Nowhere to go but up for “Hard Knocks” Browns
BEREA, Ohio — Hue Jackson’s message to his team in 2018 is a simple one: “Get better every day.”
Coming off a winless season, the Cleveland Browns know there is no way to go but up.
“We’ve seen our lowest point,” Browns linebacker Christian Kirksey told me Wednesday following practice at the Browns training facility. “Right now, being a veteran and captain on the team; it’s up to the leadership to really push on guys coming out and really competing, competing, competing every day. Our team is fired up and ready to shock the world.”
Kirksey said last season’s 0-16 campaign left a “bad taste” but there are not many players remaining from 2017.
New general manager John Dorsey wasted no time in completely overhauling the roster. Jarvis Landry, who led the NFL with 112 receptions last year, was acquired in a trade with the Miami Dolphins. The Browns added cornerback Damarious Randall through a trade with the Packers in a deal that sent 2017 starting quarterback DeShone Kizer to Green Bay.
The Browns jettisoned each of their 2017 QBs — replacing them with former Buffalo quarterback Tyrod Taylor, veteran journeyman Drew Stanton and first-round draft pick Baker Mayfield.
The Browns also signed former Packers receiver Jeff Janis, as well as former San Francisco 49ers running back Carlos Hyde, former Oakland cornerback T.J. Carrie, and offensive tackles Donald Stephenson from Denver and Chris Hubbard from Pittsburgh to help replace the retired Joe Thomas.
“We just feel a different vibe on the team,” Kirksey said. “During these (organized team activities) and practices, guys are playing at an extremely high level. You can just tell we’re more comfortable around each other and the schemes we have in play. There’s just a different feel in the locker room and in the building with the new pieces.”
#Browns linebacker Christian Kirksey told me last year left a “bad taste” and it was the “lowest point.” But nowhere to go but up and the new faces have created “a different vibe.” #NFL pic.twitter.com/HBpDPjnnly
— Ron Clements (@Ron_Clements) May 30, 2018
Kirksey and starting guard Joel Bitonio were 2014 draft picks. Josh Gordon has been with the team since 2012, but multiple suspensions have kept the 6-foot-3 receiver off the field for most of the last three seasons.
Reserve linebacker Tank Carder has been with the Browns since 2012, but the 25-year-old Kirksey is a team captain and elder statesman of the defense.
“It’s somewhat weird, man,” Kirksey said. “It’s cool to see new faces, but at the same time, I’m only in Year 5 and I’m one of the longest-tenured Browns. I take pride in that, though.”
Though Taylor is expected to be the starting quarterback, Jackson has been impressed by Mayfield’s work ethic and accuracy.
“He can throw it. He has a tight spiral and he can put the ball in tight spaces,” the third-year Browns coach said. “He has all the arm talent you need.”
Mayfield was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2018 draft, but the Browns also owned the fourth pick and used it on Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward. The rookie has been impressive during OTAs. He showed off his 39-inch vertical Wednesday to break up a pass intended for Gordon. Carrie called Ward a “very savvy rookie” who plays with confidence. Ward also earned the praise of Jackson and Kirksey.
“He’s been nothing but great for us,” Kirksey added. “Making plays, (Wednesday), he was on fire — ball-hawking, being in the right place at the right time.”
Another rookie — former Georgia running back Nick Chubb — joins a backfield with Hyde and fourth-year tailback Duke Johnson. Dorsey has helped the Browns accumulate a wealth of talent at the skill positions for new offensive coordinator Todd Haley and Taylor.
“I’m very excited, of course for Week 1, but there are steps to that point,” Taylor said. “When you look at the talent on the offensive side of the ball, there is tremendous talent at every position. I’m excited to get the ball to those guys and see them make plays.”
Each of those steps will be chronicled this summer as the Browns will be featured on HBO’s NFL training camp series, “Hard Knocks.” Kirkey laughed when I asked him if it was fitting the Browns were chosen after coming off a season full of hard knocks.
“It’ll be fun for us,” Kirksey said. “It’ll be something good for us, especially so people can see the true Cleveland Browns and what goes on in the building, and day to day in practice.
“The guys are focused and they’re not going to worry too much about them being at practice and in the building.
“This city deserves a lot of wins from us,” Kirksey added. “They’ve been loyal to us and nothing but faithful fans. I run into diehard Cleveland fans and they’ve stayed with us. It’ll definitely be rewarding for us. We’re definitely trying to everything in our power to bring them what they need.”
The Browns have just two winning seasons and one playoff appearance since 1999. An NFL championship has eluded the franchise since 1964.
“Fans who are willing to stand by you when things aren’t going as well; when it’s cold; when it’s snowing, those are loyal fans,” Carrie said Wednesday. “Those are some of the fans (who) are excited and waiting for us to really embrace this 2018 season.”
Randall learned the hard way how passionate Cleveland fans are when the Golden State Warriors fan tweeted he would buy a Cavaliers jersey for everyone who retweeted his tweet if the Cavs upset the Warriors in the NBA Finals.
#Browns CB @RandallTime never expected his tweet to go viral. Thought he might only get 100 retweets. Approaching 1 million RTs, his phone freezes every time he opens Twitter. #NFL #NBAFinals pic.twitter.com/f04lAtnp0Z
— Ron Clements (@Ron_Clements) May 30, 2018
“It goes to show that this Cleveland fan base is great and I’m actually excited about it,” Randall said of his now-infamous tweet that is the most retweeted tweet of any NFL player. “Just to know the fan base is like this and I can’t imagine how it’s going to be once the Browns start winning a lot of games.”
Nowhere to go but up.