Expectations soar in Cleveland after 2021 playoff appearance

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CLEVELAND BROWNS (12-6)

CAMP SITE: Berea, Ohio

LAST YEAR: Finally, the breakthrough. Despite a lack of traditional offseason due to the COVID-19 pandemic, first-year coach Kevin Stefanski helped the Browns end 18-year playoff drought. Then, with Stefanski quarantined after testing positive for the coronavirus, Cleveland beat rival Pittsburgh in the wild-card round for its first postseason win since 1994. The Browns lost to Kansas City in the divisional round. Quarterback Baker Mayfield rebounded from a concerning 2019 season and solidified himself as the franchise’s long-term answer by throwing 31 touchdown passes (including playoffs) and displaying needed maturity and leadership. Running back Nick Chubb rushed for 1,067 yards and scored 12 TDs despite missing four games with a knee injury. Cleveland’s offense carried the team despite losing star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to a season-ending knee injury in Week 7.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: DE Jadeveon Clowney, LB Anthony Walker, S John Johnson III, CB Troy Hill, DT Andrew Billings, DE Takk McKinley, rookie CB Greg Newsome II, rookie LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, DT Malik Jackson.

IMPORTANT LOSSES: DT Sheldon Richardson, DT Larry Ogunjobi, DE Olivier Vernon, LB B.J. Goodson, S Karl Joseph, S Andrew Sendejo.

CAMP NEEDS: The Browns picked up the fifth-year contract option on Mayfield, who could get an extension this summer. His situation could become a distraction if not resolved quickly – or if he struggles early. Chubb, CB Denzel Ward and RG Wyatt Teller also are eligible for long-term deals. Beckham has made a quick recovery and appears to be full go for workouts, but may be limited early in training camp. The defense has been revamped and could have nine new starters, with a focus on communication and getting up to speed with coordinator Joe Woods’ system.

KEY CAMP COMPETITIONS: The Browns selected Newsome because he was one of the top cornerbacks in the 2021 class and as protection in case Greedy Williams doesn’t come back from a shoulder nerve injury that sidelined him all last season. A daily head-to-head battle between Williams and Newsome would be interesting.

EXPECTATIONS: Sky-high. Loaded with offensive weapons, one of league’s best lines, and a revamped defense led by All-Pro end Myles Garrett has made the Browns legitimate AFC title contenders. Mayfield could take another step in his second season with Stefanski, voted AP Coach of the Year. Cleveland’s 1-2 punch with Chubb and Kareem Hunt gives the offense unique balance. This team collapsed under the weight of huge expectations in 2019, and we’ll see if the lessons were learned. The schedule will be tougher starting with a playoff rematch with the Chiefs in the opener.

FANDUEL SUPER BOWL ODDS: +1600

More AP NFL coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP-NFL

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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