State of the Franchise: This time, believe in Browns, Baker Mayfield

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2020? 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 Cleveland Browns organization, fans of the Browns around the world and those of you who have spent way too much money playing pinball at Happy Dog:

The Browns' season would have been the biggest disappointment of 2019 if Star Wars: Episode IX hadn't been released in the same year. Both beloved franchises just kind of sputtered when we were expecting something huge. But while Star Wars fans can't rely on Rian Johnson coming back and saving the franchise, because what's done is done, Kevin Stefanski has joined the Browns to offer a new hope. (I'm really sorry about that.)

How the Browns got here

Let's take a quick look back at the ups and downs of the 2019 season.

The highs:

  • Scoring on their opening drive of 2019, via a touchdown run by Dontrell Hilliard. Everything after that was terrible.
  • OK, that's not fair; there was also blowing out the Ravens in Week 4 (I'm serious), at which point both teams were tied in the AFC North at 2-2.

The lows:

  • The 2019 season. I'm not here to spend too much time on the past. Let's just start talking about 2020. I mean, there were some good times, but this was a misfire. So let's move on ...
  • Actually, we should first inspect the Myles Garrett incident a little closer. Because what happened with Garrett and Mason Rudolph at the end of Browns-Steelers on "Thursday Night Football" in Week 11 -- with Garrett swinging Rudolph's helmet at Rudolph's head -- was disturbing. Not only could Rudolph have been seriously hurt, the Browns lost one of their best players for the season (Garrett received an indefinite suspension, from which was reinstated by the NFL during the offseason) and the incident made both the sport and the team look bad. Given that it was Thursday night, the next day's news cycle was filled with headlines focusing on "the Browns being the Browns" instead of the Browns defeating their rivals (did you even remember Cleveland won that game?) and putting together back-to-back wins with a chance to get into the playoff race.

2020 VIPs

Head coach: Kevin Stefanski. The Browns are a lot like another Ohio legend, Ted Evelyn Mosby, the loveless lead character of How I Met Your Mother -- a man with more emotional endurance than anyone I know.

If you're not familiar with the series, well, shame on you, because it was awesome. It's the story of a young man looking for the one, going through the trials and tribulations of seeking out that person who will make everything come together. And it seems like the Browns have been looking for the one, at least from a coaching standpoint, since Marty Schottenheimer and Bill Belichick. (Yes, it's true, kids. One of the best coaches of all time used to work in Cleveland. Ask your parents about that.) Well, it feels like Stefanski could be the one.

He was reportedly the favorite of chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta a year ago, but the Browns wanted to give Freddie Kitchens the gig after the team went 5-3 to close out 2018 following Kitchens' promotion to offensive coordinator. And that's fine. You don't ditch your wedding date for somebody you just met at MacLaren's. This offseason, though, with Kitchens having been fired after going 6-10, the Browns were unattached and free to unite with Stefanski.

The thing to be excited about if you're a Browns fan this year is that Stefanski is considered one of the best play-callers in the NFL. He also spent last year working with Gary Kubiak, who comes from the Mike Shanahan coaching family. It should come as no surprise that the Vikings led the NFL in outside-zone rushing usage last year, according to Pro Football Focus. The good news here is, the Browns ranked fifth in the NFL in outside-zone rushing yardage, according to PFF.

And the best news is, the 38-year-old Stefanski will no longer have to yield to old-school, defensive-minded Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer's run-first philosophy. This could be a chance for Stefanski to flourish, however the actual play-calling duties shake out between him and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt. Which means the Browns might have finally found the one after all these years.

Quarterback: Baker Mayfield. Everyone knows I'm a huge Baker fan. In fact, I'll bring this picture, which I was proud of heading into last season, back out of the archives.

Being a Baker fan is sometimes a lot like being a Star Wars fan, in that some people will call you an idiot for it. That's fine; you're never going to win over everyone. I'm still firmly convinced Baker is a good quarterback who will become a star in this league. People who want to use last season to cement their preconceived notions about him are way too quick to dismiss his successful rookie campaign. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft threw 27 touchdown passes, breaking Peyton Manning's rookie record despite not even entering a game until Week 3. He was accurate. He was airing the ball out. And the Browns were winning. It was a huge reason why the team was a popular pick headed into last year. Which Baker are we going to get this season? I'm going with the good version.

I know it will be way too easy to draw a comparison to the way Sean McVay rescued fellow former No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff from becoming a bust with the Rams. So let's take the easy way out! Kidding. Still, there should be some similarities. Like Goff when McVay first arrived in Los Angeles, Baker has one of the best supporting casts in football (more on that in a moment). Which means this could be a huge breakout year.

