BEREA — Rashard Higgins knows Baker Mayfield better than any other Browns wide receiver knows the quarterback, so when the man nicknamed "Hollywood" notices something about Mayfield, it matters.

"I feel like he's more confident," Higgins said after the Browns practiced Wednesday to gear up for their regular-season opener Sunday against the Tennessee Titans. "He's more confident in knowing what he's doing. Pre-snap, he's re-[identifying] the whole defense, little things like that, and it's going to take us a long way this year."

For the Browns to live up to the hype, Mayfield must take the next step in his career and deliver the 20 to 25% improvement General Manager John Dorsey has said he expects to see in the quarterback's second NFL season. Higgins is among those who have been encouraged by Mayfield's development all offseason.

Despite being the No. 1 overall draft pick last year, Mayfield spent the early stages of the regular season as Tyrod Taylor's backup.

"It’s definitely different going into this week knowing that I’m starting the game," Mayfield said. "Last year, I prepared like I was going to play, though.

"But the game has definitely slowed down for me, so preparation’s been different."

Mayfield outlined where he hopes to grow the most.

"A big problem last year was turnovers and sacks early in the season, so in general, eliminating negative plays early on and taking care of the ball and getting it out quickly," said Mayfield, who went 6-7 as a starter last season for the 7-8-1 Browns and completed 63.8% of his passes for 3,725 yards and an NFL rookie record 27 touchdowns with 14 interceptions and a rating of 93.7.

Everyone will be watching to see whether the connection between Mayfield and new Browns superstar receiver Odell Beckham Jr. is on point after Beckham sat out team drills for most of training camp and rested in all four preseason games with a minor hip injury. Mayfield is in the Beckham's-limited-reps-won't-hinder-their-chemistry camp.

"I didn’t take a snap with Jarvis [Landry] all last year during the preseason," Mayfield said, "so, yeah, it’s probably pretty overblown."

Still, with all 53 players on the active roster practicing together this week, it's a significant change.

"In a lot of ways, it looked like a totally different team," Browns coach Freddie Kitchens said. "We still have to take it to the game on Sunday.

"We have to make sure all of our bases are covered, and that's our job [as coaches] to do that — prepare our guys to go out and play the very best that they can without the fear of failure. I want them to go out and just lay it out there on the line every snap, every series, all the way until the clock strikes zeros."

Here's another narrative Mayfield isn't buying: It'll be difficult for him to distribute the ball enough to keep Beckham, Landry, Higgins, running back Nick Chubb and tight end David Njoku happy.

"I have full confidence in all of our guys, all of our playmakers, skill position guys, that if they have one-on-ones, they should be licking their chops because they should all take that as disrespect," Mayfield said. "But that’s the type of team that we have, and we need to take advantage of it."

The opener has been highly anticipated since at least March 12, when Dorsey pulled off a trade with the New York Giants for Beckham.

"I’m very excited to see what we can do, what we’re capable of doing out there," Mayfield said. "[Facing the Titans will present] a lot of matchups that we need to take advantage of, a numbers game, and seeing how they’re going to play us and be able to adjust off of that."

The Titans return nine of 11 defensive starters from last season, when they went 9-7. They're led by All-Pro free safety Kevin Byard and four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jurrell Casey.

Akron native Mike Vrabel, their second-year head coach and a Walsh Jesuit High School graduate, sized up Mayfield this way during a conference call: "He's a talented, confident player that's accurate, a quick release, throws the deep ball well and is mobile. Those are all things tough to defend, and when you combine them into one player, that's our challenge."

The Titans finished last season ranked eighth in fewest yards (333.4) and third in fewest points (18.9) allowed a game.

"They're a bend-but-don't-break team," Higgins said. "They try to make us make the mistakes on our own. So it's up to us not to beat ourselves."

Byard is known for creating turnovers. Last season, he tied for the NFL lead with eight interceptions and led the league with 10 takeaways (he also recovered two fumbles). Byard played the Browns once in 2017 and had three interceptions (two off DeShone Kizer and one off Cody Kessler).

"His veteran leadership skills and recognizing concepts to where he can get in certain spots and roam free [allows him to play well]," Mayfield said. "Him being surrounded by some of the best in the league helps as well, but he’s a playmaker. He’s always around the ball."

Avoiding Byard's traps would help the Browns boost their chances of winning their first opener since 2004. Three of their next four games after Week 1 will be on the road.

"Getting off to a good start for us is important," Mayfield said. "We have a pretty tough first half of the season looking at the schedule. We have singular focus of taking care of business one week at a time, so the focus is on the Titans right now."

 

Nate Ulrich can be reached at nulrich@thebeaconjournal.com. Read his Browns coverage at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ByNateUlrich and on Facebook www.facebook.com/abj.sports.