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Behind Enemy Lines: How the Browns could be AFC North contenders sooner than you might think

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In preparation for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Week 17 game against the Cleveland Browns, I was able to have a chat with “Dawgs by Nature” editor Chris Pokorny to get the lowdown from the other side of the fence.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cleveland Browns Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The Cleveland Browns aren’t that good. They’ve got only one win this season, but they’re also the team that stands in front of the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on Week 17, as the two teams prepare to wrap up the 2016 regular season.

In preparation for this meaningless game, I was able to chat about the upcoming matchup with Chris Pokorny, editor of SB Nation’s Browns website. We discussed how there might still be a ray of hope in Cleveland and just how long it might take for the Browns to be competitive again.

So the Browns finally won a football game, and theyre loaded with draft picks in the 2017 NFL Draft. What are the odds, in you opinion, that the organization actually allows Hue Jackson to turn this nothing into something?

Your question can be taken in two ways. First, is the front office going to be on the same page with Hue Jackson and work with him to assemble the draft board? I would say yes -- that’s not a problem. The second way I take your question is, regardless of that collaboration, can this current regime actually put together a good draft class? I would say that anyone who gives you a confident "yes" is being way too optimistic. We've been waiting for that great draft class since the team came back in 1999, and regime after regime has failed. It's actually quite difficult to be so bad for so long. The thing I hold out hope for is the amount of ammunition the team has in draft picks over the next two years, including probably two top-10 picks in 2017. The Browns have had several years of double first-round picks, and they’ve come away with pairings like Trent Richardson/Brandon Weeden, Justin Gilbert/Johnny Manziel, and Danny Shelton/Cameron Erving. Not exactly the most star-studded group, eh? But two top-10 picks is a different story -- I think we're talking about some can't-miss players, and essentially the same way that the Raiders rebuilt their club so quickly. So in that light, I'm optimistic that the team is in position to allow Jackson to turn this into something.

Although the season went south early for Cleveland, what are some positives to be brought out of the 2016 season?

I'll name five bullet-point positives, which might seem minor, but they help with some depth issues:

  • Terrelle Pryor, assuming he stays in Cleveland, will help form a good one-two punch at the receiver position with Corey Coleman.
  • Emmanuel Ogbah, the team's pick at No. 32 overall, leads the team in sacks and has been showing progress when it comes to pressuring the quarterback.
  • At cornerback, Jamar Taylor was given a contract extension as a stable starter (acquired for a 7th round pick in the 2016 draft), and undrafted rookie Briean Boddy-Calhoun has settled in to his nickelback spot.
  • At safety, Ed Reynolds won't be a superstar, but he turned a god-awful-leaky-every-week position into a stable one by making all of the "last-line-of-defense" tackles that other guys weren't making once he was inserted into the starting lineup.
  • Cody Parkey, after missing three field goals in his first game with the club, has only missed one since then, and could prevent the team from having to find a kicker this offseason.

Assuming the ownership gives Hue Jackson time to make the appropriate changes, how long would it take for this Browns team to become a contender in the AFC North?

I'd feel embarrassed to even try to sound optimistic, but my general stance with almost any team in the NFL is that the switch can be flipped -- at least to flirt with a .500 record -- in one season, even for the Browns, as bad as they've been. I think you only have to look at the recent success of the Titans and Buccaneers to believe in that. I also see Baltimore's offense being shaky for awhile and Cincinnati being a bit lost in no-man's land. If those two teams fall, making this a weaker division, Cleveland can climb right back up...but I still think it's awhile before they can take out the well-oiled machine in Pittsburgh.

What are some names of players on Cleveland's roster who fans should know about...

I already mentioned a few players from the secondary in the second question -- starting cornerback Jamar Taylor, nickelback Briean Boddy-Calhoun and safety Ed Reynolds. I wish a few more youngsters would have shined this season, but it hasn't shaken out that way. If I had to throw a name at the dart board, I'd go with backup tight end Seth DeValve. He doesn't have many receptions this year due to a lack of playing time, but I wouldn't be surprised if, in this Week 17 game, he gets featured a whole lot more.

The Steelers are going to rest a lot of their starters on Sunday. How do you see this game playing out?

Backups on contending teams can often be fueled to play better than starters on bad teams, not because they’re collectively better players, but because they have been part of a winning culture and have that motivation to take advantage of playing time they haven't gotten all year. I've seen the Browns allow eight or nine sacks a week for nearly a month now, which is shockingly bad. Terrelle Pryor is trying to play through a middle finger injury. Offensively, I can't see Cleveland tearing the Steelers apart. Where I could see some success is the fact that I don't think Landry Jones is a very good quarterback, and a couple of stalled drives at the right time might be enough for Cleveland to string together something on offense. I'll probably lean a hair toward Cleveland winning.