NFL Power Rankings: How high can the Browns climb?

I’m keeping the Cleveland Browns in the No. 32 spot of our weekly NFL power rankings until they prove they deserve a promotion.

As I said in my preview on the Browns earlier this summer, I don’t believe they end up in the bottom spot this season. The talent on the roster is too good for that. They’ve looked good at times this preseason, too.

Many people like the Browns. The projected win total for the Browns in Las Vegas has been 5.5 most of the summer, and many people think they’ll hit the over. The line has moved to six in some places in Vegas, indicating how many bets are coming in on the over. ESPN’s David Purdham wrote a couple weeks ago that Vegas sportsbooks are getting flooded with Browns action to win the AFC North or the Super Bowl.

Defensive end Myles Garrett is one reason people believe the Browns will improve this season. (AP)

There are good reasons for optimism (not the Super Bowl-level optimism, let’s slow it down there). But for these weekly power rankings, the Browns have to show they don’t belong in the bottom spot. We need to see actual progress, not just hope for it.

[Yahoo Fantasy Football leagues are open: Sign up now for free]

The Browns were famously 0-16 last year, and are 1-31 the past two seasons. They’re 2-41 since Oct. 11, 2015. While it’s not crazy to project a big improvement, remember that the Browns could have a massive turnaround and still finish with double-digit losses. 

It’s not like it has been smooth sailing through the offseason. The coaching staff is still worrisome. The decision to not give No. 1 pick Baker Mayfield any practice or preseason time with the starters because Tyrod Taylorneeds every rep that he can get,” according to Hue Jackson, is bizarre. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams had a bad season last year, and calling his players “stupid” has already bothered Jackson. The Josh Gordon situation seems tenuous. An entirely out-of-the-blue controversy with linebacker Mychal Kendricks being charged with insider trading can’t help. The Browns cut the veteran linebacker. 

We saw on “Hard Knocks” time and again that the Browns are desperately trying to change a losing culture. We’ll see if it works.

With all that out of the way, let’s acknowledge that all those bets on the Browns aren’t crazy. The defense has been stockpiling talent, and it had moments of dominance this preseason. Myles Garrett could take a quantum leap to a superstar level this season. While I don’t agree with the decision to start Taylor, he’s a solid quarterback who is a massive upgrade from last season. A few teams would love to have the skill-position group of Carlos Hyde, Duke Johnson, Jarvis Landry, Gordon and David Njoku.

I just wonder how high you can set the ceiling, considering 6-10 would be an enormous jump. I don’t trust Jackson, or Williams really. They did nothing to maximize the talent the Browns had last season. There are questions at plenty of positions on the roster. Even an amazing season for them will probably top out at seven or eight wins. Once the Browns turn the upgrades at talent into some wins, they’ll move up in the power rankings. But after 1-31, they don’t deserve a benefit of the doubt.

Here are the NFL Power Rankings as we finally head into the regular season (you can read our in-depth team previews from the summer by clicking on the team name. “Last week” refers to our power rankings that were released before the preseason):

32. Cleveland Browns (Last week: 32)

Josh Gordon could lead the NFL in receiving yards. He could have another absence, another suspension or some other off-field issue. I hope Gordon has a great career from here forward, but I’m not sure how you can predict what will happen.

31. Buffalo Bills (LW: 28)

I hate to rank the Bills this low, because they were a playoff team last season. When the Bills announced that Nathan Peterman would be their Week 1 quarterback just about everyone with an opinion agreed it was the right move, but not because Peterman is some savior. Everyone liked it because they feel it’s better to have Peterman play in Buffalo’s terrible offense rather than set back Josh Allen’s development by putting him in such a bad spot. There’s your backhanded compliment of the NFL season.

30. Indianapolis Colts (LW: 31)

It was good to see Andrew Luck back on the field (though a foot injury he suffered is at least a little concerning). The problem is I still didn’t see much from the team around Luck to move them up that much. Maybe I’m underestimating how much of a difference Luck can make.

29. New York Jets (LW: 30)

One benefit of trading Teddy Bridgewater: Every time Sam Darnold makes a mistake, he doesn’t have to hear calls for Bridgewater to replace him. It would have happened. No matter what Bridgewater did in the preseason, Darnold is the future. The Jets didn’t need someone over his shoulder, and they got a third-round pick back. Win-win.

28. Arizona Cardinals (LW: 29)

The defense looked great through preseason, David Johnson looked strong and rookie receiver Christian Kirk has looked like a second-round steal. Don’t forget the Cardinals went 8-8 last season and they get back Johnson, who nearly won NFL offensive player of the year two seasons ago.

