- The Browns were deemed to have the best offseason, an ESPN NFL Nation post states. Each team was given a designation of elite, above average, average and too soon to tell, and Cleveland was the only squad to garner an elite ranking. The explanation for the lofty ranking was the team succeeding on its goal of surrounding second-year quarterback Baker Mayfield with talent at the skill positions with Odell Beckham and Kareem Hunt.
Although Odell Beckham Jr. stayed away from almost all of the Browns’ OTAs, not reporting to his new team until mandatory minicamp, the Pro Bowl wide receiver views Cleveland as a better fit for him than New York would have been going forward.
“I just felt with the Giants I was just stuck at a place that wasn’t working for me anymore,” Beckham said, via Complex.com’s Jacob Davey. “I felt like I wasn’t going to be able to reach my full potential there. Mentally, physically, spiritually, everything I felt capable of doing, I just couldn’t see it happening there.”
The 26-year-old wideout certainly had a tumultuous run in the Big Apple, his most recent two seasons cut short by injuries. The Giants traded Beckham for Jabrill Peppers, along with first- and third-round picks, in March. GM Dave Gettleman pulled the trigger after repeatedly saying he did not extend Beckham to trade him. The Giants started 1-7 in each of the past two seasons.
Beckham was part of several headline-driving stories during his five-year New York stay, one of which — an ESPN interview that criticized Eli Manning and questioned the Giants’ new offensive system — irking Pat Shurmur and leading to the wideout apologizing to the team midway through last season.
On the field, however, Beckham remains one of the league’s best. In 2016, the most recent of his three Pro Bowl slates, Beckham played a key role in the Giants reaching the playoffs. Though the 2014 first-round pick missed 16 games over the past two seasons, his 92.8 receiving yards per game rank second all time.
“I think allowing me to be in an environment where I can be myself and give it a different approach, I feel like my football will benefit,” Beckham said. “I’m just excited about being able to play football again and not have to deal with all the other stuff and politics that came with my previous role.”
The sixth-year receiver now joins longtime friend and former LSU teammate Jarvis Landry in northeast Ohio. That duo will be tasked with being an essential part of ending the Browns’ 16-season playoff drought. The five-year, $90MM extension Beckham signed in 2018 has him tethered to the Browns through 2023.
“I’m very excited by the culture at the Browns. It’s been building over the years, and they’ve got players over there who I just know I’m gonna click with,” Beckham said. “Jarvis is a brother of mine, and we dreamed of this moment. It’s just crazy that it’s actually happening.”
Another summer featuring the Patriots preparing a title defense will bring PFR’s third version of this poll. The Patriots are only the third team to book Super Bowl berths in three straight years, joining the Dolphins from 1971-73 and Bills from 1990-93, and again Las Vegas tabs Bill Belichick‘s team as the favorite to win a championship.
In the past two AFC title games, the Pats skated to Super Bowls by razor-thin margins. Their 2019 passing attack features more questions than it has in maybe 13 years, dating back to the days before the arrivals of Randy Moss and later Rob Gronkowski. But until they are defeated, this century’s premier team will be the favorite to represent the AFC in Super Bowls.
The top candidate to dethrone them last year may again fill that role, but the Chiefs have gone through a rather complex offseason. After another dismal defensive season, the Chiefs overhauled their pass rush. They ditched anchors Justin Houston and Dee Ford, along with DC Bob Sutton, in moving to Steve Spagnuolo‘s 4-3 defense. But Frank Clark (35 sacks in four seasons), on a $20.8MM-per-year contract in a deal that cost the Chiefs their first-round pick, is Kansas City’s new edge bastion. It is not certain who will fill the role of K.C.’s No. 2 edge rusher, and high-end interior presence Chris Jones skipped minicamp.
This figures to be Patrick Mahomes‘ final season on his rookie contract, amplifying the importance of 2019 for the Chiefs. A major AFC variable: the status of the reigning MVP’s top receiver. Tyreek Hill is facing a near-certain suspension, or possibly a Chiefs departure, depending on where the NFL’s investigation goes. So the three-time defending AFC West champions’ status is a bit murky at the moment.
Despite the 2018 Chargers winding up on the wrong end of a divisional-round rout in New England, they still possess one of the NFL’s best rosters. As such, the Bolts were relatively quiet in free agency — beyond their Thomas Davis signing. The Chargers still employ the key players responsible for 2018 top-10 rankings on offense and defense and are in line to have Joey Bosa and Hunter Henry healthy in Week 1. The Bolts still lack a comparable home-field advantage compared to their contender peers but compensated last year by going 8-0 outside of Los Angeles.
