With training camp finally underway across the NFL, the wait is almost over for football fans. For Browns fans, the wait has seemingly felt longer than normal, because as a fanbase, we have not had this level of optimism for the upcoming season since before many current fans were even born. I, for instance, having been born in 1997, have been alive for a total of 2 winning Browns seasons out of the 22 I’ve been alive. But, the 2018 season, which saw the arrival of QB Baker Mayfield (pictured above), RB Nick Chubb, and the overall arrival of a young team with hunger and potential, put hope back into Browns fans. And the 2018-19 offseason, in which the Browns acquired Pro-Bowl caliber talent in Odell Beckham, Sheldon Richardson, and Olivier Vernon, and inked coach Freddie Kitchens to a deal, optimism is through the roof. Many analysts are picking the team to go to the playoffs this year, and possibly even enjoy further success. With all the personality and storylines on this team- involving Mayfield, Beckham, Jarvis Landry, Myles Garrett, Kitchens, Kareem Hunt, etc- reporters will have no shortage of story material this season. With all that being said, here are three storylines that may not be quite as heavily reported on, that will develop throughout this next month.
1. Offensive Line Potential/Questions
This, out of all the units for the Browns this upcoming year, is probably the one with the single most question marks coming into the season. Last year, the Browns went through a stretch, after Freddie Kitchens was named Offensive Coordinator, in which they had one of the best offensive lines in the league. With a lineup of Greg Robinson and Chris Hubbard at tackle, Kevin Zeitler and Joel Bitonio at guards, and JC Tretter at center, the unit flourished. From Baker Mayfield’s first game in Week 3, to Week 9, Mayfield was sacked 22 times in those 7 games. For the next 7 games, as Kitchens became the main offensive coach and play-caller, Mayfield was sacked a league-low 3 times. This showed the offensive line’s potential- but over the offseason, a major piece, Zeitler, was traded to the New York Giants for Pro-Bowl defensive lineman Olivier Vernon. He will likely be replaced by Austin Corbett, who was an early pick in the 2018 draft, but did not prove himself enough to play any meaningful snaps throughout the entire season. If Corbett proves to be an adequate replacement and Kitchens continues to put an emphasis on pass protection, this offensive line could be a great unit again. If something goes wrong however, or Corbett can’t live up to his draft spot, there could be problems there.
2. Duke Johnson’s production/morale
Duke Johnson has shown potential to be a great pass-catching/running option at running back. He is a great third-down back, but has, throughout his 4 years on the Browns, not had the magnitude of targets he’d probably like ideally. However, he has shown that, as the second option, he can prove a very dangerous threat, with the ability to make people miss in space and good hands. But, after the breakout year that RB Nick Chubb had last season, and the acquisition of Kareem Hunt this offseason, Johnson became more expendable, and his opportunities for touches seemed to look to be going down. Johnson found himself on the trading block, but a deal could not be made in the offseason. In interviews during OTA practices this summer, he expressed his dismay at being placed on the trading block and, according to speculation from some reporters, expressed a desire to be traded when next possible. So, with Kareem Hunt suspended for the first 8 games, which will leave an opening for Johnson to potentially have some touches, it will be interesting to see how he acclimates to the situation with his teammates, and whether he is able to be effective and happy in his role.
3. Damarious Randall’s Contract Situation
Damarious Randall was an underrated acquisition by the Browns in the 2017-18 offseason, brought to the team via trading away QB Deshone Kizer and a pick. He brought a lot of things to the 2018 Browns- He tied a career-high with 4 interceptions, set a new career-best with 85 total tackles from the safety spot, and overall brought a new level of swagger to the Browns defense, which had been lacking that edge for some years. Additionally, he brought us arguably the best moment in the Browns season in a game in Cincinnati in late November when he intercepted Andy Dalton and handed the ball to former Browns head coach Hue Jackson.
Despite all this, Randall has yet to have his contract extended by the team. His deal expires at the end of this season, and Randall has certainly earned an extension with his play. He even has been quoted as saying he’d “want to finish his career” in Cleveland. However, the Browns have a lot to think about regarding paying players over the next few seasons. With young players such as Baker Mayfield, Myles Garrett, Nick Chubb, Joe Schobert, and Kareem Hunt, among more, who will need big money extensions over the next few years, the Browns have to consider where and at what positions they might need to save some money. It will be interesting to see whether this situation improves or hurts his play, and how his contract year season will play out.