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Are the Cleveland Browns becoming a force to be reckoned with?

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The Cleveland Browns have been the laughing stock of the AFC North for years, but are they on the cusp of becoming a legitimate contender?

NFL: Cleveland Browns-Press Conference Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Are the Cleveland Browns a threat to the Steelers’ chances of winning the AFC North in 2017? Probably not, but pretty soon they might be.

Ask any fan of the black and gold what the largest non-injury related threat to the Steelers’ chances of having a successful season and listen to their responses. There’s the Patriots obviously. The Cowboys are young and talented. In the AFC North, there’s the arch rival Ravens that came within Antonio Brown’s outstretched arm of winning the division. The Bengals have played the Steelers tough recently, and they have no issue engaging in the extracurriculars outside of the whistle.

Noticeably absent from that list? The Steelers other division rivals, the Cleveland Browns. On the one hand, it’s a little strange to so outright dismiss a division rival that gets to play the Steelers twice a year as being no threat to the Steelers. On the other hand, it’s the Cleveland Browns we’re talking about.

A team that has been the playoffs once since returning to the league in 1999. A team that has started 26 quarterbacks over the course of 18 seasons. A team that plays in a stadium where the winningest quarterback that has played in that stadium is actually Ben Roethlisberger (technically he’s tied with Derek Anderson, each with having 10 wins in FirstEnergy Stadium, but don’t let facts get in the way of a good narrative). A team that…you get the idea.

The point is, the Cleveland Browns are realistically not a threat to the Steelers in 2017. They’re a young roster coming off a 1-15 2016 campaign. The quarterbacks on their roster aren’t going to scare anyone, and breakout star Tyrelle Pryor, who was able to successfully transition from quarterback into wide receiver, left the team after they couldn’t agree to a contract. There’s no reason to confidently believe 2017 will be different for the Browns than years past.

However, Cleveland has spent the last two years laying the groundwork for future success. That young roster, with proper coaching and good luck, could grow into a threat to the Steelers. Part of that groundwork has been Cleveland’s willingness to try new things. Instead of drafting a quarterback in the draft, a strategy they clearly have not been able to get right, the Browns have instead accumulated as many picks as possible to increase their odds of finding capable players. While it doesn’t guarantee a winning draw, having the most tickets in a raffle is never a bad idea.

The advanced stats revolution that rose to popularity with “Moneyball” in the early 2000s hasn’t caught on in football like it has in other sports, notably baseball, basketball and hockey, but it is coming to football, and the Browns may be at the head of it. In January of 2016 the Browns hired Paul DePodesta to be their Chief Strategy Officer. Prior to the Browns hiring him, DePodesta had worked in Major League Baseball for 20 years, often on forefront of the stats revolution. Jonah Hill’s character from the movie adaptation of Moneyball is partially based on DePodesta. He’s been mum on what his role has been with the Browns, but a recent profile from Peter King at the MMQB sheds some light on his job.

For how the Browns turnaround can work, parallels can be seen from the Toronto Maple Leafs of the NHL. For non-hockey fans, here’s the story in a nutshell: After two years of underwhelming performances, the Leafs were ready for a new approach. In 2015, they cleaned house and brought in a new regime in the front office and set about making much needed changes to the roster. Rather than delude themselves and their fans into thinking they could contend for the 2015-2016 season, the team decided to tank. They bought out or traded veteran players to create salary space, and brought in young cheap players. They played their way to the worst record in the league, and the number one draft pick. In summer 2016, they brought in some key veteran players to retool their roster. In the 2016-2017 season the young players they had brought in now had some experience and were able to elevate their game, and that number one draft pick turned into Auston Matthews, a bona-fide superstar. The Leafs returned to the postseason for the first time in four years and even though they lost in the first round, they appear posed to be a serious contender very soon.

Obviously, the Browns comparison isn’t a perfect one. The NHL has an actual minor league where teams can acquire and develop prospects that the NFL doesn’t have. The Leafs were able to acquire a once in a generation type of player who happened to enter the draft just as their rebuild started. The young players all took major steps forward at the same time. That kind of luck is almost unfathomable. But while the one year turnaround from worst to first may be unrealistic, it does give the Browns a blueprint to work off of.

The Browns still need to find a capable quarterback and some weapons. Young players need to grow. Hoarding draft picks is a solid strategy, but they need to be lucky and hit on some of those picks becoming solid NFL players to make the turnaround. Patience isn’t an attribute that’s in high supply across the NFL. Another slow start could mean the end of this era of the Browns and it’s time for yet another rebuilding plan.

Heading into the start of the NFL season, there’s absolutely no reason to think that by time the calendar turns to October, the Cleveland Browns will be serious contenders for the AFC North lead. However, say in October 2018, that could very well be the case. If you’re still tempted to scoff at the idea of the Browns ever contending, just take a look back in Steeler’s history. Up until 1969 the Steelers were considered a joke of a franchise. Then they decided to change up their organizational philosophy and they brought in a new head coach by the name of Noll. In his first year he went 1-13, but over the next few years he collected some young talent and began to groom them for bigger roles. Ten years later Noll had four Super Bowl rings and the Steelers were no longer a laughingstock. The Browns will be worth keeping an eye on going forward.