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State of the 2021 Cleveland Browns: Can Kevin Stefanski keep good times rolling?

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2021? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Browns organization, Browns fans around the world and those who still own a copy of Madden with Peyton Hillis on the cover:

I feel you, Browns fans. You've been down this road before and don't want to get too confident heading into this season. I can't blame you. Heartbreak is in the Clevelander's DNA. But I'm here to tell you that things are different this time. I know that I won't be able to keep you from worrying, but seriously, you have a reason to believe. I mean a real, tangible reason to believe.

How the Browns got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2020 season.

The highs:

  • Streaking. Cleveland opened the season in typical fashion, getting pummeled by the Ravens. But then the Browns reeled off four consecutive wins, culminating with a 32-23 win over the Colts. Which kind of made up for that Week 1 debacle.
  • Streaking II. Cleveland returned from a Week 9 bye to take four straight games once again, including a convincing win over the Titans where the Browns held a 38-7 halftime lead.
  • Opening the Curtain. The Browns made the playoffs! Which, let's be honest, is pretty cool for Cleveland. Like, you just wanted to get back to into postseason play. I mean, it's just nice to be asked. Especially since you hadn't been to the dance in 18 years. And then, not content to merely reach this point, Cleveland went out and smoked Pittsburgh. Just destroyed the hated Steelers, nearly dropping half a hundy on 'em.

The lows:

  • Getting swept. As mentioned above, the Browns lost the season opener to the Ravens. I mean, it was bad. 38-6 bad. The rematch in Week 14 was far more competitive, maybe the best Monday night game of the year. But the Browns still lost, 47-42. And since this group was past the point of valuing moral victories, I have to say it was a low point.
  • Getting bounced. Cleveland lost in the Divisional Round to the eventual conference champion Chiefs. Trailing by 16 points at the half, the Browns rallied to make the game close. But then Chad Henne (!) converted a fourth-and-1 to seal the game. Yes, you read that correctly. Chad Henne, filling in for the injured Patrick Mahomes, actually went back-to-back in the clutch, with a courageous scramble immediately followed by a quick-out throw to Tyreek Hill, and that was that. #HenneThingIsPossible

2021 VIPs

Head coach: Kevin Stefanski. After just one season in Cleveland, Stefanski is already being talked about as one of the best coaches in the game. For real. He's the first head coach to lead the Browns to at least 10 wins and a playoff berth in the same season since [checks notes] Bill Belichick. Ever heard of him? As a Chicago Bears fan, I'm extremely happy that the Vikings stuck with Mike Zimmer instead of holding on to Stefanski. Love them for it.

Stefanski's work as a first-year head coach was quite impressive, especially considering he didn't have Odell Beckham for the bulk of the 11-5 season. Heck, the league's COVID-19 protocols basically wiped out Cleveland's entire receiving corps for a game. And the coach himself was sidelined by a positive COVID test for the playoff opener at Pittsburgh. But this team -- his team -- still posted the franchise's most wins since 1994.

One area where Stefanski truly excelled last year was going for it on fourth down. He never backed down. At least not until the Divisional Round. With just over four minutes remaining and the Chiefs leading 22-17, the Browns faced a fourth down at their own 32-yard line. Now, it was fourth-and-9, so it wasn't a gimme. And they were facing Henne, not Mahomes, who'd been knocked out of the game with a concussion. But Cleveland only had one timeout remaining, so it still felt like they might never get the ball back. Which is exactly how it played out after Henne's surprising heroics. Pretty annoying way for a fine season to end.

All right, maybe I'm being too harsh on Stefanski here. Because I love him. And his scheme gives me all the confidence in the world that he's going to lead the Browns back to the playoffs this season.

Quarterback: Baker Mayfield. I don't want to get cocky and assume you know my entire take history, so it feels important to let you know right off the bat that I'm a Baker Mayfield guy. Yes, he has a personality that can rub some people the wrong way. And the fact that he's in every commercial on Sunday doesn't help, either. But I love him. And last season was a massive step forward for him as an NFL quarterback.

