Sep 042016
 

Quarterback

In 2012, the Browns had the 4th overall pick and a massive need at quarterback. Andrew Luck was a lock to go #1, but the Rams, picking 2nd overall, didn’t need Heisman winner Robert Griffin, so there was an opportunity for the Browns to move up to get him. They were unable to and the Redskins leaped the Browns, paying a pair of 1st round picks and a 2nd round pick to move up from 6 to 2 to take Griffin. The Browns were left taking running back Trent Richardson and then taking quarterback Brandon Weeden later in the first round, both of whom busted. Neither spent more than 2 years in Cleveland.

In 2012, the rookie year of Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin, and Russell Wilson, it was a legitimate debate which of the three was the best and a debate that Griffin often won. He won that debate with the Offensive Rookie of the Year award voters, who gave him that award in 2012 ahead of Luck and Wilson. It all seemed well deserved, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked quarterback that year, and he seemed to have an incredible future ahead of him. Instead, while Luck and Wilson saw their careers progress, Griffin’s potential came to a screeching halt.

It all started with an ACL tear suffered in a playoff loss to the Seahawks to end the 2012 season. Griffin made it back for week 1 in 2013, but he wasn’t the same, completing 60.1% of his passes for an average of 7.02 YPA, 16 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions, while grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 26th ranked quarterback out of 42 eligible. His rushing totals fell from 815 yards and 7 touchdowns on 120 carries in 2012 (6.79 YPC) to 489 yards and 0 touchdowns on 86 carries in 2013 (5.69 YPC). He missed the final 3 games of the season, in part to rest his knee with the season essentially over, in part because the organization wanted to get a better look at backup Kirk Cousins.

Griffin’s 2014 should have been better, but he didn’t bounce back. Excuses can be made. He suffered another injury, dislocating his ankle in week 2. He was never a good fit for new head coach Jay Gruden’s offense and Gruden never gave him a fair chance and refused to tweak his offense for him. It was evident all season long that Gruden never really thought much of the quarterback he inherited, even leaving him on the bench when healthy upon return from injury for a little bit to test out other quarterbacks. He entered 2015 as the starter, but lost the starting job to Cousins in the pre-season and didn’t play a snap all season.

Still annually in need of quarterback help, the Browns signed Robert Griffin to a 2-year, 15 million dollar deal this off-season and are giving him a fresh start and a chance to prove that 2012 wasn’t a complete fluke. He’s in an offense under new head coach Hue Jackson that fits his skill set better than Gruden’s in Washington did and his body should be in as good of physical shape as possible after a year of rest on game days. With low expectations, I like his chances of surprising and showing he still has something left in the tank, still only going into his age 26 season. I know this isn’t saying much, but he’s arguably the most talented quarterback the Browns have had since rejoining the NFL in 1999.

Incumbent starting quarterback Josh McCown is still around and the Browns have made him expensive to acquire in trade, so it’ll probably stay that way into the season. McCown would be the next guy up if Griffin were to get hurt again. McCown is an 14-year NFL veteran with 57 career starts, but he has career QB rating of just 78.7 and has graded out above average just twice in 9 seasons on Pro Football Focus. Going into his age 37 season, he’s nothing more than a veteran backup, following a 2015 season in which he missed 8 games with injury and finished 29th out of 38 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. The Browns also added USC quarterback Cody Kessler in the 3rd round of the draft. He’ll start his career as the 3rd quarterback and is unlikely to make snaps in 2016, but could be a starting option down the line and may see action late in the year if the offense is struggling and the season has been rendered meaningless.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

Unfortunately, the Browns; offense could struggle even if Griffin does have a bounce back year. The Browns ranked 28th in rate of moving the chains in 2015 and had plenty of problems beyond the quarterback position. The same is true of the team as a whole as they finished 29th in rate of moving the chains differential in 2015, finishing just 3-13. Making matters worse, the Browns lost several key starters as free agents this off-season from a team that wasn’t very talented to begin with. Griffin is unlikely to ever reach his 2012 form again and that’s what he’d have to do for this team to even sniff the playoffs.

