards.
Pro Football Focus reveals Johnson as the No. 3 back in terms of missed tackle percentage (26 percent) since 2013. Now that Cleveland has a decent supporting cast elsewhere, look for Johnson to shine as a receiver and runner more than ever.
2Hue Jackson retains head coaching job
The biggest reason for this is Jackson’s decision to surrender play-calling duties to new offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Previously with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Haley is a hard-nosed assistant with head coaching experience and a particular expertise in developing wide receivers.
Haley must have felt strongly enough about the upside of the other pass-catchers to endorse the Coleman trade. Given the open dialogue Jackson and Dorsey have, there’s a strong relationship between coaching staff and front office that hasn’t often been present in Cleveland over the past couple decades or so.
Not only does Haley bring with him inside knowledge of the AFC North’s clear best team, but he’s also a proven offensive mind and the change of pace the Browns needed to justify keeping Jackson after he logged a 1-31 record in his first two seasons at the helm.
1Fearless forecast: 9-7, 2nd in AFC North
To add to the audacity: the Browns will pull an upset win at home against the Steelers in Week 1. Cleveland has lost 18 of its past 19 season openers, but has its best roster in years and, to say the least, is due for a victory.
The next week is a road trip to New Orleans, where the Saints are just too strong and superior with homefield advantage to allow the Browns to start 2-0. From then on, though, Cleveland has the goods to be competitive and win more often than it loses.
Baltimore has a quarterback controversy brewing between Lamar Jackson and Joe Flacco. This could at long last be Marvin Lewis’ last year in Cincinnati as head coach and may signal the end of Andy Dalton’s tenure under center. That leaves room for the Browns to ascend in the division, but of course not high enough to eclipse the Steelers.
With a far better secondary, improved offensive weapons, a deep backfield, unprecedented expansion-era quarterback play and a front seven anchored by Garrett, Ogbah and a slew of strong linebackers, look for the Browns to be one of the surprise stories in the NFL.