The Browns are legit wild-card sleepers

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Browns' future starts with Mayfield and Ward (0:57)

Field Yates breaks down Cleveland's first-round haul with QB Baker Mayfield and CB Denzel Ward. (0:57)

This might be hard for anyone born after 1960 to believe, but the Cleveland Browns used to be good.

In fact, they once were a powerhouse. Their dominance between their inaugural season in 1946 and 1955 makes Bill Belichick's New England Patriots look less like a dynasty and more like a -- cue the air quotes -- "dynasty." Cleveland won 10 consecutive division titles and made the championship game every year over that stretch. The Browns won seven championships and added one more in 1964, trailing only the Green Bay Packers (13) and Chicago Bears (9) on the all-time list.

Needless to say, they haven't been quite as good since. Cleveland had its first-ever winless season last year, hasn't been to the playoffs since 2002 and has failed to eclipse five wins in 10 of the past 12 seasons.

Of course, all teams start the season at 0-0. And it was quite the offseason for Cleveland. The Browns were busy making trades, signing impact players and, thanks to former general manager Sashi Brown, scooping up top-end prospects in the draft.

As the Oakland Raiders and Jacksonville Jaguars showed us in 2016 and 2017, a franchise's fortunes can change in an instant. The 2018 Browns won't remind you of Paul Brown's dominant squads of 70 years ago, but this is a team primed for a big step forward and, with a few breaks, very well could shock the world and snag eight or nine wins and a wild-card berth.


The new guy under center

It all starts at quarterback. Tyrod Taylor is far from a superstar, but he's a solid presence, which is more than can be said about Cleveland's recent quarterback situation. He has shortcomings as a passer, but does two things extremely well: avoids turnovers and makes plays with his legs.

The first is perhaps the most important and certainly the most-overlooked improvement for Cleveland in 2018. Turnovers matter. A lot.

A look back at the past decade shows a strong correlation between turnover margin and wins. The 46 teams that have won 12-plus games in a single season during that span averaged a plus-9.8 turnover margin, and only four of the 46 had a negative margin. On the flip side, the average margin of the 26 teams that have won fewer than four games over the past decade is negative-10.5 and only one team had a positive margin. For my fellow stat nerds, the r-squared between turnover margin and wins is 0.43 over that span. For non-stat nerds, that essentially means 43 percent of a team's win total can be determined by its turnover ratio. That's a huge number.

So why is this important? Cleveland fans know turnovers have been a problem for some time, but that was especially the case in 2017. The Browns' 41 turnovers were seven more than any other team. They led the NFL with 28 interceptions, which translated to a negative-28 turnover margin that was significantly worse than the next-closest team (Denver minus-17). The Browns have had one of the league's five worst turnover margins each of the past three seasons. Comparatively, Taylor's Buffalo Bills ranked no worse than seventh in turnover ratio and were bottom six in interceptions each of his three seasons. And yes, that includes last year's infamous "Nate Peterman game" in Los Angeles.

DeShone Kizer handled a majority of Cleveland's quarterback snaps as a rookie last season, and to say he struggled would be a massive understatement. He was picked off 22 times (six more than any other quarterback) and was off-target on 23 percent of his throws (second worst).

Enter Taylor.

The 28-year-old former Virginia Tech star racked up 65 touchdowns while throwing only 16 interceptions in his three-year stint in Buffalo. His 1.0 percent interception rate was best in the NFL last season, and his 1.3 percent rate over the past three trails only some guy named Tom Brady for best in the league. There are reasons why teams short on roster talent can sneak into a playoff spot (like the 2017 Taylor-led Bills and recently Alex Smith-led Chiefs). And limiting turnovers is the primary one.

Taylor also is exceptional at making plays with his legs. A terrific athlete, Taylor has racked up at least 400 rushing yards and four scores in each of the past three seasons and is averaging a healthy 5.6 yards per carry over that span. He ranks second to only Cam Newton at the position in carries, rushing yardage and rushing touchdowns over the past three years.

