Believe it or not, I think the Cleveland Browns actually have a solid plan and won't be an NFL laughingstock much longer. Oh, this year for sure. But they have some very smart guys in their analytical front office, and finally ownership appears to be letting those guys do their job instead of butting in.
By most accounts, the Browns had a very good 2017 draft, landing the likes of Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett, Michigan defensive back/linebacker Jabril Peppers and Miami (Fla.) tight end David Njoku. They also have a ton of picks in 2018, including five of the first 64. Cleveland has its first-round selection, which will be very high, plus Houston's thanks to the Deshaun Watson draft pick trade. In the second round, the Browns once again hold their own pick, plus Houston's selection. That one is from the Brock Osweiler deal, where Cleveland acquired both the pick and the player. The Browns also own Philadelphia's 2018 second-round pick from the draft-day trade that landed Carson Wentz from Philly.
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As with any NFL team, the Browns' future success will be determined by the quarterback. They took Notre Dame's DeShone Kizer in Round 2 this year and some think that was a steal. Others a reach. The talent is there, but Kizer reportedly isn't a great leader and can be a bit lazy. It remains to be seen if he can beat out Osweiler or second-year Cody Kessler for the starting job in camp. Kizer probably gets on the field at some point in 2017.
Will the franchise give Hue Jackson a fair shot? He's the second-favorite at sportsbooks to be the first coach fired, and that would be truly unfair because the Browns had no illusions of winning last year on the way to finishing 1-15. I'm sure the front office would like to see a few more victories in 2017, but landing the top overall pick in the 2018 draft could set this team up for years if it can land someone like USC QB Sam Darnold at that spot (if Kizer isn't the answer). Then suddenly this isn't the Factory of Sadness any longer.
Cleveland was 0-8 on the road last season (only winless team), 2-5-1 against the spread and 6-2 "over/under." The Browns travel to three playoff teams in 2017: Houston, Detroit and Pittsburgh. I'd say the home slate is a bit tougher. I project a 1-7 road record. Not a single prime-time game on the Browns' schedule this year. Odds listed for the home team .
Sept. 17 at Ravens (-9.5): Cleveland off being the biggest Week 1 underdog vs. Pittsburgh. It's just the second time in franchise history the Browns will open the season with back-to-back AFC North opponents, the last coming in 2007. Cleveland lost 28-7 in Baltimore on a Thursday in Week 10 last year. The Browns had 144 yards and three turnovers. Key betting trend: Browns 7-3 ATS in past 10 as road dog of at least 7 in series.
Sept. 24 at Colts (-9.5): First dome game of the year. If you put Andrew Luck on the 2017 Browns, I think they win at least six games. Cleveland is 0-2 vs. Luck, losing the last meeting in December 2014, 25-24 at home. Key betting trend: Browns 3-6-1 ATS in past 10 at AFC South teams.
Oct. 15 at Texans (-9.5): Browns off what might be their lone win of 2017, home vs. the Jets in Week 5. Will it be Osweiler under center against his former Houston team? Will the Browns get a look at Watson, a guy I think they should have taken, or will it be Tom Savage starting for Houston? Key betting trend: Browns 3-7 ATS in past 10 as an October dog of at least 7.5 points.
Nov. 12 at Lions (-8.5): Cleveland comes off its bye week. Last dome game of year. The Lions and Browns are two of the four active franchises to never reach a Super Bowl, along with the Texans and Jaguars. Cleveland plays all three. Key betting trend: Browns 4-4-2 ATS in past 10 after bye week (any location).
Nov. 26 at Bengals (-8.5): The Browns host the Jaguars the previous Sunday. Cleveland has dropped five straight in this series, all by at least 13 points. It was 31-17 at Cincinnati in Week 7 a year ago. The Browns allowed 559 yards of offense. Kessler left in the second quarter injured and Kevin Hogan replaced him. He was awful passing but rushed for 104 yards and a TD. Key betting trend: Browns 3-4-1 ATS all-time as at least 7-point road dog in series.
Dec. 3 at Chargers (-7): This is the only 4:05 p.m. ET game on Cleveland's schedule. The Browns avoided 0-16 last year thanks to a 20-17 home win over the nothing-to-play for Chargers in Week 16. The Browns avoided becoming the second team to go 0-15. Defensive tackle Jamie Meder blocked a potential tying field goal with 3:49 left. Key betting trend: Browns 7-2-1 ATS in past 10 at AFC West teams.
Dec. 24 at Bears (-4.5): This could be the lone road win I project. The Browns are off a Week 15 game vs. Baltimore. Of course Cleveland opted not to take North Carolina QB Mitchell Trubisky at No. 1 overall this year and could be facing him here. These two teams also close the preseason in Chicago. Key betting trend: Browns 7-2-1 ATs in past 10 as road favorite (just wanted to see when it last happened - 2014 - as it's possible they could be favored here).
Dec. 31 at Steelers (TBA): As usual, no Week 17 lines with too many intangibles. It's the first time since 1963 and fourth time in franchise history the Browns will open and close the year against the same opponent. This marks the seventh time in eight years Cleveland has closed in Pittsburgh. It was a 27-24 OT loss last year with the Steelers resting many starters. The Browns fumbled inside the Pittsburgh 5 with a minute to go in regulation. Key betting trend: Browns 4-5-1 ATS (0-10 SU) in past 10 as road dog in series.
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