Can Baker Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns represent the AFC in the Super Bowl?
Skip Bayless is throwing his weight behind Tom Brady's next victim in the Super Bowl.
And while Bayless went with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to repeat, he didn't choose Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs to fall to Brady with the Lombardi Trophy on the line yet again – instead, he went with Baker Mayfield and the Browns.
"I am now going to have the courage of my convictions," Bayless said. "I am now going to have some guts, to go out to the end of the limb. And I know it's early, and I reserve the right to change this pick depending on what I see in the preseason. … I'm going to put my money where my mouth is about Baker coming of age, growing up right before your very eyes last year.
"I love this team. I love its defense. I love what Baker did last year. … What's not to like about the best offensive line in pro football and, I think, the best running back duo in pro football?"
A bold proclamation from Bayless, considering the Browns ended a nearly 20-year playoff drought just this past season.
But, by making the playoffs and knocking off the Pittsburgh Steelers in the wild-card game, there is reason for optimism in Cleveland, especially after this offseason.
First, Cleveland bolstered its roster through free agency and through the draft. The Browns signed former No. 1 pick and three-time Pro Bowl defensive end Jadeveon Clowney to a one-year deal, teaming him up with arguably the league's best defensive end in two-time Pro Bowler and 2020 First-Team All-Pro performer Myles Garrett, also a former No. 1 pick.
In last month's draft, the Browns furthered bolstered their secondary depth, picking up Northwestern cornerback Greg Newsome II in the first round (26th overall), before nabbing possibly the steal of the draft, Notre Dame linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, in the second round (52nd).
After winning the Butkus Award in 2020, as well as being named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, first-team All-ACC and a unanimous All-American, Owusu-Koramoah was expected to go in the first round of the draft, but a health concern caused teams to pause, allowing him to fall into Cleveland's lap in the second round.
Newsome was selected first-team All-Big Ten in 2020.
"That's a serious defense to buttress the offense that Baker led last year. I'm seeing a team on paper that's loaded," Bayless said.
As for the other side of the ball in Cleveland, Mayfield had the best all-around season of his young career in 2020.
He threw for 3,568 yards, 26 touchdowns and a career-low eight interceptions, all while completing 62.8% of his passes. He posted a career-high passer rating of 95.9 and led Cleveland to an 11-5 record, its first winning season since 2007.
And speaking of OBJ, Bayless pointed out Thursday that it might be worth Mayfield having a heart-to-heart with his top receiver in an effort to not lose Cleveland's momentum on offense coming into next season.
"Maybe they do figure out how to use Odell better," Bayless said. "Maybe Baker and Odell make some peace that he can't get every pass forced to him. That he'll get three or four catches a game instead of eight or 10."
"I thought Cleveland got a scheduling break. … Cleveland has New England on the schedule, Green Bay on the schedule, a tough division, Kansas City on the schedule – so it could've been brutal. But it's not. It works in Cleveland's favor.
"Take the Kansas City game out – 0-1. They have eight new defensive starters, or nine – they need a soft open to get those guys ready. Well after Kansas City, they get dysfunctional Houston, and Chicago and Andy Dalton. Then Minnesota rebuilding. Then a rookie head coach, Brandon Staley. Then they get Arizona and Denver at home. And Pittsburgh at home."
Seven of Cleveland's 17 games will be against teams that made the playoffs last season – the Browns get Baltimore and Pittsburgh twice in the AFC North – but four of those seven games are on the road.
The Browns did make the playoffs last season without winning the AFC North, as did Baltimore, so winning the division might not be at the tip-top of the priority list for Cleveland.
Making the postseason tournament, and giving yourself a chance at the Super Bowl, is the ultimate goal.
And in Bayless' mind, ultimately, this is Cleveland's best chance to do exactly that.
"This is Cleveland's breakout year."
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