Baker's passer rating went from 78.8 in the disappointing 2019 campaign to 95.9 last year. His numbers were basically up across the entire board -- wins, completion percentage, touchdown passes -- and he chopped his interceptions from 21 in '19 to just eight last fall. It was amazing, especially from Week 6 through Super Wild Card Weekend, a period during which Mayfield had 19 touchdown passes against just two picks. The best part about 2021: Baker will enter a season with the same head coach for the first time in his NFL career. Per NFL Research, Mayfield was the fourth quarterback since 1950 to play under three different head coaches (excluding interims) in his first three seasons in the league. And it should be noted he's the only one of those four quarterbacks who posted a winning record during this span.

Projected 2021 MVP: Mayfield. I know I'm getting into a bad habit in this series of listing the quarterback in this spot, but hear me out. When Baker is cooking, the Browns are amazing. If not, then it's bad. Like, really bad. Baker threw for 22 touchdowns with four picks and a 111.5 passer rating in the team's 11 wins. In the five losses? Four touchdowns, four interceptions and a 69.8 passer rating. Baker has to play well for the Browns to succeed, plain and simple.

And don't forget that he's eligible for an extension, with two years left on his rookie deal. If an agreement is struck this offseason, Mayfield will want to show he's worth whatever price tag he commands; if it's not, he'll want to do whatever he can to bump up the value of his next contract.

2021 breakout star: Harrison Bryant, tight end. The Browns spent a first-round pick on David Njoku, and now they're paying him $6 million on the fifth-year option. They re-set the tight end market by handing Austin Hooper a four-year, $42 million deal. So it would only make sense for Bryant, a fourth-round pick in 2020, to be the team's breakout star. Kind of like the NFL equivalent of spending big money on a Christmas present for your child ... and the kid's ultimately more infatuated with the box. Bryant showed some flashes last year, highlighted by a two-touchdown game against the Bengals in Week 7. (Nope, didn't start him in fantasy that week.)

New face to know: Jadeveon Clowney, defensive end. The Browns needed a complement for superstar Myles Garrett -- and GM Andrew Berry got a great one. It feels like there is a budding bromance already happening, with Clowney's recent comments on Garrett at minicamp: "I haven't run into many guys like that in the National Football League yet. It took me eight years to get here to find another one like that -- on defense, anyways." Garrett will enter the season as a top Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and I won't be surprised if Clowney finally hits double-digit sacks for the first time in his NFL career. These two former No. 1 overall picks are gonna wreck games together. I think the rival Steelers might want to take another look at the offensive line. Yikes.

2021 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: HIGH. Even if Browns fans are hesitant to believe, deep down, everyone knows this team is going to be pretty good. You don't add a player like Jadeveon Clowney unless you're expecting to get to the playoffs.

Three key dates:

  • Week 1 at Kansas City Chiefs. Here we go! I don't want to repeat myself on the "this team's over moral victories" front, but you can't be content with just playing a good game or being competitive at Kansas City. Go make a statement in Week 1.
  • Week 5 at Los Angeles Chargers. I picked this game because these two teams feel quite similar. Both are currently mid-card AFC teams with the rosters to be considered main eventers. Like, would it shock you if this ended up being a preview of the AFC Championship Game? Don't be a smart-ass about it, either.
  • Week 12 at Baltimore Ravens (Sunday night). I mean, I don't want to say putting together the NFL schedule is easy, but it's probably not as hard as many make it out to be. The Browns playing consecutive games against the Ravens -- around a Week 13 bye -- is kind of ridiculous. If you're going to do this, at least make it the Bengals.

Will the Browns be able to …

Deal with the weight of expectations? The 2020 Browns were the eighth team in the Super Bowl era to break a playoff drought of at least 14 seasons (it had been 17 years for Cleveland), with one of the most recent examples being the 2017 Buffalo Bills. But here's the bad news: The previous seven teams all missed the playoffs following their drought-busting campaigns. The Browns have not made the playoffs in consecutive seasons since a five-season playoff streak from 1985 to '89.

Cleveland has fallen short of Super Bowl hype before, back in 1995, when not even Bill Belichick could keep a buzzed-about Browns squad from missing the playoffs. The good news is, I don't expect these Browns to announce that they're moving before the end of this season, so at least they're guaranteed not to follow in the footsteps of the '95 team in that way. To be clear, I'm not wishing for the Browns to be humbled -- anything but. I just want you to understand what you're looking at, even if, at a minimum, this group looks like it's going to be a long-term success.

