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AFC North preview: Arrival of quarterback Mayfield, the No. 1 overall pick, gives Browns fans hope

So the No. 1 pick, a quarterback designated the savior of a struggling franchise, rolled up to training camp in some new wheels.

Big deal.

In Cleveland, it was. Because Baker Mayfield’s styling new ride is a retiree’s dream, a fully-equipped motor home called a Sunseeker — appropriate for a club in search of a ray of hope after going 1-31 the last two seasons.

“The RV started back in the spring when we had the rules committee for Baker on Day 1, and one of them was he needed to get an RV,” reserve quarterback Drew Stanton told reporters this summer.

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“It was an idea that Shaun Hill implemented with Matthew Stafford when we were in Detroit. We did training camp at the facility. It’s parked in the back.”

Basically, it’s a quarterback room on wheels, as detailed extensively on HBO’s “Hard Knocks.”

“It’s just someplace that you can go,” Stanton continued. “You can get out of these four walls that start to close in on you after a period of time. There’s no secret meetings or anything going on. It’s not like excluding anybody. Everybody’s welcome. It’s just a place to go to unwind, get away from here for the time period that we have off, and just nothing more, nothing less.”

There’s no question that Mayfield is the Browns’ big wheel for the long haul, but he’s not necessarily in the driver’s seat. He’s learning at the elbow of Tyrod Taylor, acquired in March in a trade with Buffalo.

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Taylor started 42 games for the Bills over the last three seasons, going 22-20 during that span.

For the Browns, who had the first and fourth picks of the draft, he’s a bridge veteran who can help them make the transition to Mayfield. It’s a reboot from last year when rookie DeShone Kizer, a second-round pick, started 15 games of a winless season. He struggled with his accuracy throughout the season and ended with a league-high 22 interceptions. The Browns wound up trading him to Green Bay for defensive back Damarious Randall.

Since re-forming as a franchise in 1999, the Browns have had 28 starting quarterbacks. That makes the rest of the AFC North look like the Rock of Gibraltar, with Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, Joe Flacco in Baltimore and Andy Dalton in Cincinnati.

It’s not as if those situations are perfect, though. Roethlisberger, who entered the league in 2004, has taken a beating over the years, and last season struggled to connect on deep balls, traditionally his strength.

Flacco, who was surrounded by a weak supporting cast, is coming off a season in which his career-low yards per attempt (5.7) only reinforced the nickname “Checkdown Joe.” He was banged up and threw for more than 250 yards in only four of 16 games last season. The Ravens traded back into the first round to select Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, making it obvious they are low on patience and long on expectations.

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Two years after putting together an MVP-worthy fall, Dalton has tumbled back to earth in Cincinnati, where the Bengals have gone 6-9-1 and 7-9. He had some horrible stretches last season, and the Bengals failed to score a touchdown in their first two games, leading to the firing of their offensive coordinator.

In Cleveland, of all places, there’s hope. At least now.

“It’s a dream job,” Mayfield told reporters. “Yeah, I’m working hard, but it’s a dream job for me.

“It’s something I’ve dreamt of for a long time, so when you go out there and you have a chance to do it, why not make the most of it? Why not put everything you have into it? When you have some success, football’s hard, so you better enjoy it. It doesn’t come easy. It’s a lot of work, so you’ve got to be able to enjoy it with the guys.”

He’s a guy who looks for the bright side. A sun seeker.

Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) in action during a preseason NFL football game again
Rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield is the Browns’ big wheel for the long haul, but he’s not necessarily in the driver’s seat. He’s learning at the elbow of Tyrod Taylor, acquired in March in a trade with Buffalo.
(Adam Hunger / Associated Press)

AFC NORTH CAPSULES

1 | PITTSBURGH

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2017 | 13-3, 1st in North

Last year in playoffs | 2017

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

DE Stephon Tuitt: He struggled with injuries last season, and the Steelers had a difficult time stopping the run without him. A prime example came in the playoffs, when Jacksonville’s Leonard Fournette ran for three touchdowns.

QB Ben Roethlisberger: Big Ben is the key every season, but it will be especially interesting to watch him this fall. He’s cut out sugar and a lot of carbs from his diet, and he’s leaner than ever. His arm looks good too.

S Morgan Burnett: Signed out of free agency to replace Mike Mitchell, Burnett should help improve communication in the Steelers’ secondary.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

RB James Conner: With Le’Veon Bell almost certainly moving on to become a free agent after this season, Conner has a chance to prove to the Steelers that he’s the heirapparent.

OLB T.J. Watt: Watt is already a star, actually, but he can build on an excellent rookie season and is now more than a rotational player. He led all rookie linebackers in the league with seven sacks.

