When the Cleveland Browns are mentioned among other teams in the NFL these days, there is mostly nothing but good things to say about the most improved team in football. Looking back at the 2015 season when the Browns fired Ray Farmer and hired a lawyer with no football evaluation experience in Sashi Brown, there was a sense that the Browns new approach was to strip the team down to nuts and bolts — and they did just that, and then some.
One of the many strategies that Brown and company constructed when they swayed owner Jimmy Haslam with their rare approach to roster development was to move on from the bulk of veteran players that resided on the Browns roster. Cleveland decided to look towards stockpiling a healthy amount of draft picks to replace a then mostly veteran ladened team.
Now, whether or not that exact plan was effective and if the players the Browns drafted with the majority of those picks in the Brown era were worth it is a different conversation for a different day. However, what was effective was that Cleveland had moved on from Brown and gave the gift of one of the sexiest stockpile of assets in all of football to one of the best talent evaluators, in all of football.
In general manager John Dorsey’s first NFL draft for the Cleveland Browns, this is how it turned out: quarterback Baker Mayfield (1), cornerback Denzel Ward (4), offensive lineman Austin Corbett (33), running back Nick Chubb (35), defensive end Chad Thomas (67), wide receiver Antonio Callaway (105), edge rusher Genard Avery (150), wide receiver Damion Ratley (175), and defensive back Simeon Thomas (188).
On the surface, through 14 games it appears the Browns have found: A franchise quarterback (Mayfield), an All-Pro caliber cornerback (Ward), a tackle-breaking machine bruiser running back (Chubb), speedy receiver with upside (Callaway), and a pass rusher with a ceiling that is high (Avery). On the flip side, the jury is still out on Corbett, Chad Thomas, and Ratley (Simeon Thomas was cut) but as of now, it does not look too promising for Corbett and Chad Thomas (who have been healthy scratches at various times in the season).
Mayfield is the obvious headliner of the 2018 NFL Rookie Class, as the charismatic quarterback has had an entire city glowing behind his lead. It is so easy to make this entire Browns rookie class about one player, considering he has cemented himself as the future of a franchise for the next 15 years on a team that has not had a passer of his caliber since possibly Otto Graham.
I would be remised if I did not add this. My father, Mike Kelly, a Browns fan of 50+ years and absolute lover of Bernie Kosar, had this to say of Mayfield:
“I loved Bernie but what Baker does is not on the same level as Kosar. The way he maneuvers the pocket, elevates the talent around him, and leads the team with electricity is something the city has never seen before. Mayfield is the best quarterback I have ever seen in a Cleveland Browns uniform.”
In true Browns fan fashion, my father (like many others) was quick to praise Mayfield as the savior, even acknowledging that he is better than his beloved Kosar. Yes, it will be a Baker’s dozen amount of games for the Mayfield era in Cleveland come Sunday, December 23 against the Bengals but one thing is clear — Mayfield is special. I could write all day about Mayfield (and have proposed the idea to myself personally of writing a book on Baker in 15 years when hopefully the Browns passer has an accolated career in Orange and Brown) but there are four really good football players on this football team that were drafted with Mayfield.
Ward, Chubb, Callaway, and Avery, who have a mean age of 21.75 years, have had outstanding seasons in their own right.
After getting off to a hot start to his rookie season by winning two Rookie of the Week awards in week one and five, Ward has been overlooked as a close second as one of the best rookie defenders in the NFL.
In a dozen games for Cleveland, Ward has allowed 0.85 yards per coverage snap (11th best in the NFL & best among rookies), has allowed an opposing quarterback rating when targeted of 70.0 (7th best in the NFL and 2nd among rookies), four interceptions, 11 passes defended, a forced fumble, and two fumble recoveries.
Ever since the 2015 season when former Browns All-Pro cornerback Joe Haden’s battle with injuries had begun, Cleveland has been desperate to replace Haden as a great lockdown corner. Ward, in his rookie season, has not only showed he is as good as Haden but has shown he can be much better and much more consistent.
On that same defense, the Browns have identified a very talented player in their front seven in Avery. In 431 pass rush snaps, Avery has compiled a PRP (A formula that combines sacks, hits and hurries relative to how many times they rush the passer) of 6.3, which is better than Chandler Jones, Jadeveon Clowney, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Vic Beasley Jr. — to name a few. That number is second among rookie pass rushers, only behind Bradley Chubb.
Although he has only identified to play 151 snaps in the run game, Avery’s run stop percentage of 9.3 is better than Clowney, Khalil Mack, and Von Miller — it is also the eight best among rookies. Lastly, Avery’s tackling efficiency of 17.0 is better than Anthony Barr, Luke Kuechly, and Calais Campbell, and second among rookies.
Avery has provided the Browns with a much-needed presence in the front seven, that is much needed outside of Joe Schobert and Myles Garrett. With the underwhelming performance of Emmanuel Ogbah, Avery has shown he can be an effective complement to Garrett.
Transitioning back to the offensive side of the ball, Nick Chubb has the filled the void of a bell cow back in the AFC North. Chubb leads the NFL in yards after contact per attempt (4.52), eighth in rushing touchdowns (8), 16th in first downs (42), and has notched 23 runs of over 10 yards (better than David Johnson & Alvin Kamara).
Chubb’s game-breaking speed has been well on display, in addition to his bruising mentality between the tackles. His breakaway percentage of 47.8 is third best in the NFL, only behind Tevin Coleman and Saquon Barkley. Lastly, Chubb’s elusiveness rating of 108.1 (Missed Tackles Forced) / (Designed Run Attempts + Receptions) * (Yards After Contact Per Attempt * 100) is far-and-away the best in the NFL — the second best is Derrick Henry at 98.4.
In the span of the first six weeks of the season, Chubb was underutilized as the Browns’ feature back was Carlos Hyde. Since the Hyde trade, Chubb now has a Rookie of the Week title (to complement his previous one) and has established himself as one of the toughest to bring down running backs in all of football.
The ups and downs of Antonio Callaway are enough to warrant a new roller coaster at Cedar Point. Although there has been many twists and turns to his season, Callaway has made a positive climb up the tracks as the season has progressed.
Callaway has registered five performances of 50 receiving yards or more for the Browns (NO, OAK, KC, CIN, HOU), including five games with 10 yards per target or more (NO, KC, CIN, ATL, HOU). He has also compiled five games with a catch percentage of above 75 percent (NO, PIT, CIN, ATL, CAR).
The biggest challenge with Callaway is consistency. He has shown flashes in eight games this season, but he needs to put it all together week in and week out. Often times, the development of rookie receivers does not typically show itself in year one, as they tend to show appealing production in year two professionally. This thought most definitely stands true for Callaway, as he missed an entire year of football collegiately before entering the NFL draft.
For a team that came into this season with a 1-31 record in 2016 & 2017 with unknown aspirations, the promise of 2018 rookie class to supplement the outstanding players from 2016 and 2017 is encouraging. With two weeks remaining in the 2018 season, the Browns have the most wins since 2014 and have many positives heading into the new year.
It is especially inspiring to suggest that Mayfield, Ward, and Chubb have all exceeded expectations in their rookie seasons. The leap of this football from 2017 to 2018 speaks for itself. For the first time to my recollection, the Browns are playing meaningful football in December and that one big step in the right direction.
Doesn’t feel nice to be talking about the promise of this year’s rookie class during a very good season (for Browns standards), instead of overwhelming ourselves with the nauseating draft talk that hit an all-time high last season? The Browns are making steps forward and not looking back — and that there is a sign of competitive football in Cleveland more years to come.