Two of those key starters were offensive linemen, and they were valuable ones, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz and center Alex Mack. Schwartz signed with the Chiefs for 33 million over 5 years, very reasonable considering he was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked offensive tackle in 2015. The Browns had plenty of cap space to outbid the Chiefs, but Schwartz reportedly had no interest in returning to the Browns, who have been stuck in the cellar of the NFL for a decade and a half and are showing no signs of turning it around soon.

Mack reportedly had no interest in returning either, opting out of the final 3 years and 24 million of the 5-year, 42 million dollar extension the Browns signed him to two off-seasons ago and taking a 5-year, 45 million dollar deal in Atlanta. As now the highest paid center in the league, Mack was overpaid, but he’ll definitely be missed. The Browns were anticipating losing either Schwartz or Mack this off-season and used the 19th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft on Cameron Erving, who played all over the offensive line at Florida State, but losing both Mack and Schwartz complicates matters.

On top of that, Erving struggled mightily on 425 snaps at guard in 2015, finishing 79th out of 81 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus. It’s far too early to write him off as a bust and the Browns are hoping that he can have a much improved 2nd year in the league now at his best collegiate position of center. The Browns gave him a show of confidence by not drafting a single center, but there are certainly no guarantees he plays well. Even if he’s significantly better this season, he has a long ways to go to be good.

At right tackle, the competition is much more wide open. The Browns used a 3rd round pick on Auburn’s Shon Coleman, but he’ll have to compete with a pair of veterans for the starting job. One of those veterans is Austin Pasztor, but he struggled last season on 301 snaps at guard. He’s made 27 starts between guard and tackle in 4 seasons in the league, but the 2012 undrafted free agent has never graded out above average at right tackle. The other veteran is Alvin Bailey who has just 8 career starts in 3 years in the league since going in the 4th round in 2013. He’s struggled mightily in each of the last 2 seasons, including 67th out of 77 eligible offensive tackles on 271 snaps in 2015. He’s reportedly the favorite and would be a huge dropoff from Schwartz. Whoever wins the starting job, this should be a position of weakness and we could see 2-3 different starters.

The rest of the offensive line is still in good shape though, as left tackle Joe Thomas, left guard Joel Bitonio, and right guard John Greco all return. Even on an overall bad team in 2015, the offensive line played well and was easily the Browns’ best unit. It’s still easily their best unit, but only by default. Thomas is still playing at an incredibly high level on the blindside, finishing 1st among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. The best offensive tackle of his generation, Thomas hasn’t missed a snap in 144 of 144 possible starts in 9 seasons in the league since the Browns drafted him 3rd overall in 2007.

Thomas has finished in the top-10 among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in all 9 seasons in the league and, even going into his age 32 season, he should do so again in 2016. A future Hall-of-Famer, it’s a shame Thomas has spent most of his career on bad teams surrounded by little talent. To his credit of his patience, he says he wants to stay in Cleveland through this next rebuild, but you start to wonder if he’ll get sick of losing and want out sometime in the next couple years as he gets into his mid 30s.

Bitonio and Greco, meanwhile, are one of the league’s better guard duos. They finished 32nd and 25th respectively among guards in 2016. Bitonio was better as a rookie, finishing 5th among guards before an injury plagued 2nd season in the league in which he only played 10 games. Going into his 3rd year in the league, the 2014 2nd round pick has obvious bounce back potential. Greco’s 2015, on the other hand, was pretty par for the course, as he’s graded out above average in all 8 seasons in his career, including the last 4 as a starter. He’s finished 19th, 30th, 11th, and 25th respectively in those 4 seasons and made 54 starts over that time period. Even going into his age 31 season, he should have a couple more solid seasons in the tank. It’s still a strong offensive line, but they’ll obviously miss Mack and Schwartz.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

Though they have arguably the weakest lineup in football, they did have 14 draft picks to try to turn this team around long-term, after trading down from #2 to #8 to allow the Eagles to move up to take quarterback Carson Wentz. From the Eagles, the Browns got a 3rd round pick and a 4th round pick this year, along with a 1st round pick in 2017, and a 2nd round pick in 2018 to move down 6 spots and then picked up another 3rd and a 2017 2nd round pick in a trade with Tennessee in which they moved down again from 15 to 8.