27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (LW: 22)

Jameis Winston had a great preseason. He looked like he’s ready to take a nice step forward. Of course, he’ll miss the first three games due to suspension. Maybe he loses the momentum during his time off, but it also seeems possible he plays 13 games like the franchise quarterback the Bucs have been waiting for. He showed signs of that in August.

26. Miami Dolphins (LW: 24)

It was startling how rarely Ryan Tannehill threw anything beyond a few yards downfield during the preseason. Just about every attempt was short. Were the Dolphins just not showing much because it was preseason, or is this the dink-and-dunk offense we can expect all season?

25. Oakland Raiders (LW: 19)

I’m not sure a new coach has ever put more pressure on himself before his first game than Jon Gruden. Gruden’s wild offseason is a little like when Josh McDaniels became the Broncos coach and tore apart the roster almost immediately, including a high-profile trade with Chicago (Jay Cutler then, Khalil Mack now). The entire NFL world is wondering what Gruden is doing. And, in terms of games coached, he still has all 10 years left on that $100 million contract.

24. New York Giants (LW: 25)

The minor hamstring injury to Saquon Barkley was a blessing in disguise. He’ll get a lot of carries this season. No reason to waste any wear and tear in the preseason.

23. Washington Redskins (LW: 23)

The NFL preseason came and went without too many serious injuries. That’s of no comfort to the Redskins, who saw running back Derrius Guice go down with a torn ACL. Adrian Peterson might help running between the tackles but I think we’ll ultimately look back at the Guice injury as being a big deal to their chances this season. It changed what Washington wanted to do on offense.

22. Cincinnati Bengals (LW: 27)

The Bengals had a very positive preseason. The defensive front seven, Joe Mixon, John Ross, Tyler Eifert, Andy Dalton and the offensive line all answered questions, and A.J. Green is as good as ever. Maybe this is a team that surprises us.

21. Seattle Seahawks (LW: 20)

There was a lot of talk about Khalil Mack and Aaron Donald holding out and what would happen, and very little was said about Seahawks safety Earl Thomas. Thomas is a Hall of Fame talent himself, and it’s strange why the Seahawks have alienated a player who has been perhaps their most valuable player, right along with Russell Wilson, over their great run. Mack and Donald got their deals, but this week started with practically no new update on Thomas other than him being seen in Seattle to take his daughter to her first day of school.

20. Chicago Bears (LW: 26)

Over the course of one crazy Saturday, Khalil Mack became the non-quarterback with the most pressure on him in the NFL. The Bears gave up a ton in a trade. They gave him a contract that not only made him the highest-paid defensive player ever, but it’s a contract that just a week ago seemed unheard of for a non-quarterback. On top of that, he goes to a team in a major market that is dying to win. The Bears have made the playoffs once in 11 seasons and famously haven’t won a Super Bowl since the 1985 season. Mack is a great player but the bar for him will be almost impossibly high.

19. Detroit Lions (LW: 16)

I’m interested to see what the Lions do with their running game. I would find it weird for them to trade up for Kerryon Johnson in the draft, then not feature him. He played well for most of the preseason. But we’ll see.

18. Denver Broncos (LW: 18)

The third preseason game showed what the Broncos can be. Case Keenum looked comfortable. Emmanuel Sanders looked like the dynamic playmaker we all know he can be when healthy. Royce Freeman broke a long touchdown run. The defense looked good, which is no surprise. The Broncos need a fast start this season, and they might be on track for one.

17. Tennessee Titans (LW: 15)

I don’t know what to make of the third preseason game. Marcus Mariota played almost a full half against the Steelers and looked bad. The whole offense did. Does it matter? Maybe not. There’s a lot of talent and I’m sure the new coaching staff wasn’t showing much. But it was troubling.

16. San Francisco 49ers (LW: 17)

Injuries happen, but losing Jerick McKinnon to a torn ACL in practice just before the season starts is brutal. That puts a lot more pressure on Jimmy Garoppolo, but the good news is he looked fantastic in August.

15. Houston Texans (LW: 21)

Deshaun Watson looked good in the Texans’ second preseason game (he didn’t play much in the first or third) and J.J. Watt got some work in as well. Their season opener against the Patriots might be the most fascinating game of Week 1.

14. Dallas Cowboys (LW: 12)

Make no mistake, center Travis Frederick being diagnosed with Guillain Barre Syndrome is as crushing a blow as any team has dealt with this offseason. Frederick is a great player and the Cowboys’ offensive line is a foundation of their success. He can’t be adequately replaced for however long he’s out.

13. Baltimore Ravens (LW: 14)

Lamar Jackson’s struggles for most of the preseason have one positive: There will be no lingering quarterback controversy. Perhaps the talk will kick up later this season if Joe Flacco really struggles, but it didn’t look like Jackson was ready to start.

