2020 NFL Preview: The Browns better hope all their troubles were due to Freddie Kitchens

Frank Schwab
·11-min read

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2020 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 5.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)

We know how the Freddie Kitchens experiment turned out, but in the moment, the hire made sense.

Kitchens had a fantastic half-season running the Cleveland Browns’ offense in 2018 after taking over as offensive coordinator. Baker Mayfield took off with him calling plays. The Browns took a chance they had unearthed a hidden gem and made Kitchens their new coach. The Browns gambled and lost. It happens.

Kitchens seemed in over his head from the start. His play-calling was criticized endlessly, and he refused to give up the duties. Mayfield regressed to a point that we have to wonder if his record-setting rookie season was an outlier. The Browns lost 43-13 on opening day against the Tennessee Titans, and it never got much better. They finished 6-10.

The thing is, the roster is still as exciting as it was a year ago when the Browns were the popular bandwagon team of the offseason. Cleveland probably got better this offseason with some key additions. There still is plenty of reason for hope, just fewer people buying in. The hope is tied into the idea that Kitchens was the problem.

The Browns fired Kitchens and hired Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski. Incredibly, Stefanski will be the Browns’ ninth coach in 13 seasons, counting 2018 interim coach Gregg Williams.

Stefanski doesn’t have all that much more experience than Kitchens. He took over as the Minnesota Vikings’ coordinator late in the 2018 season. He had never been a coordinator before that. He had a fine 2019 running the Vikings’ offense, but Kitchens was good in 2018. Stefanski has already been lauded for his leadership, though you’ll never lack for overly positive stories in an NFL offseason. We simply don’t know what Stefanski is as a coach until it happens, and that’s scary for a Browns team that has been impossibly bad since returning to the NFL in 1999.

“We are not looking backward, we are looking forward,” Stefanski said at his introductory news conference. “I hope all of our players know that, too. When they walk in the building, whenever it is in April, we are moving forward. Anything that has happened in the past does not affect our future.”

This Browns’ offseason has been devoid of any of the premature bravado of last year. Don’t expect to see the Browns back on Sports Illustrated touting them as contenders.

“I am not going to stand up here and make any bold predictions about what we are going to do this year,” Stefanski said. “I am not going to speak anything into existence right now. I can just promise you that we are going to work.”

On paper, the Browns should be playoff contenders. Mayfield has obvious talent. Not many teams have a group of skill-position players like Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry and Austin Hooper. The offensive line could be one of the NFL’s best. There’s still a lot of highly drafted talent on defense including end Myles Garrett, who was closing in on a $125 million extension. Let’s not forget that most everyone was excited by the Browns’ rebuild a year ago, and the roster might be even better this year.

Then it just comes back to the coach. If Kitchens was the reason a talented roster never took off, and Stefanski is better, the Browns could be a breakout team. However, if the Browns look like they did with Kitchens, and it turns out it wasn’t all the old coach’s fault, then what happens?

Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield hopes to recapture his rookie form. (Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images)
Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield hopes to recapture his rookie form. (Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images)

The Browns made two moves that changed their offensive line from a weakness to a potential strength. They signed former Titans right tackle Jack Conklin to a three-year, $42 million deal. Then they took Jedrick Wills Jr. with the 10th overall pick and plan to use him at left tackle, though he was a right tackle at Alabama. If Wills handles the transition well, the Browns’ line could be pretty good. Former Falcons tight end Austin Hooper was another high-priced addition. The Browns lost linebackers Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey and their linebacker group looks thin, but it’s the NFL and every team has at least one hole. At some point, the Browns’ big spending and high draft picks have to pay off, right?

GRADE: A-

It’s hard to believe someone as good as Baker Mayfield was his rookie year could be a bad NFL quarterback. It’s also hard to believe someone as bad as Mayfield was last season could be a top NFL quarterback. The difference in his two seasons is startling. He set a rookie passing touchdown record and looked like a future star, then last season, his accuracy tanked, his decision making was awful and he looked unsettled in the pocket. It wasn’t all due to the line either; Mayfield was under pressure on 33.4 percent of his dropbacks and that was just 16th worst among 27 qualified quarterbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. What’s troubling is Mayfield — whose accuracy in college was a big reason he was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2018 draft — was last in the NFL with a 69.5 adjusted completion percentage, according to PFF. Poor coaching likely didn’t help, but it’s hard to pin all of Mayfield’s regression on Freddie Kitchens. Maybe Kevin Stefanski’s balanced scheme that’s heavy on play-action will help Mayfield rebound.

I thought my colleague Matt Harmon had the best analysis of Odell Beckham Jr.’s 2019 that I’ve seen, so I’ll let Matt take this one: “Coming into 2019, Odell Beckham was one of the most storied receivers in Reception Perception history. Beckham never finished below the 98th percentile in success rate vs. press coverage in any sampled season and owned two of the three best success rate vs. man coverage marks ever. That came to a crashing halt last year. Beckham’s 68.3 percent success rate vs. man coverage in Cleveland represented a near 10 percentage point drop from his average Giants campaign. He fell below the 45th percentile with a 64 percent success rate vs. press. That’s a stunning fall. It’s so pronounced one has to conclude that Beckham simply was not healthy at any point in 2019. The only question remains is whether he’s lost a step forever or if he’ll return to his prior form. If he does, we know this is one of the most explosive athletes, and refined technicians at the receiver position.”

