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AFC North preview: Odell Beckham and Browns have high expectations

Cleveland Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham warms up before a preseason game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Cleveland Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham wants to show why the New York Giants made a mistake by trading him.
(Associated Press)

The way Odell Beckham Jr. sees it, there was insidious scheming behind the New York Giants’ decision to ship him to the Cleveland Browns.

“This wasn’t no business move,” Beckham told Sports Illustrated for an August cover story. “This was personal. They thought they’d send me here to die.”

Last year, Jarvis Landry, Beckham’s pal and a fellow star wide receiver for the Browns, said the same thing about Adam Gase, then Miami’s coach, trading him: “I just felt like, for some reason, Adam sent me here to die.”

The Browns, for some a vogue Super Bowl pick, are hoping they have a heavenly tandem in the dynamic receiving duo from Louisiana State.

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The blockbuster trade of Beckham shook the NFL and thrust the Browns further into the spotlight with four prime-time games this season.

Previewing the 2019 NFL season as the league celebrates its 100th year and the Rams and Chargers look to contend for the Super Bowl LIV title.

It’s a heady change for a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2002, the NFL’s longest active drought.

No team has undergone a more dramatic overhaul during the last two seasons than Cleveland, with No.1 pick Baker Mayfield setting an NFL rookie record last season by throwing 27 touchdown passes.

After the Patriots-Rams Super Bowl, the Browns made headlines by signing Kareem Hunt, who had been cut by Kansas City in November after video surfaced of the star running back shoving and kicking a woman in a scuffle in a Cleveland hotel.

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In early August, the Browns traded disgruntled running back Duke Johnson to Houston, clearing the way for Hunt, who must serve an eight-game ban before resuming his career.

Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield stands on the sideline during a preseason game against the Detroit Lions on Aug. 29.
Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield stands on the sideline during a preseason game against the Detroit Lions on Aug. 29.
(Getty Images)

Freddie Kitchens, promoted from offensive coordinator to become the Browns’ sixth head coach since 2010, has made changes on defense too. Cleveland has added defensive linemen Olivier Vernon and Sheldon Richardson — both should bleed pressure off former No.1 pick Myles Garrett — as well as safety Morgan Burnett.

“Expectations are just expectations,” Beckham told reporters this summer. “I’m excited to be a part of the excitement. I’ve watched from afar the struggles where they didn’t win a game the one year and another won a game and now they’re 7-[8-1].

“I feel like it’s just been on the come up. It’s just that time, and I want to be able to give absolutely everything I have and see where we land.”

Other AFC North teams also made major changes.

Baltimore, which ended a three-year playoff drought last season, added running back Mark Ingram from New Orleans, safety Earl Thomas from Seattle and others.

Speedy rookie receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown will stretch the field for mobile quarterback Lamar Jackson.

Eric DeCosta has taken over for longtime general manager Ozzie Newsome, and the mighty Ravens defense no longer has fixtures Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley and Za’Darius Smith.

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The roster changes are even more dramatic in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers parted ways with a couple of All-Pro players. Receiver Antonio Brown is in Oakland, and running back Le’Veon Bell — who sat out last season in a contract dispute — is playing for the New York Jets.

For the first time since 2003, the Steelers traded up in the first round, selecting inside linebacker Devin Bush. He will step in for Ryan Shazier, who had a devastating spinal injury in late 2017.

The Steelers also added former Rams linebacker Mark Barron, as well as cornerbacks Justin Layne and Steven Nelson.

Meanwhile, Cincinnati replaced longtime coach Marvin Lewis with the youthful Zac Taylor, the quarterback coach for the Rams last season.

The Bengals are on their third offensive system in three years — and fourth defensive coordinator in that same span.

It has been a bumpy start, with No. 11 pick Jonah Williams, projected to start at left tackle, suffering an offseason shoulder injury that required surgery and put his rookie season in jeopardy.

Baltimore Ravens

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

QB Lamar Jackson: He worked on his mechanics this offseason, including widening his base, throwing more over the top, and stepping into his throws. He’s much more consistent but still uncorks a head-scratcher throw every so often.

OLB Matt Judon: With Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith gone, Judon is the top returning pass rusher, and he’s in a contract year. He has a lot of sacks and pressures to replace, but the Ravens are excited about his potential to do so.

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S Earl Thomas: This former Seattle star is going to be the quarterback of the defense, stepping into the role vacated by Eric Weddle. If Thomas can stay healthy, and that’s been a chore of late, he can be a sideline-to-sideline ballhawk.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

WR Marquise Brown: The Ravens have suffered such a lack of offensive speed in recent years that “Hollywood” is a welcome addition. With Jackson at quarterback and Brown on the outside, that could be a dangerous tandem for opponents.

MLB Patrick Onwuasor: A converted safety who went undrafted, Onwuasor came on strong last year and steps into a glamour position for the Ravens, replacing C.J. Mosley. Before Mosley, there was Hall of Famer Ray Lewis.