The only thing I would caution is that it might take some time to get rolling. While there have been rave reviews from Stefanski about their work in the virtual offseason program necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, nothing can replace actually being on the field. So be patient. Yes, I know that's a nearly impossible ask in this day and age. But Baker will be good.

Projected 2020 MVP: Mayfield. I said last year that he was a dark-horse candidate to be MVP of the league. So I might have been a year early. But one thing we need to consider is that Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins had the best season of his career with Stefanski calling the plays in 2019, in part because of play-action. Cousins was excellent last year in play-action, and Baker was nearly as good; Cousins led the NFL in TD passes thrown on play-action, with 14, and Baker tied for third with nine, according to Next Gen Stats. Cousins ran play-action on 29.1 percent of his pass attempts, fifth-most in the NFL among those with 100-plus pass attempts, per NGS. With a revamped offensive line (more on that in a moment) and a great running game in Cleveland, I'd dare to say Baker is going to be huge on play-action -- and in general.

If I'm allowed to work in a bit of a fantasy take here, if you miss on a quarterback in the early rounds of your drafts, don't be afraid to fire on Baker later. A lot of people won't want to deal with him because of what happened last year, like they're avoiding returning to a place from which they got bad sushi once. I get it. But I'm telling you, it's going to work out with Baker this season.

Projected 2020 Defensive MVP: Myles Garrett, defensive end. The ugly incident with Rudolph kind of overshadowed how good Garrett, who was on pace for a career-high 16 sacks when he was suspended, is on the field. And I'm interested to see how he performs this season. Not so much from the standpoint that he has something to prove after last season's suspension, but more in terms of how new defensive coordinator Joe Woods can amplify Garrett's game. Woods is coming over from San Francisco and Denver, and he also worked with Stefanski in Minnesota, so he's bringing valuable experience. I wouldn't be surprised to see huge years from Garrett and cornerback Denzel Ward.

2020 breakout star: Karl Joseph, safety. Joseph joined the Browns this season after spending four years with the Raiders, with whom he struggled to get it together after being made a first-round pick in 2016. Joseph was actually playing really well last year before a foot injury knocked him out of action for the second half of the season, and he's another player who could thrive under Woods.

New faces to know: Offensive tackles Jack Conklin and Jedrick Wills. Trying to pinpoint what caused the downfall of the 2019 Browns is a lot like trying to put together a puzzle while the pieces are upside down. Where do you start? One good place might be the atrocious O-line. When you're making deals to find linemen during the fourth week of the preseason, as the Browns did last year, that's usually a pretty good indication that things are somewhat amiss. So Cleveland went out of its way to strengthen that position group, adding Conklin, one of the best linemen available in free agency, and Wills, one of the best in the draft, solidifying the left and right tackle position and freeing them from having to rely on journeymen and backups to protect Baker. Some final pieces must be reconfigured before they get to training camp, but the Browns are well ahead of where they were a season ago. Another name to keep an eye on is rookie Nick Harris, who could provide great value as a fifth-round depth pick.

What's old is new again: How about those Browns uniforms? Yes, I believe the Los Angeles Chargers won the competition in a walk when it came to re-designing uniforms, but the Browns deserve an awful lot of credit for going back to the classics. It makes you wonder why they ever strayed from that in the first place.

The 2020 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: ELEVATED. Look. In fairness to the Browns, we expected too much from them last season. But the fact remains that his team hasn't won an NFL title since 1964 and hasn't even participated in the playoffs since 2002. So to say people are getting a little antsy is an understatement. While we won't go overboard in this section, we will say the Browns HAVE TO show some competitiveness.

Three key dates (plus one):

  • Week 1 at the Ravens. The Browns split with the Ravens last season. We've already touched on the win. The other game, uh, wasn't great. But that's cool. Cleveland doesn't need to win this one, but this is an opportunity for the Browns to set the tone for this season and show they aren't the same old Browns as before.
  • Weeks 2 and 3 vs. the Bengals and Redskins. While competing in Week 1 is important, closing out these two winnable home games is probably an even bigger deal. Because if the Browns aren't at least 2-1 headed into a Week 4 trip to Dallas, this season could get rough, or at least be a lot like the last. This is the most important stretch, for sure.
  • Week 8 vs. the Raiders. I have the Raiders as one of the better teams in the AFC this season, along with the Browns, and given that both teams are also in divisions with likely conference juggernauts, I'm going to say winning this game will be key to making the playoffs, even with the extra spot being added this year.

Will the Browns be able to …

Get the best out of Odell Beckham Jr.? OBJ is another one of my guys who gets dogged incessantly, with people pushing rumors that he was to be traded, and with some in the fantasy community getting upset because he's not putting up historic numbers. (Beckham did still have 1,035 receiving yards last season in what was considered a down year). But there are a few reasons that I really believe in OBJ.

