Here's a tangy taste of reality for you: The Cleveland Browns are seen by some prospective veterans as a Super Bowl contender.
No, it isn't 1987. John Elway isn't lurking in the shadows, waiting to ruin Cleveland's dreams on the doorstep of the sport's biggest game. And for the first time in what seems like decades, Cleveland has become a free-agent destination, proven by safety John Johnson's decision to take less money than what was reportedly offered by other teams to instead chase new heights with the Browns.
Malik Jackson is another one of the veterans who decided to join the Browns with an eye on a lofty prize, telling reporters he chose Cleveland because he sees the team as "a Super Bowl contender," adding "that's what I wanted," per the Associated Press' Tom Withers.
Browns fans might shiver at the thought of players placing great expectations on their team. Just two years ago, the club was making headlines after acquiring Odell Beckham, and it wasn't long before fellow Browns were making Super Bowl predictions.
Months later, the Browns proved their eyes were bigger than their stomachs. Cleveland fell flat in a very public fashion, finishing 6-10, miles from their expectations.
That doesn't dissuade Jackson from putting SoFi Stadium, the home of Super Bowl LVI, in his crosshairs.
"The day after the Super Bowl, if you're not saying, 'My team is going to the Super Bowl next year,' then you're wrong," Jackson said. "I think you have to put yourself in the mindset of being great and expecting to be great and letting things fall where they may after now 17 weeks. I don't think it's bad guys having expectations. I think it makes you work harder and it puts expectations on you that you want to meet."
There's plenty of reason to see Cleveland as an attractive destination for defensive linemen looking for a new opportunity. The Browns boast a front that returns the incredibly talented Myles Garrett at defensive end and game-wrecking interior lineman Sheldon Richardson, two players who have helped turn Cleveland's defensive line into a menace. New addition Takkarist McKinley recently said their presence excited him about the potential of the Browns with his inclusion in 2021.
"You've got a dog on the other side of you," McKinley said recently, via the team's official website. "You've got someone who is going to battle for you, go hard, go 100 percent. I've been showing a lot of flashes in my career, and it's all about being consistent now. I'm excited to team up with Myles, Sheldon Richardson and this defense and continue to get better."
That made Cleveland a fairly easy choice for Jackson, who will replace the departed Larry Ogunjobi on the Browns' defensive line and play next to Richardson, making for a formidable one-two punch on the interior. Jackson believes Cleveland's roster stands on its own as an attractive choice for a new home for those remaining without a team, too, and he doesn't feel as if he needs to sell their chances to anyone. If they want an opportunity to chase a title, he thinks top remaining defenders such as Jadeveon Clowney should already be convinced when considering the Browns.
"I don't think I have to (make a recruiting pitch to Clowney), to be honest with you," Jackson said. "It's one of those things that the team speaks for itself and what we're trying to build speaks for itself. If you want to hop on board, come hop on board. I understand the free agency market isn't what he probably wants, but things are bigger than monetary value, and you get a chance to be on a good team and set yourself up in the future."
Clowney's market isn't nearly as strong as it was a year ago, when he rode out free agency into its 11th hour before signing with Tennessee, where he didn't make the impact anyone envisioned before an injury ended his season prematurely. Again a free agent, Clowney has already made a stop in Cleveland to get to know the organization, but has yet to make a decision.
Should he be convinced the Browns are headed in the direction that Jackson firmly believes is an incredibly promising one, perhaps he'll land in Cleveland. For Jackson, he already knows he made the right move.