Cleveland Browns: Former Browns in Championship Week

Oct 23, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons center Alex Mack (51) over center against the San Diego Chargers in the third quarter at the Georgia Dome. The Chargers defeated the Falcons 33-30 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 23, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons center Alex Mack (51) over center against the San Diego Chargers in the third quarter at the Georgia Dome. The Chargers defeated the Falcons 33-30 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports /

These former members of the Cleveland Browns have found success with other teams, and now sit just one game away from an appearance in the Super Bowl.

For fans of the Cleveland Browns, the 2016 season is thankfully a distant memory. However, four NFL teams still remain in the running for the 51st Super Bowl title, a game which will take place two weeks from Sunday.

The Patriots, Steelers, Falcons, and Packers may not have a lot in common with the Browns. But if fans tune in to the two conference title games this Sunday afternoon and evening, they will recognize some familiar faces.

In total, seven notable players and coaches formerly with Cleveland will help decide which teams square off in Houston on February 5.

Bill Belichick

Quite possibly the most influential of the names on this list, the Canton-bound legendary head coach is seeking his seventh Super Bowl appearance as a head coach this weekend. Though his time in Cleveland is a minute portion of his great legacy, the coach did spend five seasons coaching the Browns, finishing his tenure with a 36-44 record.

Belichick’s remarkable success has continued in 2016, as he has led Tom Brady and the Patriots to a 14-2 record and yet another AFC Championship appearance. The Patriots host the Pittsburgh Steelers at 6:40 on Sunday.

Dion Lewis

As a part of the overlooked, underappreciated New England running backs unit, Dion Lewis has had a long history with various twists and turns. One of these occurred in Cleveland, where he enjoyed a cup of coffee.

After enjoying two successful seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, Lewis was traded to Cleveland for Emmanuel Acho. He impressed in two preseason victories over the Rams and Lions, but suffered a fractured fibula which sidelined him for the entirety of the 2013 season. Lewis was then cut just before the 2014 season.

The 26-year-old went on to have another cup of coffee with the Colts, before finding a role with the Patriots. This season, the former Pitt Panther has served more as a backup, but has still contributed 283 yards on the ground. As a weapon both on the ground and through the air, Lewis could have an impact in Sunday’s game.

Jabaal Sheard

A more recent Brown, Jabaal Sheard spent four full seasons in a Cleveland uniform before leaving for New England when becoming a free agent after 2014.

Sheard was one of the more respected Cleveland defensive linemen due to his devotion to the organization and resilience throughout four tough seasons. The 27-year-old missed just three games throughout his time with the Browns, proving to be one of the team’s treasured staples. In total, Sheard’s productive tenure in Cleveland can not merely be defined by his 23 sacks and 122 tackles.

Sheard now plays a significant role on the Patriots’ defensive line, and will look to help slow down the dynamic Le’Veon Bell this Sunday.

Justin Gilbert

One of the more forgettable Browns in franchise history is first round draft pick Justin Gilbert. Selected ninth overall in 2014, Gilbert was Ray Farmer’s first mistake in the infamous Johnny Manziel draft.

As all Cleveland fans know and wish they could forget, Gilbert turned out to be the definition of a bust. The highly touted cornerback out of Oklahoma State became irrelevant at best, despite being paid over $4 million a year. Before 2016, Gilbert was listed as a third string cornerback, and was dealt to Pittsburgh as a result in exchange for a 2018 sixth round draft pick.

Since Gilbert joined the Steelers, they have been creative in using him. On Sunday, expect the former Brown to do little more than return punts and kickoffs. Still, this is a role which shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Kyle Shanahan

Despite coming into postseason play as the second seed in the NFC, the Atlanta Falcons have taken on the role of underdogs. Despite having few offensive weapons, they scored more points than any team this regular season.

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A significant amount of credit for their success is due to offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. The well-respected offensive mind has without a doubt transformed quarterback Matt Ryan from an efficient player to a serious MVP contender.

Shanahan’s tenure in Cleveland lasted just one season, departing immediately following the 2014 season. As offensive coordinator, the current Atlanta assistant left on his own after a season filled with debate over the quarterback position involving Manziel and Brian Hoyer. And judging based on where he is now, it is hard to hold this against him.

Alex Mack

Besides Joe Thomas, current Atlanta center Alex Mack is the most beloved Cleveland offensive lineman in recent memory. Spending seven seasons with the Browns, Mack was selected to be a part of three Pro Bowl teams, and will make his fourth appearance this season.

Mack was one of the few consistencies for the Browns between 2009 and 2015, missing just 11 games in 2014. Now with the Falcons, Mack has made a very smooth transition to a dynamic offense which tops all of football in overall production.

Ranked the second overall offensive lineman and the top run blocker according to Pro Football Focus, the 31-year-old is now one of the main reasons Devonta Freeman and Atlanta’s running game has found success. In Sunday afternoon’s NFC title game against the Green Bay Packers, expect Mack and Atlanta’s offensive line to be a key to the Falcons’ success.

Taylor Gabriel

One of football’s breakout receivers this season, without a doubt, is Taylor Gabriel. In his first season with the Falcons, the speedster out of Abilene Christian has already contributed 630 all-purpose yards and six touchdowns.

As Browns fans may recall, Gabriel was in a Cleveland uniform in his first two NFL seasons, 2014 and 2015. The young receiver was a pleasant surprise to many, finishing with 621 receiving yards in his rookie season. Unfortunately, as has been the case with many other Cleveland receivers, instability at the quarterback position has resulted in missed opportunities and delayed development for the 25-year-old.

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But a move down to Atlanta and into Shanahan’s offense has allowed Gabriel to emerge as one of the better sub six-foot receivers in all of football. With an offense which spreads the ball around as well as any, there is always a chance Gabriel could be involved in some of the NFC title game’s most exciting plays.