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Preston: Browns might look like dream team, but this could still be a nightmare for Cleveland

Maybe the greatest consolation for Ravens fans is that the Cleveland Browns are still the Cleveland Browns.

That’s their hope.

The Browns appear to have loaded up for the 2019 season with their own dream team, but if there is one franchise that could turn this into a nightmare, it’s Cleveland. Since returning to the NFL in 1999, the Browns have had only two winning seasons, 11 head coaches, 30 different starting quarterbacks and have been the butt of many jokes on late-night TV.

But maybe that changes now. They have their quarterback of the future in Baker Mayfield and two top receivers in Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr., whom the Browns acquired in a trade with the New York Giants this month.

They have a good young running back in Nick Chubb and one of the game’s best all-around performers in running back Kareem Hunt, who will miss the first eight games because of a league-imposed suspension after a video surfaced last year of him appearing to punch and kick a woman outside a hotel room. On defense, Cleveland has a dynamic pass rush led by ends Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon and newly signed defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson.

Who is laughing now?

No one, but a lot of cynicism still exists about the Browns, who have a 95-224-1 record since 1999. Despite the recent upgrades, the Browns have a first-year head coach in Freddie Kitchens, who has to develop chemistry on a team that has some big personalities. Mayfield was only a rookie in 2018, but he showed his head can be as big as a Jumbotron.

Beckham appears to be a good teammate and locker room guy, but craves as much attention from the TV cameras as Ray Lewis and Deion Sanders. Hunt has to work through another criminal investigation, and who knows how he will mesh once — or if — he returns around midseason. Tight end David Njoku is a wannabe star who isn’t, and safety Damarious Randall thinks he is Nostradamus.

Somehow, Kitchens has to bring these personalities together. It’s been done many times before with dream teams, but not a lot with first-year coaches. Kitchens did a great job last season as the Browns offensive coordinator, but there is a difference when there are 40 players in the room compared with 80. The scope of the job doubles as well.

Kitchens and Mayfield enjoy each other, and Kitchens encouraged the young quarterback to speak his mind last season. Mayfield was the top dog at Oklahoma and for most of last season in Cleveland, but now he has to share the spotlight with Beckham, Landry, Hunt and Garrett.

That ought to be fun.

On defense, the Browns were below average last season, but were held together by coordinator Gregg Williams. Williams, though, is gone, having left to become the New York Jets defensive coordinator.

Cleveland has Steve Wilks as its new defensive coordinator. He is from the 4-3 school and doesn’t like to blitz as much as a lot of other teams in the NFL. He built some strong defenses with the Carolina Panthers, but struggled as a coach in Arizona, where he was fired after only one season when the Cardinals finished 3-13 last year.

Like Kitchens, Wilks has to develop relationships with players. There is also the backup quarterback situation. If Mayfield gets hurt, the Browns would be left with Drew Stanton, who has an 11-6 record as a starter over eight seasons.

He isn’t Mayfield, but at least he has a chance with the surrounding talent. Because of the addition of Beckham, many believe the Browns will win the AFC North, which the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers have dominated for years.

The Cincinnati Bengals are reshaping their franchise with new coach Zac Taylor. The Bengals recently cut troubled linebacker Vontaze Burfict, which means Taylor wants to rebuild the team’s image. Pittsburgh always finds a way to replace its stars, but losing both running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown in the same offseason might be too much to overcome.

And then there are the Ravens, a team in transition.

They have gotten rid of aging stars such as quarterback Joe Flacco, safety Eric Weddle and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, and also lost top inside linebacker C.J. Mosley to the Jets in free agency.

The new mission and era begins with the Ravens needing to prove they can win with second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson, who created buzz in Baltimore with his running ability last season but has yet to prove he can win consistently by throwing from the pocket.

The Ravens also recently added former Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas, solidifying their secondary as one of the best in the league. It should be a great matchup: the Browns offense versus the Ravens defense.

But the more intriguing question for the Browns will be how they piece their dream team together. They’ve been so bad for so long that this could go wrong, too.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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