As I left the NFL combine on March 2, a longtime NFL beat writer said, “See you at the Super Bowl,” and I laughed.
It’s not that I didn’t believe 10 days ago that Browns General Manager John Dorsey could build a championship contender. But this friend was talking about the 2020 Super Bowl.
His suggestion didn’t seem like a joke Tuesday night when Dorsey pulled off the blockbuster move he had hedged on in Indianapolis, agreeing to send the 17th and 95th picks in this year’s draft and strong safety Jabrill Peppers to the New York Giants for three-time Pro Bowl receiver Odell Beckham Jr.
The champagne-popping — or more appropriately for Cleveland, an early start on green beer — should wait until the trade becomes finalized, which can’t happen until the beginning of the league year at 4 p.m. Wednesday.
But if Tuesday night’s deal comes to fruition, Dorsey righted the wrongs of the eight previous Browns general managers who have come before him since 1999. In one fell swoop, he supported his quarterback.
Not that the previous 29 to start a game for the Browns before Baker Mayfield were capable of building a franchise around. But those who had potential were doomed by bad offensive lines, an inadequate receiving corps or the lack of a running back with breakaway speed. The assistants with whom they worked on a daily basis were thrown together at the last minute because of constant firings of the head coach. The schemes never seemed to fit what the quarterbacks did best, at least not until Freddie Kitchens was promoted to offensive coordinator for the final eight games last season and earned the coaching job.
Now, barring injuries and more trades, Mayfield will take the field for the season opener with running back Nick Chubb, receivers Beckham, Jarvis Landry and Antonio Callaway, tight end David Njoku and four-fifths of the Browns’ 2018 starting offensive line.
Until Dorsey made Mayfield the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft, the best Browns’ starting quarterback since 1999 was Tim Couch (1999-2003), battered into retirement by 166 sacks in 62 games. The most talented wide receiver was Josh Gordon, but substance abuse issues and suspensions limited him to 41 games. The best running back was Jamal Lewis, who gave them 1,300- and 1,000-yard seasons before age and concussions caught up to him. Now Dorsey has stacked an offense around Mayfield with players who may make those who came before them just names from the past.
There may be concerns about who will replace Peppers, but what the Browns gave up for Beckham was shockingly little. Peppers’ athleticism has never been questioned, but he seemed more like a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. No offense to Giants defensive coordinator James Bettcher, but it might take a creative mind like Bill Belichick to unlock Peppers’ true potential.
It is a weak draft for wide receivers. The third-rounder the Browns gave up came from the New England Patriots in the Danny Shelton trade.
Taking on Beckham and the five-year, $90 million contract he signed in August does not seem as risky since he’s 26 and in the prime of his career.
The Browns also saw a window of opportunity in the AFC North. The Steelers, led by 37-year-old quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, are losing receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell. The Bengals have a new coach in Zac Taylor, who will attempt to win a playoff game for the first time in the Andy Dalton era. The Ravens are designing an offense for Lamar Jackson, who has started eight games (including one in the playoffs) and must prove a running quarterback can survive in the NFL.
Some may fear the diva factor with Beckham, perhaps one of the reasons Giants GM Dave Gettleman and coach Pat Shurmur (the ex-Browns coach) gave up on him. But Beckham is being reunited with former LSU teammate Landry and receivers coach Adam Henry, offering Beckham a support system the Giants didn’t have.
Expectations that were already soaring for Mayfield’s first full season will now be off the charts. Jim Nantz of CBS might soon seem like the Browns’ regular play-by-play man. The mania might be too much to handle, especially for Kitchens, never a head coach at any level.
But as Dorsey surrounded his franchise quarterback with the talent that his predecessors failed to collect, a farewell 10 days ago didn’t feel all that farfetched.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.