State of the AFC North: Browns out to Prove Themselves in 2020

Donnie Druin

Team: Cleveland Browns
Head Coach: Kevin Stefanski
2019 Record: 6-10
2020 Strength of Schedule: 29th
Key Losses: LB Joe Schobert, LB Christian Kirksey, S Damarious Randall 
Key Additions: QB Case Keenum, T Jack Conklin, TE Austin Hooper, S Karl Joseph, DL Andrew Billings, T Jedrick Wills, S Grant Delpit

With just one playoff appearance since their return to Cleveland in 1999, the Browns haven't quite known success akin to the Paul Brown era years ago. 

However, with a franchise quarterback, a plethora of talent across the board and a new head coach, Cleveland appears to be turning the corner. It's currently tough sledding to compete in the AFC North, with the Baltimore Ravens close to a championship and the Pittsburgh Steelers believing they'll be back in the playoff picture. 

The Browns have the talent to hang, but will they put the pieces to the puzzle together? 

Pete Smith, editor of Sports Illustrated's Browns Digest, gave me his two cents on Cleveland's outlook for 2020. From COVID-19 putting Cleveland at a disadvantage to slaying the dragon that is Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers, Smith sees 2020 as a potential year of growth on both sides of the ball in Cleveland.

Follow Pete on Twitter @_PeteSmith_ for more Browns content.

Donnie - The Browns haven't finished above .500 since 2007. What's the feeling around the team heading into this season?

Pete - The team is focusing entirely on work. After last year where they thought they were good, but weren't, they are taking the opposite approach. They aren't afraid to acknowledge they have talent, but as Nick Chubb noted an interview with Jim Rome discussing last season, "Hard work beats talent when talent don't work." It helps there's no hype to really buy with them, but they are out to prove themselves, much in the way they did the second half of 2018.

Donnie - What are the expectations for Kevin Stefanski heading into 2020? is there belief that he's a better suit for the job than Freddie Kitchens? 

Pete - The expectations vary. There are plenty who once again expect the Browns to be in the playoffs, which is certainly possible, but may not be realistic. In a perfect world, they would have had OTAs and minicamps and it would still be difficult for a rookie head coach to come in and win immediately. Kevin Stefanski is stepping into a good situation, but is forced to work at a disadvantage in terms of on-field work. Teams just in the AFC North such as the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers will be far less impacted by a loss in practice as opposed to a team like the Browns or Cincinnati Bengals.

Specifically as it relates to Stefanski, people are confident. He comes off very well. Smart, prepared, he's clear in what he wants to do and doesn't worry about anything else. Stefanski has to prove it and undoubtedly some of the confidence is born out of the fact that people feel he can't possibly be worse than Freddie Kitchens. There's also a track record with Stefanski, particularly offensively that makes people feel good about what he can be.Anything else is a bonus.

Donnie - The Browns went through another solid offseason with additions such as Jedrick Wills and Grant Delpit among a slew of free agents. Who's the newest member of the Browns that you think can right the ship?

Pete - Jack Conklin is a huge addition. Just specifically dealing with the Pittsburgh Steelers, it's the difference between Chris Hubbard blocking T.J. Watt. Given what the Browns appear to want to do with their wide zone scheme, which seemingly would be a lot of running to the left and rolling to the right, Conklin is going to be important. 

The upgrade in the running game is important as well, so that the Browns can keep players like Watt off guard when it comes to being forced to honor the running game of Nick Chubb. Conklin should also help what will be the biggest question to be answered on the line at right guard. Whoever wins that job, likely Wyatt Teller or Drew Forbes, will be flanked by quality veterans J.C. Tretter and Conklin, effectively upgrading two positions in one. 

Conklin is not a superstar, but he's a good player who is going to be coached by Bill Callahan. And for the Browns, Callahan could potentially make the type of difference that Mike Munchak made in Pittsburgh for so many years.

Donnie - On the Pittsburgh side of things, it feels like the rivalry between the two teams was reignited last season. Does Cleveland feel the same way? 

Pete - The Pittsburgh Steelers are the dragon the Browns need to slay. And beating them with Mason Rudolph last year was obviously almost completely rendered a loss with the brawl that took place at the end of the game. Beyond that, Rudolph simply isn't Ben Roethlisberger. He has dominated the Browns for years while the Browns have been far more capable of giving the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals the occasional defeat, including last year, one of Baltimore's only two regular season losses. Whether anyone wants to acknowledge it or not, beating the Steelers at full strength is a big deal for the Browns. And it needs to be.

Donnie - Do those in Cleveland see Pittsburgh as a potential threat this season in the AFC?

Pete - Not as much as they probably should. Ben Roethlisberger in particular has always been this whale-sized vampire. When they've had him at a disadvantage, he's found a way to come snatch victory from the jaws of victory. They look like they broke his leg in a game where he came back and played the second half with what turned out to be a high-ankle sprain and the Steelers defeated the Browns. 

It seems like with the loss of some of the star power the Steelers have experienced including Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell and most recently Javon Hargrave, there's a belief that the Steelers are getting weaker. And while they may be, they revamped their tight end position to be uniquely problematic, enabling their wide receivers to be a different animal offensively all while getting Roethlisberger and James Conner back healthy. 

And the combination of Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Watt is the best three-man tandem of defensive linemen in the division, possibly the the league.

Donnie - In your opinion, what do the Browns have to consider this season a success? 

Pete - I think 8-8 is successful. They cannot be worse than they were last year. They must improve. It remains to be seen just how much of an impact COVID-19 truly has, but it's already impacting the Browns. They open the season on the road in Baltimore. Despite the fact the Browns beat the Ravens last year, it's impossible not to see how this game isn't heavily in the Ravens favor. Few roster changes, no meaningful coaching changes, they are largely trying to just take what they had last year, add to it and get a Super Bowl. 

The Browns are installing a new offense, new defense and adding a ton of new players to the team. I could envision a scenario where the Browns come out somewhat slowly in the beginning, gaining steam as they get more reps and opportunities to gel on the field and then becoming a real problem at the end of the year. And if that slow start only allows them to get 8-8, but the final game of the season is with a playoff spot on the line for the Browns, that would be a productive season. 

That would at least theoretically set them up to go into a normal offseason, adding talent to the mix and then potentially making a bigger move as a contender.

Donnie Druin is a Staff Writer at AllSteelers. Follow Donnie on Twitter @DonnieDruin, and AllSteelers @si_steelers.

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