The Cleveland Browns are coming off their best season in nearly three decades: an 11-win 2020 campaign that included shelling the rival Steelers in Pittsburgh in the Wild Card Round. After an offseason in which Cleveland completely overhauled its defense, the Browns are viewed as one of the leading threats to the Kansas City Chiefs' recent dominance in the AFC.
But if the Browns are going to realize their considerable potential, live up to the hype and take a run at repping the AFC in Los Angeles at Super Bowl LVI, the team needs its biggest X-factor to step up in a big way.
Cleveland needs a big year out of Odell Beckham Jr.
When last we saw the veteran wideout, Beckham was hobbling off the field at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati last October with what wound up being a season-ending ACL tear. But after spending some time working out with Beckham and Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield in Texas, teammate Jarvis Landry said that OBJ looks ready to blow up in 2021.
"Man, he looked amazing," Landry told reporters, via ESPN. "I can't wait for you guys to see him. I can't wait for him to get back out there. He's in fantastic shape and he's ready to go. He's only what, six-and-a-half months [beyond surgery], and he's already doing some things that will blow your mind away."
Landry went on to say that Beckham looked even better than before the injury.
"He ran a post route, sticking off the same injured leg and exploding out of it, then going up, jumping off that same leg and making a catch, doing his thing—what he does with one hand," Landry said. "You sit back and you're like, 'Wait. He's even better than he was last year.'"
Now, at this point, skeptics will likely point out that it wouldn't be especially hard for Beckham to exceed last year's performance. In seven games, Beckham caught 23 of 43 targets for 319 yards and three touchdowns. His catches per game (3.3), receiving yards per game (45.6) and catch percentage (53.5) were all career lows.
Per ESPN, Mayfield was actually more effective last year without Beckham on the field; his yards per attempt, touchdown-to-interception ratio and QBR were all substantially better once Beckham was sidelined.
However, that uptick in offensive execution probably had a lot more to do with increased familiarity with head coach Kevin Stefanski's scheme than it did with Beckham's absence. It's not like we haven't seen the 28-year-old play at a high level in Cleveland. In 2019, Beckham caught 74 passes, averaged 14.0 yards per grab and topped 1,000 yards in the midst of the mess that was the Freddie Kitchens "era."
There is no way to say with a straight face that the Browns aren't a more dangerous offense with Beckham on the field. And if Cleveland really is going to challenge the Chiefs in the AFC, the team needs the 2019 version of Beckham to show up, or better yet, the 2016 version that posted 101 catches for 1,367 yards and 10 scores line the New York Giants.
Kansas City tight end (and Cleveland native) Travis Kelce was also in northern Ohio for Landry's charity softball game, and he told reporters he views the Browns as a legitimate contender.
"I would say they're definitely a contender, without a doubt. It's definitely there. Baker and the gang have upped the ante, made this team an unbelievable team and a team you have to prepare for and take serious. I think that moving forward without a doubt I can see a lot more playoff games between us. I think the Browns and Chiefs are definitely neck and neck for sure.''
The Browns were similarly hyped two years ago, but this time it appears to actually be justified. Mayfield might not be Patrick Mahomes, but three years in, the 2018 first overall pick has shown he's not Sam Darnold, either. Only the Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans sported a better ground game last season than Cleveland's two-headed attack of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. According to Pro Football Focus, there isn't a better offensive line in the entire NFL.
Defensively, the Browns added talent and experience at all three levels this offseason. They now sport a pair of defensive ends who were No. 1 overall picks in Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney. Anthony Walker and rookie Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah are sizable upgrades at linebacker. The additions of cornerbacks Greg Newsome and Troy Hill and safety John Johnson III give the Browns one of the NFL's deepest secondaries, especially if safety Grant Delpit and corner Greedy Williams can contribute after missing the 2020 season due to injury.
On paper at least, the Browns have one of the best rosters in the NFL. There aren't many holes to be found.
But there was something missing last year.
Take a look around the league at the teams viewed as Super Bowl contenders, and with just one notable exception (the Ravens), you'll find a commonality among them all: the presence of at least one elite pass-catcher who poses matchup problems for opposing defenses.
As a matter of fact, many Super Bowl contenders have a formidable one-two punch. In Kansas City, it's Kelce and Tyreek Hill. The defending champions in Tampa have Chris Godwin and Mike Evans. The Seattle Seahawks sport DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. The Tennessee Titans just added Julio Jones alongside A.J. Brown.
Beckham and Landry may not quite be on the level of those duos. But a pair of veterans capable of playing like Pro Bowlers can be a real headache for opponents.
A safety bracketing Beckham isn't helping out in run support. If Beckham is doubled, it all but ensures that Landry isn't. Play soft on the back end in an effort to prevent chunk plays, and Chubb and Hunt are going to feast on the ground. Stack the box, and it's only a matter of time until Beckham gets behind the defense…
And then bombs away.
Given what happened the last time the hype machine fired up on the shores of Lake Erie, it's understandable that some are skeptical of the Browns. But this isn't 2019. These Browns are different.
These Browns are loaded for bear in the trenches on both sides of the ball. These Browns upgraded the roster as much in the offseason (especially on defense) as any team in the league. These Browns have shown they know how to win.
The 2021 Browns are a very good football team.
And if Beckham can return to anything like the player who topped 1,000 receiving yards in five of his first six seasons, he could be the final piece.
The piece that propels them from good to great.