Late March can be a difficult time for football fans. The insanity of early free agency is behind us and the NFL draft is still weeks away. For the first time in over a decade, the Browns will not own a first-round pick, adding to the longing anticipation of the upcoming season. Fueling the excitement, Cleveland has successfully added proven talent such as Odell Beckham, Sheldon Richardson, and Olivier Vernon among others, making their roster one of the more impressive in the league.
This fall, fans across the sport will be treated to several primetime games featuring the Browns, launching the franchise into a televised spotlight unparalleled since the 2008 season. With the official schedule being released in mid to late April, we can only speculate which of the sixteen matchups will make their way onto the national stage. Being a member of the AFC North division, there are several matchups between traditional rivals that will carry a multitude of intriguing storylines. Pittsburgh appears to be reeling from a very public fallout amongst star players. Baltimore has lost several key weapons on the defensive front. Cincinnati will look to rebuild under first-year head coach Zac Taylor. In other words, at a brief glance, the Browns appear to be trending in a positive direction, while their division rivals struggle to maintain competitiveness. As Cleveland fans, we’re more than accustomed to being invested in these games. For the sake of this article, I will focus on upcoming contests outside of the division, previewing five that may make an appearance on a Thursday, Sunday, or Monday night. So, in no particular order, let’s begin.
At New England Patriots
Friends and Neighbors, this one writes itself. Prior to the Super Bowl, the NFL released a commercial commemorating their upcoming one-hundredth season. In it, Baker Mayfield was placed next to Tom Brady where the young upstart taunts the veteran into getting in on the action unfolding in front of them. Brady responds by handing his rings to Mayfield, a kind of passing of the torch moment, or at least, we as Browns fans like to imagine. It’s the classic matchup between a legend and a superstar in the making, not to mention a contest between what should be two solid teams.
Even with the departure of Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, you’d be hard pressed to find an NFL talking head claim that New England will not make the playoffs. In addition, if the Browns play up to their potential, this may be an early preview of a January playoff game. There is also the long drawn out storyline of Bill Belichick’s history in Cleveland. However, the Browns are poised to be a legitimate contender in their conference for the first time since Belichick was at the helm, adding a new spark of life to the narrative. In any case, it will be exciting to see Mayfield compete in an environment like Foxborough, where he can showcase his talents, along with that of his teammates’, against a proven franchise.
Los Angeles Rams
Throw out the intriguing headlines. The entertainment value of this matchup will come directly from what happens on the gridiron. Coming off a Super Bowl appearance, Rams head coach Sean McVay has built a reputation as a creative play caller, engineering one of the NFL’s most potent offenses since he assumed the job in 2017. The thirty-three-year-old will also be returning to his home state, being born in Dayton and attending college at Miami University. In addition, it’s been rumored that he has been a fan of the Browns. At one point, he was favored to be the team’s next head coach, a job that is now in the hands of former-interim-offensive-coordinator-now-Browns-hat-aficionado, Freddie Kitchens. With Jared Goff’s poor performance in the Super Bowl and lingering reports of Todd Gurley being injured, it will be interesting to see how the offense operates compared to the previous two seasons. If it maintains a high output, the two rosters will make for an exciting and high scoring matchup.
At New York Jets
This one is all about Odell. Beckham will be making his first appearance at MetLife Stadium since being traded. While he will not be playing his former team, you can rest assured that the media will still heavily advertise his return to New York. The matchup will also have sentimental value. The last time these teams met, Cleveland snapped a winless streak that spanned 19 games and 635 days. The game also took place on a Thursday night, allowing it to be viewed nationally. Beyond the debut of Mayfield and some assistance from a possum, the contest was accentuated by an incredible atmosphere, one that easily translated through the broadcast to the casual fan watching at home.
At Denver Broncos
Once again, the intrigue here is less about competitive prowess and more about the past. In December, the Browns bested the Broncos in a razor close game, ending via a Jabrill Peppers’ sack that sealed the 17-16 win. The game was viewed as a watershed moment in Mayfield’s rookie season, proving that he could go into a hostile environment and close out a hard-fought win. As for previous matchups with Denver? Being a Cleveland sports website I’ll assume the relationship between these franchises doesn’t need further examination, especially with John Elway operating as the Bronco’s general manager and Joe Flacco running plays under center. While I’d prefer every game to take place at FirstEnergy Stadium, Mile High does carry a fun atmosphere, the type a quarterback like Mayfield will play up for, again.
At Arizona Cardinals
In my opinion, this will be the game that carries the juiciest headlines. For those unaware, Baker Mayfield and first-year Arizona head coach Kliff Kingsbury have a past, and oh, buddy boy, it’s a big one. Mayfield began his collegiate career at Texas Tech where he rose from being a walk-on to starting quarterback, leading the team to a 5-0 start before injuring his MCL. Mayfield claims that Kingsbury effectively ceased communicating with him following this. The souring of their relationship culminated in Mayfield not being offered a scholarship the following season, something Kingsbury has denied, claiming that he assured his quarterback that one would be awarded in the near future. Mayfield then transferred to Oklahoma where he’d go on to lead the Sooners to the college football playoff and collect a Heisman trophy to boot. Citing his reaction to the departure and subsequent hiring of Hue Jackson to the Cincinnati Bengals, one can assume the sophomore signal caller will be slightly fired up to compete against his former coach.
And then there’s the issue at quarterback. Arizona traded up to select current starter Josh Rosen tenth overall in the 2018 NFL Draft. After a lackluster season surrounded by an underwhelming talent pool, Rosen has been questioned as the quarterback of the future. This feeling was intensified during the 2019 combine when rumors of Arizona using their No. 1 overall pick to select Kyler Murray surfaced. When asked if Rosen would remain on the roster for the 2019 season, General Manager Steve Kiem responded by stating Rosen was their quarterback “right now”, sending Cardinal fans into a frenzy. Rosen was also said to be against playing for Cleveland prior to his selection by Arizona a year ago. ESPN reported that the quarterback would go so far as to consider foregoing the draft if he felt confident that the Browns would select him first or fourth overall.
Murray, who spent time as Mayfield’s backup in Norman and also won a Heisman for the Sooners, is a close friend of Baker’s, who’s gone so far as to publicly advocate for the quarterback when his height has been questioned by NFL insiders. Either way, there will be interest in whichever quarterback takes the field opposite Mayfield. Also, Browns Defensive Coordinator Steve Wilks will be making his return to Arizona after completing his lone season as the franchise’s head coach. Freddie Kitchens has an attachment to the organization as well, having coached there under multiple titles for over a decade.
The 2019 season will be an exciting opportunity for Cleveland. For the first time in division history, Vegas has the Browns listed as favorites. Time will tell if this is warranted but win or lose, we can look forward to a multitude of intriguing matchups, enough to keep us going as we count down to September. This along with a healthy chunk of TV time will add to what is shaping into a special year for the Brown and Orange.