Taylor rarely lights up defenses through the air and occasionally struggles with accuracy, but trailing only Brady in interceptions and being second only to Newton in rushing prowess is pretty darn good.

Taylor is expected to be under center for most of 2018, but if first overall pick Baker Mayfield proves to be so good that he snags the job, that's just more good news for Cleveland's chances. If the offense is in solid shape with Taylor, that would launch the unit even further.


That new guy under center has help

Taylor spent the first five years of his career as Joe Flacco's backup in Baltimore and the past three as the starter in Buffalo. And yet, he'll easily enjoy the best supporting cast of his career in Cleveland. Seriously.

It starts with the offensive line. The elephant in the room is the retirement of superstar left tackle Joe Thomas, which leaves the team a bit shaky with 2016 third-round pick Shon Coleman in Thomas' place. That's easily the weakest spot on the line. Right tackle Chris Hubbard was signed away from division rival Pittsburgh and is a solid presence opposite Coleman. Cleveland has invested a lot in the interior line and Joel Bitonio, JC Tretter and Kevin Zeitler are about as good as you'll find. Overall, Cleveland has a top-10 line.

The offensive skill players are also better than we've seen in Cleveland in a long time. Josh Gordon has had his share of off-field issues, but the super-talented, 6-foot-3, 225-pound split end is still only 27 years old and has elite upside. Cleveland traded for slot man Jarvis Landry, who ranks third in the NFL with 400 receptions since entering the league in 2014. Corey Coleman has struggled as the team's No. 1 receiver, but the 2016 first-round pick is still only 23 years old.

Tight end can't be viewed as a team strength yet, but it might soon. David Njoku was one of the team's three first-round picks in 2017 and the former Miami Hurricane has massive upside. He's a physical freak at 6-foot-4 and 246 pounds, and doesn't turn 22 years old until July.

Free-agent acquisition Carlos Hyde and second-rounder Nick Chubb form an outstanding three-man committee with receiving specialist Duke Johnson Jr. Hyde is coming off a high-volume, low-efficiency season in San Francisco, but has been one of the NFL's most effective backs since entering the league in 2014. Chubb was one of the best pure rushers in a deep draft class and is a big, tough back at 5-foot-11 and 227 pounds. Johnson is an elite receiving back, ranking first at the position in receptions (188) and receiving yards (1,741) since being drafted in the third round of 2015.

This is already an above-average offense on paper. It could be even better than expected if Coleman and Njoku take a step forward.


The defense has some pieces

As you might imagine, last year's troubles with interceptions had ill effects on the defense. Cleveland showed up near average or slightly below in most advanced defensive categories, but surrendered 410 points (second most). A major reason for this was an opponent average starting field position of 69.9 yards (the league's fourth-lowest mark). Cleveland otherwise allowed an average drive distance of 28.5 yards (15th in the league), surrendered 328.1 yards per game (14th), allowed 3.4 yards per carry (second), forced 14 fumbles (12th) and paced the NFL with 120 tackles for loss.

That's a good start, and some offseason improvements suggest this unit will be even better in 2018.

Those improvements start in the secondary. The Browns struggled against the pass last year, allowing 7.4 yards per attempt while managing only seven interceptions (second fewest). They raised eyebrows when they traded top corner Jason McCourty to New England, but more than compensated for his departure by signing E.J. Gaines and TJ Carrie and then drafting Ohio State's Denzel Ward fourth overall. Gaines and Carrie enjoyed breakout campaigns with Buffalo and Oakland, respectively, in 2017. And Ward has elite upside as a shutdown perimeter corner. Briean Boddy-Calhoun was a gem undrafted free-agent find in 2016 and was one of the league's best slot corners last year. Safety is a big question mark but there's a ton of upside with 2017 first-rounder Jabrill Peppers and 2015 first-rounder and converted corner Damarious Randall. They're the projected starters, and 2017 starting strong safety Derrick Kindred is also in the fold.