Not only did the Browns end up with a ton of picks this year, but they have added extra high picks in the next two drafts. Between those and the compensatory picks they’re expected to get next off-season to cover all of their off-season losses this year, the Browns should have a lot of draft picks in the next two drafts as well. Those will obviously be critical to this rebuild, as they enter another new regime with head coach Hue Jackson (formerly offensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals) and general manager Sashi Brown coming in.

The Browns desperately need a quarterback though, so, if Wentz pans out, many will question, in hindsight, the Browns decision to trade down, let the Eagles have Wentz, and instead go into 2016 with the veteran Griffin and rookie 3rd round pick Kessler. In addition to using that 3rd round pick on a quarterback, the Browns used two picks on the offensive line (right tackle Shon Coleman in the 3rd round and then reserve guard Spencer Drango in the 5th round) and a whopping five picks in the receiving corps. With the Browns losing Travis Benjamin and Brian Hartline, who made a combined 19 starts in 2015 and finished 1st and 2nd among wide receivers in receiving yardage, a couple of those rookies could have to play big roles as a rookie. Neither Benjamin nor Hartline were great players, but this is a very young group right now.

Corey Coleman, who the Browns selected 15th overall after trading down with the Titans, figures to start and could be their leading receiver. He could easily see the 124 targets the departed Travis Benjamin saw and could put up similar numbers (68/966/5), even as a rookie. He may not play great as a rookie, but Benjamin didn’t play great either and only had solid numbers because he had such a big role and caught just 54.8% of his targets. Coleman, Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked draft prospect and top ranked wide receiver prospect, has much higher upside long-term than the departed Benjamin and might even be better in 2016.

Josh Gordon is expected to be the starter opposite Coleman when he finally returns from suspension, after missing all of last season and all but 5 games in 2014, as a result of multiple failed drug tests. Gordon might be another slip up away from being permanently kicked out of the league, but he’ll be a welcome re-addition this season, considering he was one of the best receivers in the league in 14 games in 2013 and is still only going into his age 25 season. Gordon wasn’t the same player in limited action in 2014 and could be rusty after all the time off, but he’s definitely better than the Browns’ other options.

For the first 4 games of the season, it’s unclear who the starter opposite Coleman will be. Ex-quarterback Terrelle Pryor has looked good this pre-season, but he’s still very raw and very unproven as a wide receiver; he’s played just 91 career regular season snaps at the position. Andrew Hawkins is a veteran option. Hawkins was actually Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked wide receiver in 2014 and the 2011 undrafted free agent graded out above average in each of his first 4 seasons in the league. However, he fell to 89 out of 121 eligible on 415 snaps in 8 games in an injury plagued 2015 season, easily the worst year of his career. Hawkins is best as a slot receiver at 5-7 180 and has never played more than 667 snaps in a season. Owed 2.5 million non-guaranteed in his age 30 season in 2016, on a roster with a lot of rookie receivers, he’s not even a lock for the final roster.

If Hawkins doesn’t make the final roster, 5th round rookie Rashard Higgins would open the year as at least the 3rd receiver behind Coleman and Pryor. As much as you don’t want to count on a 5th round rookie receiver for a significant role, Higgins was a steal and earned a 2nd round grade from Pro Football Focus, so they could do a lot worse. When Gordon returns, he and Pryor will compete for snaps behind the starters. The Browns also drafted Ricardo Louis in the 4th round and Jordan Payton in the 5th round. Neither figures to have much of a rookie year role, but they should still make the final roster. Teams don’t like to give up on even mid round picks this early and there’s no guarantee either would pass through waivers unclaimed if the Browns tried to add either to the practice squad.

Seth DeValve, a 4th round pick, was the other pass catcher the Browns added through the draft. The big 6-4 245 pound ex-wide receiver out of Princeton will convert to tight end in the NFL. He got an undrafted grade from Pro Football Focus and will be the #2 tight end at best because starter Gary Barnidge led this team in receiving in 2015, catching 79 passes for 1043 yards and 9 touchdowns, and could easily do so again in 2016. He wasn’t quite as good overall as those numbers suggest, as the 6-6 250 pounder struggled mightily as a run blocker and finished “just” 15th overall among tight ends on Pro Football Focus, but he finished 8th in pure pass catching grade and joined Rob Gronkowski, Greg Olsen, and Delanie Walker as the only four tight ends to have a 1000+ yard season in 2015.