12. Kansas City Chiefs (LW: 11)

We all know about Patrick Mahomes’ physical skills, but it was how he operated the offense that stood out in the preseason (fine, the 68-yard throw stood out too). Given how the Chiefs defense struggled in the preseason, Mahomes might have a lot of pressure on him to produce a lot of points in shootouts.

11. Carolina Panthers (LW: 13)

I like that the Panthers are going to feature Christian McCaffrey. His volume in the preseason was heavy, and a bit startling. I just hope McCaffrey holds up all season if that workload was a sign of things to come.

10. Atlanta Falcons (LW: 10)

The Falcons have quite an opportunity on Thursday night. They can not only get some playoff revenge against an Eagles team that won’t be at full strength, but send a message that they’re aiming at another NFC title. What a great season opener.

9. Los Angeles Chargers (LW: 9)

It was interesting to see Mike Williams make a few highlight plays in the preseason. If last year’s top-10 pick can be anywhere near what we thought he might be coming out of college, the Chargers are going to be really tough to stop.

8. Pittsburgh Steelers (LW: 7)

I’m more interested in the Steelers’ response to Le’Veon Bell not showing up Monday than to his absence itself (at least at this point, we’ll see how long he stays away). Just because everyone assumed Bell would show up Monday didn’t mean he would. For practical purposes, NFL teams start their preparation for a Sunday game on Wednesday. Sure, it would have been better for the Steelers if Bell showed up Monday, but it’s not like he can’t play if he shows up Wednesday. Why would the team back him into a corner by releasing an snippy statement about him not showing up? There was no harm in them playing it cool until Wednesday. If they were that concerned about him reporting already, why not give Bell what he wanted instead of slapping him with the franchise tag he didn’t want?

7. Green Bay Packers (LW: 8)

It seemed pretty clear in preseason that the Packers found a couple of good cornerbacks in Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson with their first two picks. If what we saw holds true in the regular season, the Packers are in good shape for a while at one of the NFL’s most valuable positions.

6. Jacksonville Jaguars (LW: 6)

While Marqise Lee’s season-ending ACL injury was tough, I think the Jaguars will be fine. Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook showed a lot as rookies last season. I don’t think Donte Moncrief is worth the $9.6 million the Jaguars gave him in free agency, but he can fill in too. Losing Lee doesn’t change that I think the Jaguars can fully repeat everything they did last season.

5. New Orleans Saints (LW: 5)

If you think trading a third-round pick is worth having a solid backup, even if Drew Brees is as durable as there has ever been, that’s fine. But hailing the Saints’ trade for Teddy Bridgewater as a win because the Saints found their future at quarterback is really odd. Maybe Bridgewater really is willing to sign a below-market deal and sit behind Drew Brees for who knows how long. But I still find it very hard to believe both Brees and Bridgewater are on the 2019 Saints.

4. Philadelphia Eagles (LW: 4)

Maybe Doug Pederson’s testy news conference in which he said he wouldn’t announce his Week 1 quarterback was some reverse psychology before the season opener. I wouldn’t put it past him. He’s a sharp guy and he knows what he’s doing. However, here’s what it looked like on the surface: A coach frustrated by things other than someone reporting that Nick Foles would start Week 1. Everyone assumed Foles would start. It wasn’t a big deal. Between Peterson’s brief standoff with the local media, and the news item that the Eagles would remove a Super Bowl champions sign in their locker room, it seems possible there are signs of a Super Bowl hangover already.

3. New England Patriots (LW: 3)

It’s best to not question how the pieces will fit on offense. They always do in New England. But I am interested to see how the receivers surrounding Chris Hogan look during Julian Edelman’s absence. Cordarrelle Patterson has never been a reliable receiver and Phillip Dorsett is less reliable than Patterson. I assume it will work out, but I can’t tell you how.

2. Los Angeles Rams (LW: 2)

I don’t mind the strategy of sitting practically everyone in August to avoid injuries, as Sean McVay did with the Rams. Whatever you lose by not getting game reps in preseason, you’d lose even more if Todd Gurley went down with an injury. McVay will be second guessed if the Rams start the season slow, but the approach makes sense.

1. Minnesota Vikings (LW: 1)

I am concerned about the offensive line. It wasn’t good to begin with and took on injuries. I’m sticking with them at No. 1, because I like what’s around the line and I’m being stubborn. But I’m nervous about what we’ll see from the Vikings’ line the first few weeks. It could absolutely sink their season.

More from Yahoo Sports:
Angry Nike customers are setting their gear on fire
Charles Robinson: ‘The most controversial move that Nike has ever made’
Pete Thamel: Taggart’s FSU debut goes down in flames
ESPN announcer taken off Washington games

– – – – – – –

Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!