Three bold predictions for Browns in 2021: Rushing duo accomplishes rare feat en route to division crown

The Cleveland Browns squashed historical doubt surrounding the franchise by winning their first playoff game since 1994-1995. Quarterback Baker Mayfield and his team fell short of their first Super Bowl appearance, however, and that led to big offseason changes. Projecting a playoff victory for the Browns would have been considered a bold prediction a year ago. The improvement of Mayfield and Cleveland ending a playoff drought were two of my three bold predictions entering the 2020 campaign. 

Here are my three bold predictions for the Browns THIS season: 

Cleveland’s offseason additions lead to a top 10 defense

The AFC North franchise finished No. 18 in Football Outsiders weighted DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) last season. In the offseason, the team parted ways with edge rusher Olivier Vernon and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, but signed edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney, defensive tackle Malik Jackson, linebacker Anthony Walker, cornerback Troy Hill and safety John Johnson III. The club doubled down adding Northwestern cornerback Greg Newsome II and Notre Dame linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah in the first and second rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft, respectively. Plus, the team’s last two second round picks, safety Grant Delpit and cornerback Greedy Williams, missed all of last season but are now healthy. The talent is certainly there for the Browns to join the ranks of Tampa Bay, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and others in the top 10.

The offense being grounded in the run game and play-action passing should lead to longer drives and more time between opposing offensive drives for the defense to recover as well.

At the same time, it is naïve to think the ascension would not require a little luck. Health played a role in the secondary’s lack of depth a season ago and the defensive line is relatively vulnerable. The edge rush tandem of Myles Garrett and Clowney looks fantastic on paper but the latter missed eight games and the former has missed at least two games in three of his four seasons. Next man up Takk McKinley has been absent in training camp recently dealing with a personal problem and there is no timeframe for a return. A cobbled unit of Porter Gustin and Curtis Weaver offers a much different outlook for this team. 

It is also common for new additions to take some time adjusting to a scheme and coaching. There is a path for Cleveland to fall short of that top 10 designation but few, if any, would argue that the defense is not in a better place. Kansas City will be introduced to a significantly different defense in Week 1 than the one they bounced in the divisional round of the playoffs.

Run game coordinator and running backs coach Stump Mitchell called his shot last year claiming that the tandem would each rush for 1,000 yards but Hunt fell 159 rushing yards short. He still believes that is possible.

“I think it can happen. You never know. The more toys that Kevin [Stefanski] has, the better he is as a play caller. You never know what’s going on in his mind. It’s always something creative to catch the defense off guard,” Mitchell said. 

There have only been seven instances of two teammates rushing for 1,000 yards in league history. The most recent example can be found in 2019 when Lamar Jackson and Mark Ingram Jr. of the Ravens accomplished the feat. Browns running backs Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner also broke the barrier in 1985. 

It is not totally unrealistic to suggest that the duo might be able to eclipse 3,000 all-purpose yards as well. 

In 2020, Hunt and Chubb combined for 2,362 all-purpose yards despite Chubb missing the first four games of his career. If Chubb had been able to stay healthy, he would have been on pace for 1,724 all-purpose yards over a 17-game season. Combined with Hunt’s pace of 1,162 all-purpose yards, they would have reached 2,886 all-purpose yards. The team could find more efficiency in the second year of Stefanski’s system and another year together for an offensive line that integrated three new starters.   

There are some potential limitations to that goal, however. Cleveland’s rushing attempts (495) already exceeded Minnesota’s (476) in Stefanski’s final season as offensive coordinator. The Browns also faced a month long stretch where inclement weather played a role in limiting their game plan to the ground so it is difficult to see them averaging more rush attempts per game. 

Can the Browns repeat their epic 11-win season? How will Bake Mayfield fare in year No. 4? Download the CBS Sports app to get the latest news out of Cleveland, as well as analysis from our team of football gurus. If you already have the app, make sure to set the Browns as your favorite team for lightning-quick updates.

Browns win the AFC North 

Following the 2020-21 season, the Browns winning the AFC North does not exactly sound like a bold prediction but the franchise has not won the division since its creation in 2002. In fact, Cleveland has not won a division since the days of the AFC Central in 1989. Everyone remembers the season Michael Dean Perry won Defensive Player of the Year under head coach Bud Carson like it was yesterday, right? 

Cleveland enters the regular season projected second (+145) to win the division, according to the Caesars Sportsbook. Baltimore is the favorite (+120) with the Steelers (+400) and Bengals (+2500) completing the divisional outlook. Although the Ravens made some upgrades on offense, their ceiling is dependent upon Lamar Jackson’s effectiveness as a passer, in addition to his availability. Jackson has been mum on his vaccination status — which is his right — but, if he is unvaccinated, then close contact tracing could theoretically cost him two games at a time. Edge rusher Matt Judon is gone from last season’s defense and the Browns made significant upgrades to the defensive backfield in an effort to become more multiple and faster.

As much as I wanted to include a personal achievement for wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. or Garrett, it would have been reckless to gamble on their health history.