In returning nearly every starter from last season, the Colts (who have the fourth-best AFC title odds) carry a similar profile to the Bolts. Chris Ballard again resisted major free agency spending, despite his team holding more than $100MM in cap space entering March. Indianapolis did re-sign multiple starters and have a new T.Y. Hilton supporting cast in Devin Funchess, third-rounder Parris Campbell and 2018 draftee Deon Cain, who missed his rookie season. The Colts were No. 2 in weighted DVOA entering their second-round loss last season.
They of one winning season in the past 16, the Browns loaded up this year and hold Bovada’s third-best odds to win the AFC. Odell Beckham Jr., Olivier Vernon, Sheldon Richardson and Kareem Hunt stand to play pivotal roles in Cleveland’s pursuit of its first playoff berth since 2002, and John Dorsey‘s two-offseason overhaul has this roster in much better shape. The Browns do have some questions on their offensive line, and new HC Freddie Kitchens brings only a half-season’s worth of coordinator experience. But this certainly profiles as one of the most fascinating contenders in years.
Vegas predicts the Texans and Ravens will take steps back, after each underwent sweeping 2019 changes. And for the first time in several years, the Steelers (sixth-best odds in the AFC) hover off the top tier. Are oddsmakers sleeping on the perennial contenders? The Steelers made multiple moves (in adding Devin Bush, Steven Nelson and Mark Barron) to patch up their defense but lost arguably this era’s top receiver, whose $21.12MM dead-money number limited them this offseason.
Lastly, what surprise team will emerge? Will the Raiders’ spending spree translate to 2019 success? Will Nick Foles stabilize the Jaguars’ offense enough? Will the collectively rebuilding AFC East prevent another five- or six-win Patriots divisional stroll (and the likelihood of the Pats earning a bye in every season this decade)?
Click below to vote in PFR’s latest poll (link for app users) and weigh in with your AFC thoughts in the comments section.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
“At the end of the day, no matter what team I was on, I tried to serve it to the best of my ability, and I tried to influence my team in a positive manner. I hope I did that,” McCown wrote. “And I made sure that when my number was called, I was prepared, and I gave it everything I had, every time. I may not have turned out to be the franchise quarterback I set out to be back at Cardinals rookie camp, but I’m extremely proud of the career I had.”
McCown didn’t become the face of the Cardinals as he had hoped, but he did enjoy nearly two decades in the NFL while spending time with ten different teams. His journey also included a pit stop in the UFL in 2010, a deal that almost didn’t come to pass when the Bears offered him a contract. Remarkably, McCown declined the opportunity in Chicago and stuck it out with the Hartford Colonials. He later said that the notion of bailing on the commitment “didn’t sit well” with him and he didn’t want to set a bad example for his children in which he would give his “word to somebody until something better comes along and then break that.”
McCown had some memorable moments on the field throughout his career, but he will largely be remembered for his high-character, intense work ethic, and willingness to help groom younger quarterbacks. After starting 13 games for the Jets in 2017, McCown put his ego aside and agreed to return to New York as a mentor for rookie Sam Darnold. Now, McCown will continue to put his football wisdom and knowledge to good use, either as a broadcaster or coach.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
New Browns head coach Freddie Kitchens hired former Buccaneers offensive coordinator Todd Monken for the same role this offseason, but Monken’s transition has reportedly not gone well, according to Mike Silver of NFL.com (Twitter link). In turn, Kitchens has been forced to play a larger than expected role in “spearheading” Cleveland’s offense, per Silver. Kitchens had already been planning to call offensive plays in 2019, so it’s unclear what the issue regarding Monken might be. Speculatively, it’s possible Monken’s Air Raid background hasn’t meshed well with the offense that Kitchens is installing for the Browns.
Here’s more from Cleveland:
- More from Silver, who indicates several Browns veterans weren’t pleased quarterback Baker Mayfield publicly criticized running back Duke Johnson, who is still asking for a trade out of Cleveland. Regarding Johnson, Mayfield said (among other things) “you’re either on this train or you’re not, it’s moving.” An unwritten NFL rule typically dictates that players don’t comment on teammates’ contractual situations, and it sounds like Mayfield was made aware of that concept. Per Silver, Mayfield and the Browns players who disagreed with his comments have “hashed things out.”
- The Browns tried to claim cornerback Montrel Meander off waivers from the Raiders before the Jets beat them to the punch, Ian Rapoport of NFL.com hears (Twitter link). Meander spent most of the 2018 campaign on Cleveland’s practice squad, and will now join former Browns/current Jets defensive coordinator Gregg Williams in New York.
- In case you missed it, the Browns last week added a former Raiders executive to their front office.
