This is part three of a four part series for all four teams in the AFC North.
It is the rookies versus the veterans this year in the AFC North. Rookie head coaches Freddie Kitchens for the Cleveland Browns and Zac Taylor for the Cincinnati Bengals will be looking to battle playoff experienced coaches Mike Tomlin for the Pittsburgh Steelers and John Harbaugh for the Baltimore Ravens this season. With Ben Roethlisberger nearing the end of his career and Andy Dalton’s future in question, can Baker Mayfield as well as Lamar Jackson compete for the AFC North crown in their sophomore years in the NFL?
With the regular season almost here, each AFC North team has questions to answer on both sides of the football. I will give my opinion on two questions for each team (one concerning the offense, one concerning the defense) to keep an eye on during the regular season this year.
- How will Baker Mayfield perform this season with Freddie Kitchens as his new head coach and can Odell Beckham Jr. team up with Jarvis Landry to form one of the NFL’s best receiving duos this year?
When Freddie Kitchens was the Cardinals tight ends coach during their run to Super Bowl XLIII, Baker Mayfield was just beginning his prolific high school career at Lake Travis High School (a 20 mile drive from Texas Tech University). Seven years later, Kitchens turned Carson Palmer into a Pro Bowl quarterback during Arizona’s run to the 2015 NFC Championship while Mayfield was named a first team All-American in his first season at Oklahoma after sitting out the 2014 season due to his transfer from Texas Tech. Last year, Kitchens as well as Mayfield turned the Browns offense into one of the NFL’s most surprising stories in 2018 and this season, they are ready to compete for Cleveland’s first winning season in 12 years.
With Kitchens entering his first season as an NFL head coach, Baker Mayfield will have to adjust to his new offensive coordinator, Todd Monken, and learn the system that he used with Jameis Winston in Tampa Bay. But, Mayfield has a lot of offensive talent around him including running back Nick Chubb, tight end David Njoku, an experienced offensive line, and a pair of wide receivers ready to form one of the NFL’s best receiving duos in 2019.
During the 2013 college football season, the LSU Tigers had one of the NCAA’s best receiving duos in Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr., who teamed up to form the Tigers first wide receiver set to have over 1,000 receiving yards in a season. After Landry was drafted by the Dolphins and Beckham was drafted by the Giants in the 2014 NFL Draft, both of their careers got off to a fast start as Landry earned four Pro Bowl honors in Miami while Beckham earned three Pro Bowl honors in New York while winning the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2014. However, despite their individual accomplishments, Landry and Beckham could not win a playoff game in their only appearances during the 2016 postseason.
But, after Beckham was traded from New York to Cleveland this offseason, the Browns have a chance to form their first pair of 1,000+ yard receivers since Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow teamed up in 2007. With Rashard Higgins as well as Antonio Callaway returning after their productive campaigns in 2018, Cleveland’s wide receiver unit could be one of the best in the NFL this year.
- Can Greedy Williams as well as Denzel Ward form one of the NFL’s best young cornerback duos and how will Steve Wilks perform in his first year as the Browns new defensive coordinator?
In the fall of 2014, Greedy Williams and Denzel Ward were four star high school recruits who led their respective high schools to the state championship game (Williams played at Calvary Baptist High School in Shreveport, Louisiana while Ward played at Nordonia High School in Macedonia, Ohio). Over the next three years, Williams and Ward slowly developed into the best cornerbacks in the NCAA with Greedy earning first team All-SEC selections in 2017 as well as 2018 at LSU while Denzel was named a first team All-American in 2017 at Ohio State. After Ward enjoyed a Pro Bowl season in his first year in Cleveland, the Browns front office used their 2nd round draft pick in the 2019 NFL Draft to select Williams to strengthen their secondary unit.
With Williams and Ward providing some youth to the Browns veteran secondary unit, Steve Wilks has a lot of talent to work with this season after his termination from Arizona last year following a 3-13 record in his first stint as a head coach. But, Wilks is ready to prove the Cardinals wrong as he prepares for his second stint as a defensive coordinator in the NFL.
After working as a defensive assistant/coordinator and head coach for seven different NCAA teams from 1995-2004, Wilks earned his first coaching stint in the NFL as the Washington Redskins secondary coach in 2005 under Hall of Fame head coach Joe Gibbs. Over the next 13 years, Wilks developed some of the best cornerbacks/safeties in the NFL including Sean Taylor in Washington, Charles Tillman in Chicago, Eric Weddle in San Diego, Josh Norman in Carolina, and Patrick Peterson in Arizona. This year, Wilks could have one of the NFL’s best secondary units with experienced safeties Morgan Burnett and Eric Murray joining Ward, Williams, and Damarious Randall in Cleveland.
With a young linebacker corps also developing under Pro Bowl linebacker Joe Schobert and a talented defensive line led by Pro Bowl defensive end Myles Garrett as well as free agent Pro Bowl signings Olivier Vernon and Sheldon Richardson, Steve Wilks could have one of the top defenses in the AFC in 2019.
2019-20 NFL PREDICTION
With the Browns schedule consisting of teams in the AFC East and NFC West this season, Cleveland will have one of the toughest schedules in the NFL and have a record of 11-5. The Browns offense could be one of the league’s best this year, but Baker Mayfield has to develop into the leader that Cleveland has been waiting for so long and Freddie Kitchens as well as Todd Monken could help Mayfield accomplish that goal.
The Browns defense also could develop into one of the NFL’s best this year, but Steve Wilks’ experience is a concern for me due to his lack of experience in coaching linebackers/defensive ends. But, Cleveland has a lot of talented players on their defense and they will be ready to perform under Wilks and his coaching staff this season.