CLEVELAND (AP) — Hue Jackson wore his aching heart on his sleeve during his first season as Browns coach.
While the losses mounted, Jackson fought back surfacing emotions that threatened to overwhelm him. And when Cleveland’s nightmarish march — the worst season in franchise history — ended, teasingly shy of 0-16 infamy, Jackson joked that if his team ever went 1-15 again he would jump in Lake Erie.
Jackson’s odds of staying dry look more promising.
On the bottom in 2016, the Browns are poised to make a move this year.
Following an offseason devoted to rebuilding the offensive line, making the most of high draft picks, cleaning up mistakes by previous regimes and maybe, just maybe, finding a franchise quarterback, Jackson is filled with optimism.
“The team is really competitive on both sides of the ball,” he said as his second training camp wrapped up. “It is a group that will get after you. We are physically better than where we were a year ago. We are more mentally tougher. We are stronger.”
The Browns should be better, too, now that they’re further removed from a horrid season bad even by Cleveland’s low standards.
Passing on a quarterback with the No. 1 overall pick, the Browns selected defensive end Myles Garrett, who has been better than advertised during practices and the exhibition season. Soft-spoken, hard-hitting and with a frightening blend of speed and strength, Garrett gives Cleveland a bona fide threat to pressure the quarterback on every snap.
Garrett has set his sights high, saying he wants to win Defensive Rookie of the Year honors and maybe make the Pro Bowl in his first season. Based on their rotten luck with past first-round picks, the Browns would settle for him making it through an entire season.
Cleveland will hand its offense over to another rookie, quarterback DeShone Kizer, a second-round pick from Notre Dame. He’s got the smarts and the arm. All that’s missing is experience, and the Browns, who currently have two first-round picks next year, are going to quickly find out if he can handle the gig.
Jackson knows what’s ahead for a rookie QB and he’s planning to stick with Kizer through thick and thin.
“I am going to ride this out with DeShone — the good, the bad, the whatever comes,” he said.
Hopefully, he’ll avoid a bone-chilling dip in the lake.
Here are some things to keep an eye on as the Browns, who haven’t been to the playoffs since 2002, embark on what promises to be another season of ups and downs.
NO. 7 is NO. 27: When he takes the field in the opener on Sept. 10 against Pittsburgh, Kizer will be the 27th different starting quarterback for Cleveland since 1999. Let that numbing number sink in for a minute, and it’s easy to understand the Browns’ current state.
Kizer will be the second rookie to start the opener, joining Brandon Weeden, whose career began with him getting trapped under a giant U.S. flag during opening-game warmups.
The 21-year-old Kizer has shown polish on and off the field. He’ll need to be more accurate than he was in college, resist the urge to run every time he’s in trouble or hold onto the ball too long trying to make a play.
MYLES AHEAD: Garrett fills one of the team’s biggest needs, an off-the-edge rusher who can affect the game. New coordinator Gregg Williams likes to call an aggressive game and he’ll turn Garrett loose to wreak havoc.
The Browns had only 26 sacks last season.
PLAYMAKERS NEEDED: The Browns lost Terrelle Pryor (free agency) and Gary Barnidge (cut), their two leading receivers from last season, leaving the team devoid of experienced playmakers. Wide receiver Kenny Britt posted career highs with 68 catches and 1,002 yards last season for the Rams, but he’ll need some help. Cleveland is counting on second-year receiver Corey Coleman to make a big jump.
Coleman showed flashes of being a breakaway threat as a rookie, and he needs to stay productive and healthy for the Browns to challenge defenses vertically.
Tight ends Seth DeValve and rookie David Njoku could play prominent roles.
HOT PEPPERS: A jack-of-all trades at Michigan, rookie safety Jabrill Peppers will likely wear several hats for the Browns.
The first-round pick is expected to start at safety and Peppers will be used to return both punts and kickoffs. An elusive runner, Peppers will also likely line up in the offensive backfield and run some read-option.
JOE-LINE: Poor Joe Thomas. Well, maybe not poor Joe because he’ll make $11.5 million this season. But the 10-time Pro Bowler, who has played 9,934 consecutive snaps without missing a play in his career, remains only a spectator at playoff time. With the Browns not expected to compete for a postseason spot again, it’s possible the team could trade him at some point to add to its bounty of future draft picks.
Thomas wants to be part of Cleveland’s turnaround, but he’s running out of time.
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