He’s also a complete one-year wonder who had just 44 catches in his career going into 2015 and he’s already going into his age 31 season and his 9th year in the league. Still, he was an obvious value on the 3-year, 12.3 million dollar extension the Browns gave him last December, ahead of his pending free agency. He’ll be a liability in the run game and might not match last year’s numbers, but he’s one of their best offensive players. DeValve, meanwhile, will compete with 2015 undrafted free agent EJ Bibbs, who played just 37 nondescript snaps as a rookie, for the #2 job and may be seen as the long-term heir apparent to Barnidge. It’s a receiving corps with a lot of problems, but also a lot of upside. Overall, the Browns’ receivers are probably improved over last season, though that’s not saying a lot.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

With as many picks as they had, it’s really surprising the Browns didn’t add a single running back in the draft. The Browns have a pair of young running backs in Duke Johnson (3rd round in 2015) and Isaiah Crowell (undrafted in 2014) that both had 150+ touches last season, but both are from the previous regime and they averaged just 3.64 YPC and 3.82 YPC respectively in 2015, so most believed they’d add another back at some point. Johnson provides value as a pass catcher out of the backfield in the Darren Sproles/Danny Woodhead role, catching 61 passes for 534 yards and 2 touchdowns as a rookie and grading out 4th among running backs in pass catching grade on Pro Football Focus, and he still has upside as a runner, going into his 2nd year in the league.

However, Crowell has averaged just 3.94 YPC on 333 carries and has caught just 28 passes in 32 career games in 2 seasons in the league, since going undrafted in 2014. The Browns should have at least added competition for him, but all they added was 2015 undrafted free agent Terrell Watson, who follows Hue Jackson from Cincinnati, where he didn’t see a snap as a rookie. He’s expected to be their 3rd running back, which puts a lot of pressure on the top-2. The Browns have been talking them up all off-season and Hue Jackson seems to think they’re comparable to Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, who he had in Cincinnati, but that seems like wishful thinking. Johnson matches Bernard as a pass catcher, but both backs could easily struggle on the ground again. Quarterback Robert Griffin may have to run often for this team to do well on the ground and that might not be the best idea, considering his injury history.

Grade: C

Defensive Line

As bad as things are on offense, they’re probably worse on defense. The Browns finished 2015 23rd in rate of moving the chains allowed and lost several starters on defense this off-season, in addition to all they lost on offense. Their defensive line lacks anything resembling an above average starter. Instead, they relied on 6 different players to play between 366 and 547 snaps on the Browns’ 3-man defensive line in 2015. Randy Starks was the best of the bunch (on 467 snaps), but he’s no longer with the team. The Browns also lost starting defensive end Desmond Bryant for likely the entire season with a torn pectoral suffered in the off-season. He led the Browns’ defensive line in snaps played with 547 and was their 2nd highest rated defensive lineman, behind Starks.

With Bryant and Starks gone, the Browns don’t return a single defensive lineman who graded out above average last season. They added Carl Nassib out of Penn State in the 3rd round, but the 6-7 275 pounder played 4-3 defensive end at Penn State and will need to bulk up about 20 pounds to see regular playing time at defensive end in the Browns’ 3-4. He could have a significant role as an interior pass rusher in sub packages as a rookie though, especially with Bryant gone. The Browns also used a 3rd round pick on a defensive end in 2015, taking Xavier Cooper, but he struggled mightily as a rookie, finishing as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked interior defender as a rookie, on 363 snaps. He’ll have to play a bigger role in his 2nd year in the league, so the Browns will be hoping he can improve. It’ll be hard for him to be worse, but he’s a long way away from being even a serviceable rotation player.

Another 2nd year player who the Browns will be counting on for a larger role is 2015 1st round pick Danny Shelton. Shelton was just a two-down nose tackle as a rookie, playing 514 snaps, but should see more playing time in sub packages this year and should lead this defensive line in snaps played with Bryant injured. He played well against the run as a rookie, but struggled mightily as a pass rusher. His weight might have been the issue, as he reportedly ballooned up to 360 pounds and now is closer to his college weight of 330, which should help him be quicker off the line. The Browns obviously drafted him with the intention of him being more than a part-time player, but it’s unclear if he’ll ever develop as a pass rusher. With little other options, he’ll get a shot in 2016.

