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Browns breakthrough? Cleveland has talent to rise up in Deshaun Watson's first full season with franchise

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- There was something noteworthy about the skirmishes that erupted during the final training camp practice the Cleveland Browns held at The Greenbrier resort on Sunday. That tussling spoke to the competitiveness and energy the players still possessed at a time when they were about to head home. The Browns could've cruised back to Cleveland thinking about resuming practice at their headquarters in front of their home fans. Instead, they gave a little indication about how much they're going to ask of themselves this year.

Head coach Kevin Stefanski certainly wasn't crazy about the chippy nature going too far -- the coach made his entire team run sprints at the end of practice as punishment for a pair of dust-ups -- but he also understands the situation. The Browns spent nine days toiling in West Virginia to take advantage of the extra practice time given to them as participants in this year's Hall of Fame Game, which will pit them against the New York Jets on Thursday night at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio. Football players are going to have short fuses the longer training camp goes on. This is what happens in the summertime ramp-up to the season. Tempers flare. Fights happen.

What's more important is that the Browns have an edge to them that's been showing up throughout the early stages of camp. This is a team that has spent the last couple years believing it was on the verge of a major breakthrough, only to end up with underwhelming results. The Browns now find themselves trying to carve out relevance in an AFC that is flush with powerhouse teams. If they're going to become serious contenders this season, they'd better be prepared to scrap and claw for everything they hope to attain.

"This whole thing is part of a process," Stefanski told reporters on Sunday when asked about an early assessment of training camp. "The season kicks off on September 10 (vs. the visiting Cincinnati Bengals). It's 17 games-plus. This is our first step into building on the foundation of the spring.

"We have a ton of work to do. We're not there yet. Obviously, we'll get ready to play in this game (on Thursday), but we got plenty of days to stack before we're ready September 10."

The Browns are going to be one of the league's most intriguing teams this season for one obvious reason: They have a boatload of talent. Cleveland has assembled a well-rounded roster over the past few years. The offensive line is strong, Nick Chubb's a stud running back, defensive end Myles Garrett is always a contender for Defensive Player of the Year, and quarterback Deshaun Watson is looking to regain his stature as an elite signal-caller. There just aren't many glaring weaknesses with this bunch.

The question is whether Cleveland finally can put it all together and become a legitimate power. Watson only played in six regular-season games last season after serving an 11-game suspension following numerous allegations of sexual misconduct while he was a member of the Houston Texans. The defense struggled with consistency throughout 2022, ultimately ranking 20th in the league in points allowed. The '22 Browns finished with a 7-10 record -- and four of those losses came by margins of three points or fewer.

So this isn't a matter of the Browns going out and getting one more piece to hopefully put them over the top, such as when the New York Jets traded for quarterback Aaron Rodgers in April, or the Buffalo Bills signed edge rusher Von Miller to a huge free-agent deal last offseason. It's about mindset. It's about a team finally playing up to its potential instead of finding reasons to disappoint. Of course, a big part of that starts with Watson and his ability to finally have a full year to impact this team.

Watson watched as Cleveland spent the first 11 games of 2022 being led by backup QB Jacoby Brissett, with the Browns posting a 4-7 mark in this span. When Watson finally did play, his rust was apparent in his numbers (58.2 completion percentage, seven touchdowns and five interceptions).

"Last year was a different space for myself, but [also] for the whole team and organization," Watson told reporters just over a week ago. "There were some different things we had to take care of, so it was hard for the team to attach to me fully because they had to get ready for another quarterback in Jacoby. But the past is the past. We can focus on this year. Everybody was able to figure out who I was and get to know me better."

The Browns pursued Watson last year because they gave up on former No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield. Stefanski will have to merge some of the wide-open concepts that Watson was so familiar with in Houston with a run-oriented system that benefitted Chubb, but that's a good problem to have. Just as critical to Cleveland's success is the presence of new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. The Browns hired him to improve a defense that will face several top quarterbacks this season, including Rodgers, Cincinnati's Joe Burrow and Baltimore's Lamar Jackson. As much as Stefanski must maximize Watson, Schwartz has to energize a unit aiming to jack up pressure on the opposition.

"You can see the possibilities as soon as you look at the playbook," Garrett said last week. "Just how aggressive he likes to call his defense and schemes. The wide-9, bringing an extra guy to get those one-on-one or favorable matchups. Those are things that we as a defense get excited for."

The Browns already should know there is plenty riding on this season. Stefanski is in his fourth year at the helm, and the initial excitement of returning the Browns to the playoffs -- they went 11-5 in 2020, making their first postseason appearance in 18 years -- has long since evaporated. The pressure on him to win will be substantial. The enormous contract given to Watson (a five-year, $230 million deal that is fully guaranteed) also means roster building will be far more complicated moving forward.

This may very well be the strongest team the Browns have in the coming years, and they're relying on it to compete in the most crowded AFC we've seen in quite some time. We can all see their talent is good enough -- and there's even something to be said for flying under the radar. So, it really comes down to how ready the Browns will be to fight. From what we've seen already, they're eager to show that, as well.

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