For the second time in two years, the Cleveland Browns are in uncharted territory. After making the playoffs as a Wild Card last season and humiliating the Pittsburgh Steelers on primetime, the pressure is now on for Cleveland to surpass their new heights from last season and win their division and the AFC title.
In order to do that the Browns have an incredibly narrow margin of error. Cleveland will battle with Pittsburgh and the Baltimore Ravens for playoff positioning all throughout next season with each matchup mattering. There's also the Cincinnati Bengals, who the Browns cannot sleep on as well. Cincinnati will be much improved with the return of Joe Burrow and the addition of Ja'Marr Chase. Outside of the division, Cleveland will also have to tangle with the Buffalo Bills, the Tennessee Titans and the Kansas City Chiefs, all elite teams, for top-two positioning in the conference.
If the Browns are serious about winning the Super Bowl, then their work will be cut out for them when training camp opens on July 29. Head coach Kevin Stefanski and his staff need to use this time to figure out any remaining depth issues on an already fairly balanced Browns squad. They'll also need to figure out the pecking order of their wide receiver depth chart, especially with star wideout Odell Beckham Jr. expected to return after tearing his ACL last season.
Beckham, who had 319 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns in 7 games last season, will be penciled in as Cleveland's no. 1 receiver heading into camp. The same can be said for Jarvis Landry (840 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns) as the team's no. 2 receiver. After that is where things start to get somewhat murky for the Browns.
It seems to be a two-man race early as Rashard Higgins and Donovan Peoples-Jones, who have both showed ability in the past. Higgins has the upper hand naturally due to his tenure with the Browns. Drafted in the 5th round of the 2016 NFL Draft, Higgins has spent five years with the Browns. Heading into his sixth season, Higgins was the guy for Cleveland last year when Odell Beckham Jr. went down with his ACL injury – posting 599 yards at 16.2 yards per reception and 4 touchdowns.
With Beckham now back, Higgins should see an increase in productivity. Players that possess speed like Beckham will stretch opposing defenses and in turn, will allow finesse players like Higgins to have more operating room. If Higgins ends up being the Browns' third receiver with a healthy Beckham, he could easily put up 700 receiving yards thanks to the already established on-field chemistry with quarterback Baker Mayfield.
But, that all depends on whether or not Peoples-Jones doesn't have anything to say about it. As a rookie out of Michigan, Peoples-Jones had 304 receiving yards and returned 18 punts. In terms of total production, not a whole lot, but Peoples-Jones did well with limited opportunity. When looking back on his rookie year the play that will always come to mind will be his game-winning touchdown catch against the Bengals. Plays like that made the future exciting for Peoples-Jones, seeing what he can do in a larger role.
Big play ability is there for Peoples-Jones and it's something Cleveland surprisingly relied on him for last season. In a win over Cincinnati, Peoples-Jones had 3 catches for 56 yards and the aforementioned game-winning touchdown. Against the Titans, the Browns rookie had 92 yards on just two catches. In a tightly contested loss to the Baltimore Ravens, Peoples-Jones had 74 yards on 3 receptions. The following week against the New York Giants Peoples-Jones struck again hauling in 3 passes for 55 yards. Towards the end of the season, Cleveland leaned on the rookie and he responded.
That's the dilemma Peoples-Jones makes for the Browns as he heads into his sophomore season. His growth from last season to now is something to definitely watch and could very well be the team's no. 1 or no. 2 receiver in just a few seasons, depending on what happens with Beckham and Landry.
But, for now, the growth of Peoples-Jones will play a factor in the team's depth chart and presents two avenues for Cleveland. Do the Browns want to stick with a security blanket for Mayfield in Higgins? Or do they want to go for a home run on every passing play with Beckham and Peoples-Jones streaking down the field? Thankfully the issue of choosing between Higgins and Peoples-Jones may be solved on its own.
The difference between the third receiver on this team and the fourth receiver could be minimal. Kevin Stefanski’s offense and with the play of Mayfield, everyone is going to get ample touches in some capacity. This can be extremely beneficial for Higgins, who is a free agent next offseason, who can capitalize on the opportunities and cash in next summer. Ditto for Peoples-Jones, who can continue to grow and develop chemistry on the field with Mayfield.
The battle for the third and fourth receiver for the Browns will for sure be a training camp battle to keep an eye on. That, and how the revamped defense looks and whether or not the team signs Mayfield to a long-term extension. Having quality talent with every receiver is a good problem to have for Cleveland – they all bring a unique and positive skillset to this offense. That's what makes the Browns have the potential to be the best team in the AFC this season. Let's see if they prove it.