Rely on the defense? The Browns allowed 26.2 points per game in 2020, ranked 21st in the NFL and worse than all but one playoff team (the Tennessee Titans allowed 27.4 ppg). Cleveland also allowed 11 deep passing touchdowns (20-plus air yards, per Next Gen Stats), the second-highest total in the league, right behind the Cowboys (13), whose 2020 defense was awful. But there is reason for optimism. The Browns have improved their total defense in each of the last two seasons. Garrett is one of the best players on the planet, and we talked about Clowney. And that's only a small part of it. The team also signed Malik Jackson and Takkarist McKinley on the defensive line. Solid safety John Johnson III should anchor the secondary. And first-round pick Greg Newsome II comes aboard just as corner Greedy Williams and safety Grant Delpit are set to return after missing 2020 with a shoulder injury and Achilles tear, respectively.

Per Pro Football Focus, Newsome was the only cornerback in FBS to allow fewer than 100 receiving yards on more than 200 coverage snaps in 2020. He didn't allow a touchdown. Second-round pick Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is one of three FBS players with at least four sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery since 2019. You almost wonder if this defense could end up being the strength of the Browns.

Field the best rushing attack in the NFL? I know this is a sore point for fantasy dorks who want Nick Chubb to be great on his own (like when Timberlake finally broke free post-*NSYNC). But Cleveland's two-headed rushing attack worked swimmingly last year, averaging 148.4 rushing yards per game (third in the league) behind Chubb and Kareem Hunt, who each had more than 1,200 scrimmage yards and 12 touchdowns (when you factor in the playoffs).

And now I'd like to say something about Chubb. First, LOL to the Patriots for drafting Sony Michel over Chubb three years ago. Second, Chubb was the first player to log more than 1,000 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns while playing in 12 games or less in a season since Jim Taylor did it in 1960. Chubb also has the second-most scrimmage yards (4,134) of any Browns player in their first three NFL seasons, behind Jim Brown (4,181). Ever heard of him? Well, probably from Mars Attacks! But some say Brown was the best player in NFL history. It would not be outlandish for Cleveland to lock Chubb up with an extension heading into the final year of his rookie contract.

One storyline …

... people are overlooking: The Browns are great at play-action. Baker had the fourth-highest passer rating in the NFL on play-action passes in 2020. And you saw what I just said about the Browns' rushing attack, so this is a good thing. There is a chance Baker takes another huge leap this season for the Browns if this offense can keep rolling.

... people are ALSO overlooking: The offensive line is pretty darn dominant. You know, it wasn't too long ago that we fretted about the Browns because they traded away guard Kevin Zeitler back in 2019 as part of the Odell Beckham Jr. deal. That seems like so long ago. The Browns return all five starters on the O-line this season. According to PFF, they'll enter the 2021 campaign with the best unit in football.

... people are overthinking: Wanting to trade Odell Beckham Jr. You hear this idea pop up from time to time, mostly on those hot-take TV shows or on the internet. But even for the internet, it comes off as pretty shocking. Like, why would anybody want to do this? OBJ has missed a lot of time since the Browns acquired him from the Giants in 2019. I understand that. But Beckham is like that friend of yours who can't always make it to every party -- but when he does come, that party goes to another level. Yeah, I know Mayfield's numbers have been weirdly worse when Beckham has been on the field. But the sample size is still relatively small; they haven't even spent two full seasons together. And Beckham remains fully capable of taking over games. So forget about cooking up some thinkpiece about the Browns trading OBJ. Instead, focus on discerning whether you're Team Saved by the Bell or Team 90210.

For 2021 to be a success, the Browns MUST:

  • Get back to the playoffs. Again, I hate to be the buzz-kill who points this out, but it has been tough for teams that vanquish playoff droughts to make it back the following season. I'm a Bears fan. I thought for sure they were going back the year after breaking their own more modest seven-season drought in 2018, and they went 8-8 in 2019. Still, returning to the postseason needs to be the expectation, even if it ends up being trickier than it first appears.

In closing

This is a great time to be a Browns fan. It's taken a long time to get to this point. And no matter what happens, remember to look at the big picture. Think of one of your native sons, The Miz. He was a WWE champion and even defeated John Cena at WrestleMania XXVII in 2011. Then he went through some down times. Now, dude is back at the top of the card once again. Where he belongs. I'm not promising you the Browns will be back in the playoffs this year. But expect them to be in the postseason picture for some time to come.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter.

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