There’s still some Browns hype at sportsbooks. The Browns’ over/under win total at BetMGM is 8.5, and the over is the favorite at -125. The Browns haven’t finished with nine wins or more since 2007, and only twice since 1999. The talent is obvious and maybe Freddie Kitchens was simply a terrible coach, but it’s still hard to buy into the Browns after last year’s disappointment.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Last year was a great time to buy on Austin Hooper, when the market pretty much ignored him. A strong, profitable fantasy year followed. But now he’s headed to a new team with a much wider distribution tree. Heck, the Browns already had some talent at tight end. Throw in the disjointed nature of the offseason and I’m not making Hooper a proactive pick for 2020. Go for a vanity pick before him, or play the value game after him.”

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Kevin Stefanski has been a coordinator just one full season. In that season, the Vikings were fourth in the NFL in rushing attempts and 30th in pass attempts.

We don’t know yet if Stefanski will be the main play-caller — it could be offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt — but the offense will be Stefanski’s scheme. If the Browns’ offense mirrors what Minnesota did, expect a lot more balance.

If Stefanski wants a run-first offense, the Browns have two quality backs in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Stefanski will likely use the same outside zone running scheme that the Vikings used last year — Stefanski worked with Gary Kubiak last year, and Kubiak has been a master of the scheme going back to his days as Denver Broncos offensive coordinator — and that offense marries the run and pass game well. Kirk Cousins had a big spike in play-action passes last season, and Baker Mayfield likely will this season.

It’s hard to know exactly how the Browns will look on offense, but expect to see a lot of Chubb and Hunt, with Mayfield benefitting from a better run game and more play-action passes.

Hey, remember that Myles Garrett helmet swinging incident?

Given everything that has happened in 2020, Garrett swinging Mason Rudolph’s helmet and hitting him in the head seems like years ago. But it was last season, and Garrett will be coming off a six-game suspension. Garrett had posted 10 sacks in 10 games and is one of the best young defensive ends in the game. It’s hard to know if the controversy and attention from the Rudolph incident will affect Garrett on the field. He’ll be associated with that moment for a long time. But the Browns believe in him, and that’s why reports of an imminent $125 million extension surfaced in mid-July.

“We do see Myles as a long-term member and pillar in our organization,” general manager Andrew Berry said early this offseason, according to Cleveland.com. “Great player, great person. Obviously, he did make a mistake last year that he’s learned from. But our confidence in and faith in Myles has not wavered, and we’re looking [forward] to seeing what he does this year and certainly for years to come.”

Less hype is good for the Browns. They didn’t handle last season well. But the talent is there. Odell Beckham Jr. is still one of the most talented receivers in the league. Baker Mayfield has a pedigree as the first overall pick of the draft and had that great rookie year. Both Browns backs are among the best in the NFL. The defense has legitimate talent. It’s scary to jump back on the bandwagon after what happened last season, but it’s easy to talk yourself into the Browns having a huge breakout. If Kevin Stefanski was the right hire, maybe the Browns can be a playoff team.

By now we all know the Browns’ sad quarterback history. It looked like they had finally found an answer during Baker Mayfield’s rookie season. What if Mayfield’s third year looks way too much like his 2019? It’s hard to believe Mayfield’s rookie year was a fluke, but it would be heartbreaking if Mayfield isn’t the franchise QB that Cleveland has chased for a long time. And if Mayfield struggles again, it’s hard to see the Browns posting a winning season. Starting over at quarterback after what Mayfield did in 2018 would be painful.

I picked the Browns to win the AFC North last season. Yeah, I got caught up in the hype. I worry I’m going too far the other way this season, and picking them to finish under .500. This is not a 7-9 roster. However, it’s hard to shake the thought that the Browns are doomed to be bad at football forever. Cleveland winning big could end up being the best story in the NFL this season, and I think it would be fun to watch unfold, but I have to see results before I buy in again.

32. Jacksonville Jaguars
31.
Washington Football Team
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Cincinnati Bengals
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Carolina Panthers
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New York Giants
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Detroit Lions
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New York Jets
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Atlanta Falcons
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Miami Dolphins
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Las Vegas Raiders
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Los Angeles Chargers
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Houston Texans
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Arizona Cardinals
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Minnesota Vikings
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Chicago Bears
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Los Angeles Rams
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Cleveland Browns
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Pittsburgh Steelers
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Denver Broncos
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Indianapolis Colts
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Philadelphia Eagles
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Seattle Seahawks
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Green Bay Packers
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New England Patriots
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Tennessee Titans
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Dallas Cowboys
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San Francisco 49ers
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New Orleans Saints
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Baltimore Ravens