Skip to main content

Odell Beckham Jr. has told the Browns he will be present and accounted for when they begin their offseason program on Monday. And here’s the thing—even if Beckham couldn’t make it to Berea in time, that would have been OK, too.

Sound funny? If so, that’s because for players, this part of the NFL calendar—teams with new head coaches may begin offseason workout programs on April 1—is optional to begin with. Beyond that, Freddie Kitchens, the new head coach in Cleveland, understands that because the blockbuster trade for his new star wide receiver happened less than three weeks ago, Beckham had long-standing plans for this phase of his offseason to start on April 15, so he’s had to move things around to allow for his offseason to start two weeks earlier.

In the meantime Kitchens and Beckham have been texting. What’s important to Kitchens isn’t that he and his new star are together physically for a single day in the spring—it’s that they’re connected on another level when it really counts.

“Just like it is with everybody on our football team, he can trust me,” Kitchens said from his office on Friday. “I’m never going to betray their trust. I’m always going to shoot them straight. It’s never going to be ‘undecided’ on where I stand, they’re always going to know that in every situation they’re involved in. And every decision will be based on what’s best for our team.

“At the end of the day, I really truly feel, at the bottom of my heart, that’s all Odell wants. He wants to be able to trust somebody, and he wants somebody to be able to trust him. I think that’s what the kid wants. And that’s what he’s going to get here.”

Beckham’s attendance may be treated as a huge deal by those on the outside, but it won’t be internally by the Browns, as a new era begins. That era, of course, is being ushered with in perhaps the highest expectations Cleveland’s had for its football team since Bill Belichick was coach, which is, at least in part, because Beckham is now there.

We’re locked in for this week’s MMQB. In here, you’ll find:

• Adam Gase’s lessons taken from his 2018 season in Miami, and why it reinforced his belief that culture is such an important piece of team-building, as he gets going with the Jets.

• Breakdowns of the pro days for Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins, Missouri’s Drew Lock, Duke’s Daniels Jones and West Virginia’s Will Grier, through the eyes of coaches and scouts who were there—since we did the same for Kyler Murray’s pro day a few weeks back.

• Details on Greg Schiano’s departure from New England.

• An explanation of why the 2019 quarterback class matches up in an interesting way to the ’14 class.

• Signs that the AAF might be circling the drain.

But today, 2019 starts for the players on rosters of the Browns, Broncos, Dolphins and Buccaneers, all allowed to start early because they have new coaches (the Cardinals, Packers, Bengals and Jets kick off next week). Let’s start there.

All four of those teams have something worth watching right now. For Denver, it’s another turning of the page, behind Vic Fangio and Joe Flacco, in the midst of what’s seemed to be a four-year Super Bowl hangover. For Miami, it’s a total rebuild/buy-in to the type of program its divisional rival to the north has established over 19 years. For Tampa, it’s hope that years of roster-building will be brought to life by forever-young Bruce Arians.

Yet the next two months will be the most interesting in Cleveland.

OBJ Site.jpg

This new era, to be sure, has created an atmosphere far different from what most of us have come to expect out of Northeast Ohio. In skepticism’s place is excitement, holes have been filled with stars, and when we usually hear about long-range plans for the far-off future, we’re now getting go-for-broke urgency.

Beckham and QB Baker Mayfield are part of a youthful base bursting with talent, built on the trove of assets ex-EVP Sashi Brown amassed, and assembled under the old-school eye for talent of GM John Dorsey. And starting Monday, it’s on Kitchens—who began the 2018 season as Cleveland’s running backs coach and was made interim offensive coordinator after Hue Jackson and Todd Haley were fired—to put it all together.

“We’re better on paper than we were last year,” Kitchens says. “That doesn’t mean anything other than, we’re better on paper. I mean this from the bottom of my heart—there are a lot of teams out there that have talent, there are a lot of teams out there that have good players individually. There aren’t a lot of teams out there that play together as a team, where it means something to line up with each other.

“That’s where we’ve got to get to.”

That’s why Kitchens emphasizes building trust with Beckham. No one’s clinching divisions or winning Lombardis in April, but that, between now and when the team breaks for summer in mid-June, is one thing he and his players can do. When Kitchens meets with the guys on Monday, this will be a central aspect of the speech he’s been waiting a lifetime to give: his first as an NFL head coach.

There’ll be tweaks, of course, specific to the 2019 Browns. But the things he’s always planned to say—things he thinks will appeal to Beckham and a lot of other guys and address all the expectations all at once—will be more prevalent.

“None of the voices outside that locker room matter,” Kitchens says. “At some point we need to build relationships in our locker room. I think we did a good job of that during the last part of last year, but no two teams are the same, no two teams stay the same. And the journey starts right now. The journey starts now.  Now, are we going to win a championship in March? No. Are we going to win one April 1? No.

“But what we do collectively starting April 1, as far as forming our team, as far as who they are, and who they want to be identified as, it starts now.”

Of course, there were other things to discuss with Kitchens when we spoke on Friday, in regards to the Browns’ offseason program...

Baker Mayfield’s development

Eagles QB Carson Wentz made a huge leap from 2016 to ’17, when he was the front-runner for NFL MVP before tearing his ACL, and Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes’s saw incredible growth from his last year at Texas Tech to winning league MVP in 2018. Could Mayfield maybe have the same sort of Year 2 breakthrough?