This could be the end of the line for Artie Burns‘ career with the Steelers, Ed Bouchette of The Athletic writes (subscription required). The cornerback is due an $800K roster bonus on the first day of training camp, but if he can’t prove himself during minicamp, he’ll likely be released before he can collect that check.
The Steelers had high hopes for Burns after he notched six interceptions in his final season at Miami, but he’s regressed in each of his pro seasons. As a rookie, Burns tied for the team lead with three picks despite starting in only nine games. In 2017, he started in every game, but wasn’t as sharp in coverage and had just one interception. Then, last year, Burns was bumped from the starting lineup and mostly appeared on special teams in the second half of the season. The Steelers already passed on Burns’ fifth-year option for 2020 and they could be on the verge of giving up on him altogether. If they cut him, it’ll be yet another draft disappointment for the team at the cornerback position. As Bouchette notes, the club’s top three corners – Joe Haden, Steven Nelson, and Mike Hilton – all came from outside the draft.
Shifting to the teams that wear orange, here is the latest from the AFC North:
- After acting as the Raiders’ interim GM in the wake of Reggie McKenzie‘s ouster, Shaun Herock did not stick with the Jon Gruden–Mike Mayock regime. But the longtime Oakland exec is expected to land on his feet. Herock is on the verge of joining the Browns, Albert Breer of SI.com tweets. Although Herock spent seven years in Oakland, he worked extensively with John Dorsey in Green Bay. Herock spent nearly two decades as the Packers’ assistant director of college scouting, working directly under Dorsey (the Packers’ college scouting director for most of that span). The Packers made three Super Bowl appearances during the duo’s time running the Pack’s scouting department. Herock will join ex-Green Bay execs Alonzo Highsmith and Eliot Wolf in Cleveland.
- Here’s a bit of a surprise – Paul Dehner Jr. of The Athletic expects the Bengals to use linebacker Preston Brown in a three-down role this year. Brown was limited by injury in 2018, and he was placed on IR in November, but the club opted to bring him back on a one-year, $4MM deal in March. There was some speculation that the Bengals would still look for an upgrade at the middle linebacker position, but it sounds like Brown is primed for a key role on defense.
Sam Robinson contributed to this post.
The Browns have waived tackle Desmond Harrison, according to a team announcement. Harrison joined the Browns as an undrafted free agent last year and went on to start eight games at left tackle, so his release comes as a surprise.
Harrison was released because he was late and even missing appointments with the team, Ian Rapoport of NFL.com (on Twitter) hears. And, when addressing reporters, head coach Freddie Kitchens explained that Harrison missed the start of the team’s mandatory minicamp on Tuesday. Given his talent and inexpensive contract, there’s a high probability of Harrison being claimed off waivers in the next 24 hours.
Harrison, 25, opened the 2018 season as the starter at left tackle before Greg Robinson took over in the second half of the season. This year, Harrison was expected to be a key sub, but the 6’6″ lineman will try to make it work elsewhere. Meanwhile, the Browns will likely turn to Kendall Lamm as their first tackle off of the bench.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
Johnson told reporters that he felt slighted by the Browns’ previous efforts to trade him and wants to be with a team that wants him. He added that he wants a trade sooner rather than later so that he can acclimate to his new club, though he softened things a bit by saying that he’ll still show up to play if he remains in Cleveland.
Johnson, a pass-catching whiz out of the backfield, doesn’t appear to be a major part of the team’s plans this season. Rising sophomore Nick Chubb figures to be the focal point of the team’s running game while new addition Kareem Hunt will take a large share of the carries once his eight-game suspension is through.
Johnson, meanwhile, has averaged roughly 59 catches and 543 yards per season. Even last year when he saw only 40 carries behind Chubb and Carlos Hyde, he still managed 47 grabs for 429 yards.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
Roughly one-quarter of the NFL’s teams have signed every player in their draft class, as shown in PFR’s tracker. The front offices of the following clubs have a little bit less on their plate as mandatory minicamps get underway:
While the league’s rookie slotting system has been criticized by some, there’s no denying that it has streamlined the signing process for the incoming class. Prominent first-round picks like Joey Bosa and Marcus Mariota have squabbled with teams over offset language in recent years and the third round lacks some structure due to flexibility in base salary, but, on the whole, rookies have been quicker to put pen to paper in recent years.
We’ll likely see several more teams wrap up their draft classes before the week is through. The Bills, Bengals, Cowboys, Packers, Texans, Colts, Dolphins, Vikings, Patriots, Seahawks, Titans, and Redskins each have just one straggler remaining. Unsurprisingly, most of those unsigned players are third-rounders. The Vikings are a notable exception – seventh-round pick Austin Cutting is waiting to find out whether the Air Force will permit him to play instead of immediately fulfilling his two-year service requirement.