The Browns' best defensive player is defensive end Myles Garrett. Injuries limited the 2017 first overall pick to 11 games as a rookie, but he was busy and prolific when active, playing 77 percent of the snaps during his final nine games. He finished with 7.0 sacks. Garrett has "breakout" written all over him, and recent early-round picks Emmanuel Ogbah, Chad Thomas, Carl Nassib and Nate Orchard add solid, young depth with upside.

There's a lot to like at linebacker, too. Christian Kirksey, Joe Schobert and Jamie Collins were every-down players when healthy last year. That wasn't often the case for Collins, who was limited to 310 snaps. Collins has struggled with health and ineffectiveness since joining the team during the 2016 season, but the 28-year-old is one of the NFL's highest-paid players for a reason: He was one of the league's best at the position in recent years. Schobert and Kirksey have settled in as solid players, leaving Cleveland with quality talent and depth at the position.

Defensive tackle could be a weak spot, especially after trading Danny Shelton to New England. However, the Browns felt they had a logjam after spending a pair of 2017 draft picks on Larry Ogunjobi and Caleb Brantley. Both were key to the team's success against the run last season.

There are a few question marks, but most of the unknowns are young, early-round players with significant upside. There's breakout potential from an improved unit that already showed some signs of life in 2017.


The AFC is weak

It's fairly easy to make a case that five of the league's six best teams are in the NFC with Philadelphia, the Rams, Minnesota, New Orleans and Atlanta. Add in the consistent wild-card contenders, then the improved, emerging teams and suddenly the NFC looks intimidating.

Meanwhile, the AFC is lacking clear-cut, playoff locks behind New England and Pittsburgh. The Chargers are pretty stacked and the AFC South is much improved, but scan through the wild-card favorites and you'll notice that Cleveland's primary competition will be Kansas City, Baltimore and whoever comes up short of the divisional title in the South. Yes, there are some decent/good teams, but it's not nearly as competitive as the NFC. A much-improved Cleveland roster should be able to hang with these teams.

To the Browns' detriment, their schedule isn't as light as you'd hope for a team that just went 0-16. The AFC North will match up with the AFC West and NFC South, and the latter is likely to be a significant roadblock to a wild card. The Falcons, Saints and Panthers made the playoffs last year and all three figure to be in the mix in 2018. Tampa Bay is also much improved following a good offseason. In other words, Cleveland might need to win the division in order to make the playoffs, which will be a tall task with Ben Roethlisberger still around. Cleveland does, however, have the ammunition to overtake Baltimore and Cincinnati -- two solid defensive teams that continue to struggle with either poor or mediocre offensive play. It's easy to make a case that Cleveland is currently better than both on paper.


The 1-31 elephant in the room

Though recent history has shown roster talent will often win out, there's a potential obstacle standing between the Browns and success in 2018: coaching.

Is it possible 2016-17 was a fluke and Hue Jackson is a good (or even great) head coach? Absolutely. Remember, he was a highly-coveted candidate for years leading up to his hiring in Cleveland. Since then, however, he has managed to win only one game in 32 tries. Cleveland's roster hasn't been very good, but it was certainly capable of winning four to five games each season.

Bill Belichick, Andy Reid and Sean McVay are only a few recent examples that "coaching matters." It's fair to wonder which way Jackson will affect Cleveland's win total. Can he stick to a plan at quarterback? Will he stop flip-flopping, redirecting blame on missed draft picks and end up on the same page as management? Will he continue to allow his defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to play his first-round box safety (Peppers) so far off the line of scrimmage that it has become a running joke among fans, analysts and even the players? Can new offensive coordinator Todd Haley find the same success he had in Pittsburgh? The answers to these questions are sure to impact Cleveland's win total in 2018.


The bottom line

As fun as it would be to bang the table and predict the Browns as a 2018 playoff team, the reality is that they're in the middle of the pack on paper. That's saying a lot for a team that failed to win a single game last year, but the personnel speaks for itself. The Browns are probably still one good offseason away from contending in the AFC and are best viewed as a seven- or eight-win team in 2018. Of course, the season is short and variance and luck will have a say. If the Browns get a good bounce or two and stay relatively healthy, a nine-win season is attainable. That would surely please the late Paul Brown.