FS Sean Davis: This is a pivotal season for Davis, a second-round pick in 2016, who needs to show he has the range and sure tackling needed to shore up the back end of Pittsburgh’s defense.

FANTASY SLEEPER

WR JuJu Smith-Schuster: OK, so he’s not really a sleeper, but Smith-Schuster is still third fiddle to Bell and Antonio Brown. With Martavis Bryant gone, watch for the second-year receiver from USC to put up big numbers.

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2 | BALTIMORE

2017 | 9-7, 2nd in North

Last year in playoffs | 2014

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

QB Joe Flacco: Having dealt with significant knee and back injuries the last two years, Flacco is looking better than he has in a while. Part of that could be the incentive of rookie Lamar Jackson vying for his job.

C Matt Skura: With Tampa Bay signing former Ravens center Ryan Jensen to the most-lucrative contract for the position, the undrafted Skura takes over as the man in the middle of Baltimore’s offensive line.

DT Brandon Williams: The Ravens discovered this last season: When the 336-pound Williams is on the sideline, their defense can get trampled by the run. He needs to stay healthy.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

OLB Matthew Judon: In his third season out of Grand Valley State, Judon has slimmed down and is ready to make a big step up. He’s shown Terrell Suggs-type flashes, but he’s even more athletic.

CB Marlon Humprey: A first-round pick in 2017, Humphrey was one of 12 cornerbacks who didn’t give up a touchdown last season.

OT Orlando Brown Jr.: Son of the late Ravens tackle of the same name, the younger Brown should lock down the right side at 6 feet 8, 345 pounds.

FANTASY SLEEPER

TE Hayden Hurst: A former pitcher in the PittsburghPirates organization, Hurst, 24, is more mature physically than most rookies and ready to make the step up. Flacco loves throwing to his tight ends.

3 | CINCINNATI

2017 | 7-9, 3rd in North

Last year in playoffs | 2015

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

QB Andy Dalton: In his eighth season, Dalton is coming off a bumpy 2017 when his team finished last in total yards and near the bottom in big plays. He didn’t get a lot of help from an anemic running game and porous offensive line.

RB Joe Mixon: In his second season, Mixon could become to the running game what A.J. Green is to Cincinnati’s passing game. Of course, a lot of that rests on the effectiveness of the offensive line.

DT Geno Atkins: He is a force in the middle and one of the NFL’s best interior pass rushers. Atkins has made it to four consecutive Pro Bowls and is key to the Bengals’ success on that side of the ball.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

C Billy Price: Fixing the offensive line was a priority for the Bengals, who watched their former left tackle, Andrew Whitworth, lead a revival for the Rams last season. Price, a first-round pick, is the centerpiece of that rebuilding process.

WR John Ross: He’s blistering fast, we all know that. But can Ross actually contribute to the passing game? The 2017 first-round pick had zero catches as a rookie.

LB Jordan Evans: A sixth-round pick in 2017, Evans was pressed into early duty as a rookie because of injuries. The results were mixed. He made some good plays but also got burned on several occasions. The Bengals are counting on him to step up.

FANTASY SLEEPER

WR Tyler Boyd: With the Bengals cutting Brandon LaFell, and Ross not yet proving himself, this could be a good year for the sure-handed Boyd, who was impressive at training camp.

4 | CLEVELAND

2017 | 0-16, 4th in North

Last year in playoffs | 2002

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

QB Tyrod Taylor: Although No. 1 pick Baker Mayfield is waiting in the wings, the Browns have made it clear that this is Taylor’s offense for now. It would be nice to give the rookie some time to breathe and prepare.

WR Jarvis Landry: He led the league in receptions with Miami last season and already is proving to be an emotional leader for both the team and the young group of receivers surrounding him.

DE Myles Garrett: The No. 1 overall pick in 2017, Garrett led the team in sacks last season despite missing five games. He is a cornerstone of Gregg Williams’ defense.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

DE Emmanuel Ogbah: He led the Browns in sacks last season before he was injured midway through the year. He will be the bookend to Garrett.

CB Denzel Ward: The fourth pick in this year’s draft, Ward has locked down a starting job and upgrades the franchise at a critical spot.

OL Joel Bitonio: A Pro Bowl alternate at left guard last season, Bitonio might slide over to replace the retired Joe Thomas. Those are awfully big cleats to fill.

FANTASY SLEEPER

RB Duke Johnson Jr.: Not only can Johnson carry the ball, but also he’s got great hands coming out of the backfield. He’s a mismatch for a lot of safeties and linebackers.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer


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