“Every offseason’s critical for each individual for different reasons,” Kitchens says. “But for a quarterback in particular, the time between the last game in college and first breath they get to take is so long. They’re right out of their college season, the draft, they’re in OTAs, into minicamps, into training camp and into the season. After the season is the first time they get to say, ‘What the hell was that?’

“So, of course, it’s a big offseason for him, from the standpoint of revisiting things he can get better at, and continuing to just keep his head down and get better, and seeing where we’re at six, seven months from now, and just continuing to develop as a player and as a leader.”

That said, as we talked, it was clear that Kitchens is ready to position Mayfield in a leadership role.

“Here’s one of the more impressive things, I thought, that carried over to the team: It was the innate ability to block out the noise,” Kitchens says. “Everything happens for a reason, and there was a lot of noise surrounding us last year, especially early on, and even later when people started tooting our horn a little bit. Our ability to block out all that is going to serve us well this year.”

As for how good Mayfield can be, Kitchens says, “I can’t answer that. Hopefully as good as he can possibly be. That’s all we want out of anybody.” But it’s not hard to hear the excitement in the coach’s voice about his quarterback.

The staff’s togetherness

Kitchens, to his credit, didn’t just go and hire old buddies to fill out his staff in Cleveland, instead surrounding himself with experience and credibility. Both OC Todd Monken and DC Steve Wilks have been head coaches (Monken at Southern Miss, Wilks with the Cardinals) and play-calling NFL coordinators. Mike Priefer brings 13 years as an NFL special teams coordinator into that role in Cleveland.

How will all of that fit together? Kitchens told me that to this point he feels fortunate it’s worked out as it has.

“To have these guys on this journey with me is really special,” he says. “One of the main jobs of the head coach is to set the environment of learning and for everyone in getting to know each other. I don’t have all the answers. If I did I wouldn’t need anyone else.”

The makeup of the staff is critical anywhere in the NFL. But it is even more so with a young team full of developing players, which, despite all the expectations, is still what the Browns are.

The storm waters ahead

Every NFL team is undefeated right now, and Kitchens has been around the NFL long enough to know that there’ll be something coming down the pike that’ll present his team with a crossroads before too long. He pointed to his experience as the tight ends coach of the 2008 Cardinals, a team that wound up in the Super Bowl, as proof.

“We had adversity, we were the worst team that ever played in the playoffs, that’s what everyone was saying,” Kitchens says. “Well, our adversity came the next-to-last game of the season, in Foxboro, when we got drilled by New England. They didn’t even make the playoffs, and they drilled us. Our team had to decide right then who we wanted to be. Every team faces adversity.

“We had such a strong bond on that team—offense, defense, special teams, everything. It enabled us to handle the adversity we faced the next to last game of the year. We were equipped to handle that adversity.”

The moral, as Kitchens sees it, lies in how he answered when I asked how good the 2019 Browns can be (similar to how he answered the Mayfield question)— “I don’t know. I don’t know that.” You want his real answer? It goes back to the old Mike Tyson line: Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

“There’s going to be bumps in the road, there are going to be times when people call us out—we’re not good, it’s the same old same old,” Kitchens says. “I promise you this, we’re not going to be the same old same old. Hopefully our team will make the decision when we face that adversity, whenever it is, to decide right then who we’re going to be. You’re not be able to decide it until then.”

That brings us back to Kitchens addressing the players, Beckham included, and all the excitement surrounding his team. Sure, it’s April. But for the people in Cleveland, this has to feel like coming down the stairs and seeing the presents on Christmas day. For his part, Kitchens is pumped for another reason.

“I’m just excited to get everybody back,” Kitchens says. “I’m a football coach, so of course I want football players back and around. But there’s not going to be a Knute Rockne speech on Monday. It’s just part of the process of getting it started. Before you can get to where you want to go, before you can get on that journey, you have to start the journey. This is the start of it.”

As he said himself, no one can tell where all this is going next. What we do know is that, for that particularly team, how they get there probably won’t be boring.

WHAT’S BETTER THAN DRAFT SEASON? PRO DAY SEASON

A few weeks ago, we broke down Kyler Murray’s pro day from a number ofdifferent angles. So this week, I figured we’d turn it around and take a look at the next four guys on the list—Haskins, Lock, Jones and Grier. And to do it, I sought out offensive coaches who were on the ground for those workouts.

Want to hear what they had to say? Of course you do (s/o to my MMQB colleague Gary Gramling, whom I consider a pre-eminent pro day enthusiast) …

AFC assistant on Haskins (March 20): “I thought he threw it very well. … The ball jumped off his hand. What he did that helped him, even though he’s a bigger guy, and he’s not as athletic, he’s a little knock-kneed, whoever ran the workout did a nice job of making him throw off balance. You got a chance to see his feet, he had really good feet. So that was what you take, how good his feet looked, sliding left, sliding right, pushing up in the pocket, he maintained accuracy and solid throwing mechanics. … He walked down the line of scrimmage, talked to receivers, put them in spots. ... Some people liked that interaction. Great to see him lead a little, even if it was a little forced. … I liked the kid to begin with. This guy can rip it, he has a strong arm, and did a nice job throwing the football. And I was more impressed than what saw on tape with his feet for a big guy. … He comes to balance better than any of the [other] quarterbacks in this draft.”