Widely expected to break a 16-year playoff drought after a long rebuild and a significant influx of talent, the Cleveland Browns face-planted with another losing season in 2019.
But to Cleveland's credit, it has done everything right this offseason.
That started with firing 2019 head coach Freddie Kitchens, who was in over his head during a 6-10 debut campaign in which he failed to rein in an undisciplined team. And it continued when Cleveland started fresh with a highly promising, exciting yet accomplished head coach-general manager combo in Kevin Stefanski and Andrew Berry.
But the Browns made the brunt of this year's progress in the opening days of free agency last week, when Berry made a series of smart decisions that bolstered an already stacked roster and maximized Cleveland's chances of experiencing success in 2020.
Everyone knows success in this day and age usually starts at quarterback. When the Browns first showed signs of life down the stretch in 2018, rookie No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield was at his best. And when it all hit the fan in 2019, Mayfield experienced a sophomore slump. But it didn't help that the offense often left him out to dry.
The two most significant moves of Cleveland's offseason were made to give the signal-caller more support in his critical third year.
Mayfield faced more pressure in his second campaign than he did in his first (23 pressures, up from 15, per PFF), and he struggled under duress, but incoming offensive tackle Jack Conklin should help with that. Tackles Greg Robinson and Chris Hubbard struggled while taking a combined 19 penalties and surrendering a combined 10 sacks in 2019, according to PFF. Ideally, both won't be needed in 2020 (serious legal issues could keep Robinson away regardless).
Conklin gets you halfway there. PFF's top-ranked 20-something-year-old offensive lineman in this year's free-agent class was that outlet's sixth-highest-graded right tackle last season despite a torn ACL in January 2018. He's already been an All-Pro, and he should continue to take off at age 25.
Cleveland can turn to the draft—where it holds the No. 10 overall pick and three Day 2 selections—to fill its other starting tackle spot.
On the same day they shored up Mayfield's offensive line with Conklin, the Browns also gave the 24-year-old QB a top-notch security blanket in tight end Austin Hooper. Just 25, the 2016 Atlanta Falcons third-round pick is coming off back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons and a 2019 in which he set career highs with 75 catches, 787 yards and six touchdowns despite missing three games because of a sprained MCL.
Mayfield loves his tight ends. He relied heavily on Mark Andrews at Oklahoma, and David Njoku was one of his favorite targets when he got hot as a rookie. But that position let him down last year. Njoku missed all but four games because of a wrist injury and was virtually a non-factor, and neither Demetrius Harris nor Ricky Seals-Jones were reliable.
Those three dropped a combined eight passes, while Hooper dropped just one on 38 more targets in Atlanta.
Mayfield already had Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt at his disposal, but his offensive line remained a liability in 2019, and he rarely had a tight end to bail him out. That should change, which could make it extremely difficult to stop one of the league's most skilled offenses.
The Browns will likely miss departed linebacker Joe Schobert, who was the heart and soul of the defense and a tackle machine. But Cleveland deftly prioritized support for Mayfield over an off-ball linebacker. Schobert and oft-injured 'backer Christian Kirksey, who signed with Jacksonville and Green Bay, respectively, were always far less likely to make a difference in 2020 than Conklin and Hooper.
And because of that sensible approach, the Browns enter the second wave of free agency leading the league with $48.4 million in salary-cap space, according to Spotrac. Berry has room to re-sign whoever he chooses when the price is right, and he could dip his toe back into the free-agency pool as deals become cheaper in the weeks to come.
A trade for disgruntled Washington Redskins star left tackle Trent Williams would be icing on the cake, and the venerable Jason Peters remains available as well.
Of course, the Browns could still use help on defense, where they ranked 22nd in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) at Football Outsiders and surrendered 24.6 points per game last season. Myles Garrett's reinstatement from suspension helps, though, and the front office quietly got tremendous value from defensive tackle Andrew Billings, cornerback Kevin Johnson and safety Karl Joseph, signing each to one-year deals worth $3.5 million or less.
Billings and Joseph were listed as two of the best under-the-radar free agents by yours truly just before the start of the new league year. The former is a 6'1", 328-pound run-stuffer who takes up a ton of space and has plenty of tread on his tires, while the latter is a tremendous run defender in the box who still has room to grow as a 2016 first-round pick.
All three (including Johnson) have yet to turn 28.
Put it all together, and it's increasingly difficult to find weak spots on Cleveland's roster. Combine that reality with a new atmosphere, and it looks like the Browns got it right.
It might have just taken a year longer than expected.