He was fourth among receivers with 75-plus targets in double-team percentage in 2019, according to NGS, which means defensive coordinators must believe he's a player they need to keep track of. That double-team rate also suggests there will be ways to scheme him open, which is what Stefanski would be great at. So I'm looking for more production this season.

Another reason I love him is because he puts in a lot of effort. Dude blocks like no other. Check this out. You don't question a guy's attitude when he's willing to put down amazing blocks like that. He might not win you a fantasy title, but he can win you an AFC North title. The bigger question might be how long it will take for fellow receiver Jarvis Landry to return from offseason hip surgery.

Replace Joe Schobert? It's tough watching a home-grown player walk away, especially when he's a fourth-round pick who became the leader of your defense. But that's what happened with the Browns and Schobert. I can't say I'm surprised, given the influence of DePodesta, who had success replacing home-grown talent when it became too expensive in the front office of MLB's Oakland A's. That system works well -- if you have some capable fill-ins ready to go. The leading candidate to step into Schobert's shoes should be third-round pick Jacob Phillips, a tackling machine out of LSU. The one question that remains from Phillips' draft profile is whether he lacks an alpha demeanor on the field. But he's great in playing assignment football.

Overall, the depth on defense looks pretty strong. Andrew Billings and Adrian Clayborn will be rotational pieces up front, along with third-round pick Jordan Elliott. And there figures to be an interesting battle at free safety between second-round pick Grant Delpit (Phillips' teammate at LSU) and free-agent signee Andrew Sendejo.

Get the running back rotation to work? Nick Chubb rushed for 1,494 yards last season, second in the NFL only to Derrick Henry. And Stefanski's zone-blocking scheme seems like a perfect fit for Chubb to be a bell-cow back. The question is, how will Stefanski get Kareem Hunt to fit in? I know people in the fantasy community hate the dreaded running back committee and fear Chubb will be negatively impacted. But based on last season, when Chubb posted more 100-yard rushing games with Hunt in the lineup (four) than without (three), I think Chubb will be fine. On the ground, anyway -- Chubb was targeted three or fewer times in all but one of the games Hunt played. So what I'm basically getting at here is, Nick Chubb won't be as great for you in PPR fantasy leagues. Sorry. But he can still be a standard-league stud. And he could have an even bigger on-field impact in Cleveland than he did last year. I could see him winning the rushing title, especially with the additions on the offensive line -- and if the Browns are looking to protect more late-game leads.

One storyline ...

... people are overlooking: How good the Browns were on opening drives last season. I took some time to watch this compilation of every Browns touchdown from last season. One thing that stands out is how effective the Browns could be on opening drives, with six ending in touchdowns and two in field goals. They also had leads in 12 games last season. Talent and game-planning clearly weren't the issue for Cleveland, probably because then-offensive coordinator Todd Monken was there to help with that. Stefanski also excelled with the Vikings' scripted plays in 2019 -- now it will be on him to do a better job making in-game adjustments than Kitchens apparently could.

... people are overthinking: Why they signed Austin Hooper. Hooper signed a huge deal with the Browns, and that might have caught a few folks off guard, because many had him slated for some TE-needy teams, like the Steelers, Bears or Packers. (Not that the Packers would ever give Aaron Rodgers any weapons to work with.) But Hooper makes a lot of sense for the Browns, even with David Njoku on hand, as Stefanski prefers to run a lot of two-tight end sets. Stefanski's Vikings ran 12 personnel (two tight ends) on 34 percent of their plays last year, second only to the Eagles.

For 2020 to be a successful season, the Browns MUST ...

Get Baker to return to his rookie-season form. You want Mayfield to continue to improve and show he's one of the top quarterbacks in the game, so that the Browns can go into next season knowing they have their quarterback of the future, rather than having fans clamor for the team to trade up for a hot prospect or take a run at, say, Jameis Winston.

Be consistent. They don't have to sweep the AFC North, but they don't want to be blown out by their division mates, either.

Be in the playoff mix. This is a tough one, because the Ravens and Steelers are looking strong heading into 2020. But the Browns weren't the complete disaster many made them out to be last season, and that seventh playoff spot makes it even easier to envision a Cleveland postseason berth as a real possibility.

In closing

If you remember what I was saying about "Teddy Westside" from above, he went through a lot of emotional heartache to eventually get to his ultimate goal. And the Browns are sure to suffer some more along the way, because that's just the way football goes. But it really does feel like the Browns are closer to breaking through than ever before. I know statements like that can sometimes ring hollow, like when Marshall declares he's never drinking again ... and then here come Beercules. But I really do mean it.

As a side note, this is the REAL ending of HIMYM. There's no guarantee the Browns will get an ending as sweet this season, but it's on the horizon.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @adamrank.

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