Postcard from Cleveland

Postcard from training camp.... Day eight - Cleveland Browns

After taking the weekend to see if the excitement of being in a team's training camp would pass, I can confirm that I still indeed believe the Cleveland Browns are destined to be one of THE biggest stories of the 2019 season and they will be a playoff team.

I visited the Browns on the final day of my training camp tour that featured stops in Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville, Houston, San Francisco, Napa, Los Angeles, a medical scanning suite in LA, Chicago and Cleveland.

I was operating on fumes by the time I walked into the Browns' facility in Berea, Ohio, on Friday morning. But I was excited to see what all the fuss was about for myself and this team gave me the jolt of energy required to get over the finish line.

The Browns are for real and there is a special feeling in the air. Move over driver, I'll take charge of the hype train from here!

The Browns are relevant and exciting for the first time in decades following the recent additions of wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, pass rushers Myles Garrett, Olivier Vernon and Sheldon Richardson, as well as the drafting of star quarterback Baker Mayfield.

OBJ grabs so many headlines and rightly so... but Mayfield is going to be the key to a long-term turnaround in Ohio. He not only boasts talent to die for at the game's most vital position, he also exudes confidence and swagger. The sophomore passer gives the impression of never backing down from any fight and the team is definitely following his lead.

Rather than crumble under the weight of expectation (which is a new pressure not felt in Cleveland for some time), the Browns appear to embracing the challenge and while they have a pretty tough start with opening games against Tennessee, New York Jets, Los Angeles Rams and Baltimore; I feel they are going to rise to the challenge this season.

And so many people will be behind them as they embark on the 2019 season. The long-time lovable losers of the NFL could become everyone's second-favourite team. They are certainly going to be fun to watch.

Camp Thoughts

The friendship between Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry is most definitely not something that has been created in order to grab some heart-warming media attention. The pair are like brothers and you can tell how happy they are to be together on the same team, particularly OBJ. They run out of the locker room together at the start of practice, they play catch during special teams drills in training camp and they hang out together a great deal when away from the gridiron. OBJ told me: "I'm thankful. I get to watch his kids grow up. I get to hold his son. I get to hold his daughter. It's like college all over again... just with different uniforms and a little more money."

The next time you see OBJ make a one-handed catch in a game, you can now appreciate the work that has gone into it. At the end of practice, Odell walked into the field house where we were going to conduct our interview. He jogged over to say hi and then said he would come back once he had finished a few bits and pieces. OBJ then stood about seven yards from a fully-firing jugs machine and reeled in 100 one-handed catches. I didn't see a single ball hit the ground. I've seen him work like that on TV but never from 20 yards away. It was stunning and inspiring at the same time. It was like watching Spiderman in full superhero mode. That kind of grind backing up superb natural talent is what makes this guy so game-breakingly exciting on Sundays.

Imagine how good it feels to be linebacker Christian Kirksey and offensive lineman Joel Bitonio about now. Both went through the misery of 0-16 in 2017 and both are now key members of a team promises to rise from the dirt. Bitonio told me: "We were in a dark place. It was tough." Kirksey added: "The character shows because we were at a low moment and we faced adversity and have been able to deal with it. I've seen the losing and have been made fun of and now I can look back and say that I have come a long way." If the Browns do complete a remarkable turnaround and become one of the NFL's power teams over the next few years, I hope Bitonio and Kirksey are a big part of that success. They deserve it because they have paid their dues.

One to Watch

Freddie Kitchens - Head Coach

There is so much to be excited about in Cleveland and so many big names to focus on, that we forget Freddie Kitchens is about to embark on his first full year as the head coach. But he will, of course, have a vital role to play. He not only brings a comfort level to Mayfield in terms of the running of the offense, he also shares the same mental makeup of his quarterback. Bitonio told me: "He and Baker have similar personalities. He's very confident, he knows what he wants and he knows what he's doing. He keeps things fun but he knows that when we have to work, he makes sure we're working." Mayfield will get the headlines, but it is Kitchens who will play such a massive part in making sure this team lives up to expectations.

Quote of the Day

"Everybody has individual goals but to put them aside and really be part of something special is more than breaking whatever record you could possibly find. If I went for 3,000 yards but won one game, I'm not going to be happy. Cool, the stats are there, but I hate losing. It's not okay for me to lose - I'm not a good loser. I can admit that." - Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. on his desire for team success in 2019.

Inside the Game

The energy and physicality of practice is what struck me when I visited the Browns on Friday. You could feel the positive vibes in the air. Players were dancing to songs in between plays, many mimicking moves being broken out by the ever-active OBJ. The Pro Bowl receiver looks in his absolute element on the football field. He reels in one-handed catches, plays up to the fans and as soon as he spies a football lying on the ground, he flicks it up and begins doing keepy-ups. There is a business side, too. And these Browns practised with an intensity that was notable on this trip. They might have been the most physical team I saw and I was fortunate to catch most clubs working in pads. The Browns hit hard and all the way to the ground on running plays and that is rare in today's NFL. There is going to be more than just flash about these Browns - they are also building some substance.

The Last Word

This training camp tour was a reminder that the 2019 season is just around the corner and I cannot wait now that the appetite has been well and truly whetted. It was also a reminder of how open and helpful teams of the National Football League can be, offering up the likes of Deshaun Watson, JJ Watt, Aaron Donald, Jon Gruden, Bruce Arians and Odell Beckham Jr. for sit-down interviews on the same trip. The teams rolled out the big names and I just had to ask the questions, mainline coffee and rack up the air miles from city to city. It was a great deal of fun and thanks for following along by reading these postcards. Next stop... Week 1 of the 2019 season. See you there!

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