Heading into last season, I wrote about the Cleveland Browns’ staggering run of futility since their pro football reincarnation in 1999. It didn’t seem possible that a team in the NFL, which devotes so much energy to promoting parity, could be so very bad for so very long. And yet, the Browns were coming off a 1-31 record over the 2016 and 2017 seasons — the worst two-year stretch by any team in league history. The ongoing fiasco in Cleveland had essentially left the franchise exactly where it had started off as an expansion team, nearly 20 years earlier.
But as it turns out, even the Browns couldn’t stay bad forever. The 2018 edition was markedly improved from a roster standpoint, was far more competitive on the field and — after a midseason crisis that saw coach Hue Jackson fired — finished strong with a 5-3 record to complete a 7-8-1 campaign, the team’s best showing in over a decade. And then Cleveland spent the offseason grabbing even more talent, trading for wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and controversially signing former Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt, who was suspended for the first half of the 2019 season after attacking a woman at a hotel last February. A Browns Super Bowl run, nigh-unthinkable a year ago, now has the ninth-best odds in the league according to the Vegas books.
So is it possible that the Browns are now … overrated?
Those top-10 Super Bowl odds might be a bit too favorable. Back in May, the indefatigable Chase Stuart measured the implied strength of every 2019 team by looking at game-by-game point spreads released by the oddsmakers at CG Technology. Cleveland is expected to have a per-game scoring margin of +0.8 points next season, but it also plays a schedule 0.5 points per game easier than the average NFL team. The resulting Simple Rating System score of +0.41 points above average per game is an improvement over the -0.3 produced by last year’s Browns … but it also projects to rank just 17th in the league. Cleveland has improved — but only into the NFL’s middle class alongside teams like the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers and Baltimore Ravens.
The same goes for top-to-bottom assessments of the Browns’ roster. When Pro Football Focus graded each team’s roster last month, Cleveland ranked just 18th in the NFL, sandwiched between the Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars. Beckham rightly grades out as “elite,” and the Browns boast four other players — QB Baker Mayfield, RB Nick Chubb, DE Myles Garrett and incoming edge-rusher Olivier Vernon — who rate as “good.” But the rest of the team’s starters are all considered either average or below-average according to PFF’s grading system.
The 2019 Browns look like a middle-of-the-pack team
Composite ranking for 2019 NFL teams based on implied Simple Rating System (SRS) scores using Vegas lines and total team talent as ranked by Pro Football Focus’s grading system
|Team||Exp. SRS rank||PFF Rank||Avg. rank|
|New England Patriots||1||1||1|
|Los Angeles Rams||2||2||2|
|New Orleans Saints||4||3||3.5|
|Kansas City Chiefs||3||7||5|
|Los Angeles Chargers||5||6||5.5|
|Green Bay Packers||9||14||11.5|
|San Francisco 49ers||19||24||21.5|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||24||26||25|
|New York Jets||23||31||27|
|New York Giants||29||27||28|
It wouldn’t be too shocking if the Browns’ seemingly elite offseason haul doesn’t quite live up to expectations. In the past, my research has suggested that net offseason talent added2 has much less of an effect on a team’s performance in the following season than we might think. For every case in which a team adds a significant amount of talent and immediately improves (such as the 2001 Patriots or 1997 Chiefs), there are plenty of counterexamples (like Carolina in 1998 or Washington in 2000) in which a team picked up big names only to founder on the field. The NFL’s unforgiving salary cap and general unpredictability make it especially difficult for improvements on paper to translate into actual success — perhaps even if a team adds one of the league’s top offensive weapons to an already improving core.
But even if Cleveland’s title chances are somewhat overblown, this remains the most promising Browns team in a long time. According to our new quarterback-adjusted Elo ratings (which we’ve been working on over the summer and will explain in full depth soon),3 the Browns will enter this season with an effective rating of 1523 after adding in Mayfield’s adjustment. That still ranks only 16th in the league, but it is above the NFL average (of roughly 1505) and is easily the Browns’ rosiest outlook going into any season since the franchise was restored to existence:
This looks like the best team in New Browns history
Effective Elo ratings (including an adjustment for the opening-day starting quarterback) for the Cleveland Browns going into each season, since 1999
|Rk||Season||Starting QB||PPG vs. Avg*||Base||QB Adj.||Effective|
As a rookie in 2018, Mayfield had one of the best quarterbacking seasons in Browns (old or new) history, across a number of metrics. His quarterback rating in our new Elo model (the equivalent of +0.3 points added above an average QB per game) was the best season-ending mark of any Cleveland QB4 since 1999. His 2019 season-opening rating of +0.25 will be the second-best of any opening-day Browns starter going into a season since 1999, trailing only Jeff Garcia’s mark of +1.6 from 2004.6 And Mayfield’s projection probably understates how much his performance should improve when throwing to an elite receiver such as Beckham.
In other words, Mayfield looks like the Browns’ most competent option under center in many years — and he represents a truly massive leap forward for a team that had previously suffered the worst quarterback production in the NFL under its current incarnation. Mayfield’s development is a big part of what’s driving Browns fever, and not without some justification: The Rams, for example, followed the same model (draft a young, productive QB and then load up on supporting talent) to reach the Super Bowl last February.
Throw in a diminished Pittsburgh Steelers squad that lost top receiver Antonio Brown in March, another division rival (Baltimore) that appears to be no better than Cleveland talent-wise, plus a Cincinnati Bengals team trending in the wrong direction, and it’s not hard to imagine the Browns’ path to an AFC North title … or beyond. But even so, the team may not quite be ready for that Super Bowl run yet. No longer a nightmare, Cleveland’s next step is to build on last year’s promise and outperform those middle-of-the-pack projections. If a championship parade alongside Lake Erie happens to come in the process, it would be a remarkable bonus — even though it’s not exactly something to make concrete plans for.