CB Marlon Humphrey: The son of former NFL running back Bobby Humphrey could round into a top-10 cornerback this season. The Ravens certainly have made an investment at the position, spending more money on the secondary than any other team in the NFL.

BURNING QUESTION

Has Jackson improved enough as a passer to take him and the Ravens to the next level? We know he can run, and behind that patchwork line, he’ll have to.

2018: 10-6, first in division

Last year in playoffs: 2018

Cincinnati Bengals

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

QB Andy Dalton: Will Dalton ever return to that spectacular form he showed in 2015? He’s shown flashes of that — he had four touchdown passes in last year’s home opener versus Baltimore — but also plenty of disappointments and injuries.

WR A.J. Green: Green has missed 15 games with injuries in the past three seasons and is starting this one on a tender ankle. It’s a marked difference from his first five years, when he was especially durable. When healthy, he’s one of the league’s best receivers.

DT Geno Atkins: He could be the best interior lineman in the game behind the Rams’ Aaron Donald, and budging him is like moving a grand piano. If Atkins and Carlos Dunlap are getting to the quarterback, the Bengals are rolling.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

DE Carl Lawson: Despite suffering a torn ACL in his second season, Lawson has returned stronger and faster than before. He had 81/2 sacks as a rookie, 21/2 of which came against Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers.

RB Joe Mixon: Surrounded by injured teammates last season, Mixon led the AFC in rushing. New Bengals coach Zac Taylor is committed to the run — just as he was with the Rams — and Mixon is an essential part of that.

DE Sam Hubbard: The starting right end, Hubbard is a blue-collar talent who had six sacks and forced a fumble as a rookie last season. He was a rotational starter in 2018 but now has a regular spot on a talented front.

BURNING QUESTION

Can the Bengals rediscover that magic that led to five consecutive playoff appearances? The team is going back to its West Coast offense roots and is back to an offensive head coach after defense-minded Dick LeBeau and Marvin Lewis.

2018: 6-10, fourth in division

Last year in playoffs: 2015

Cleveland Browns

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

QB Baker Mayfield: Having established himself as the leader of a revival last season, Mayfield has rounded into a coach on the field in his second season. The Browns were 6-7 in his starts as a rookie but 5-2 over their last seven games.

WR Odell Beckham Jr.: The biggest transaction of the offseason sent the NFL’s most dynamic receiver to Cleveland, where he has been reunited with pal Jarvis Landry and receiving coach Adam Henry, who mentored him at Louisiana State and with the Giants.

DE Myles Garrett: A year ago, in his first 16-game season, Garrett had 131/2 sacks. Now that the Browns have added Olivier Vernon and Sheldon Richardson, opponents can devote less time to stopping Garrett, which will create opportunities for him.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

RB Kareem Hunt: He’s a phenomenal talent who is suspended for the first half of the season because of two physical altercations. Hunt has no margin for error. If the gamble works for the Browns, they’ll get an elite back with fresh legs for a stretch run.

CB Greedy Williams: Coupled with second-year standout Denzel Ward, Williams gives the Browns a young and dynamic tandem. Williams still needs to work on his tackling, but his coverage skills are impressive.

LB Sione Takitaki: A third-round pick from Brigham Young, Takitaki is a big hitter who figures to learn at middle linebacker behind starter Joe Schobert. Takitaki can be an enforcer who works his way onto the field in short order.

BURNING QUESTION

Can the Browns do what a lot of clubs haven’t and turn an all-star team into a winning organization? They certainly will be in the spotlight, with three prime-time appearances in their first five games.

2018: 7-8-1, third in division

Last year in playoffs: 2002

Pittsburgh Steelers

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

LB Bud Dupree: The Steelers’ first-round pick in 2015 has underperformed so far, yet he could be a dangerous bookend to T.J. Watt. Dupree has great speed but often gets ridden outside by offensive tackles.

CB Steven Nelson: He and Joe Haden can give the Steelers two good corners, something the club hasn’t had in years. The team had eight interceptions last season, tied for the fewest in franchise history. (The last time the Steelers had eight, they played an 11-game schedule.)

LB Devin Bush: Since the career-ending injury to Ryan Shazier, the team has been weak at interior linebacker. It made an uncharacteristically bold move, trading up from 20 to 10 to draft Bush. He’ll step right into a starting job.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

TE Vance McDonald: This guy is a brute. He’s not as tall as Rob Gronkowski, but he has Gronk-like tendencies with the way he wrestles the ball away from people. Check out his instant-classic stiff-arm from a 2018 game against Tampa Bay.

WR James Washington: The second-round pick last year was overshadowed by offensive stars. With Antonio Brown gone, Washington’s responsibilities grow.

LB T.J. Watt: Watt isn’t a carbon copy of his older brother, J.J., but has that same intensity. He flourished last season after the Steelers moved him from right outside linebacker to the left side (typically where the opposing tight end lines up).

BURNING QUESTION

Can the Steelers bounce back from losing All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell (even though he didn’t play last year)? So far, so good. This is the summer of togetherness for a franchise that has dealt with a lot of drama the last two years.

2018: 9-6-1, second in division

Last year in playoffs: 2017


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