In base packages, Shelton will start at nose tackle with John Hughes and Jamie Meder as the defensive ends. Nassib and Cooper will primarily play in sub packages. Hughes and Meder are basically just two-down players; Meder saw more run snaps than pass snaps last season and Hughes played just a few more pass snaps than run snaps. Hughes was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2013, but the 2012 3rd round pick has thus far proven to be a one-year wonder, grading out below average in each of the last 2 seasons. He has some bounce back potential, but, even at his best, he’s never been much of a pass rusher. Meder actually outplayed Hughes in 2015, even though the 2014 undrafted free agent spent most of his rookie year on the practice squad. Meder only played 389 snaps and still graded out below average, but just barely. He may be overstretched to a larger role though. It’s one of the worst defensive lines in football.

Grade: C-

Linebackers

Along with Starks and Bryant, the Browns also lost veteran middle linebacker Karlos Dansby this off-season. Dansby was going into his age 35 season, but still played at a high level in 2015, finishing 11th among middle linebackers. The Browns also lost middle linebacker Craig Robertson in free agency this off-season. He wasn’t a starter, but he was a key contributor, grading out above average on 382 snaps in 2015. He essentially split snaps with Chris Kirksey, who will now become the every down player in his 3rd year in the league, with Robertson gone. He’s new to being an every down player, but the 2014 3rd round pick played 684 snaps in 2014 and 590 snaps in 2015, finishing above average last season. He might not be great, but he seems ready for a starting job.

Free agent acquisition Demario Davis will replace Dansby at the other middle linebacker spot and he figures to be a noticeable downgrade. The 2012 3rd round pick showed his upside in 2014, finishing 15th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus that year, but remains a one-year wonder, grading out below average in the other 3 seasons, including a 2015 season in which he finished 77th out of 97 eligible linebackers. That’s why he had to settle for a 2-year, 6 million dollar deal from the Browns. It’s not a bad idea to bet that he has a bit of a bounce back year in 2016 and he’s cheaper than Dansby was, but Dansby, even at his age, was the much more reliable player and the Browns were certainly not strapped for cap space this off-season. They still have 42 million remaining in cap space and that’s evident when you look at this roster.

At outside linebacker, they used a pair of picks on Oklahoma State’s Emmanuel Ogbah (2nd) and Wisconsin’s Joe Schobert (4th) and consequently cut veteran Paul Kruger before final cuts to save 6.5 million, a weird move considering Kruger was one of their better defensive players (not that that’s saying much) and the Browns weren’t exactly hurting for cap space. They’re currently about 51 million under the cap and their roster seems like it needs about 51 million dollars worth of talent added to it. Their active cap spending is 18 million dollars less than any team in the league and it shows. Ogbah figures to start opposite second year player Nate Orchard, with Schobert likely being the first one off the bench. Orchard played the run well as a 2nd round rookie in 2015, but graded out below average overall on just 480 snaps and will be counted on for a much bigger role in his 2nd year in the league. He’ll need to take a step forward. It’s not a strong group of linebackers.

Grade: C

Secondary

With Kruger gone, cornerback Joe Haden is also arguably the Browns’ best defensive player. They’re certainly paying him to be, giving him a 5-year, 67.5 million dollar extension ahead of the final year of his rookie deal in 2014, two off-seasons ago. The 7th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, Haden was a top-20 cornerback on Pro Football Focus in each of his first 4 seasons in the league, but fell to 28th in his first year after the extension and then struggled mightily on 286 snaps in 5 games last season in an injury plagued season. Haden certainly has bounce back potential, finishing in the top-28 among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in the first 5 seasons of his career prior to 2015, but he’s also another concussion away from possibly having to retire.

Tramon Williams made 15 starts at cornerback last season and has started 94 out of a possible 96 games over the past 6 seasons, grading out above average in all 6 of them. However, he’s going into his age 33 season and facing competition from off-season acquisition Jamar Taylor. Taylor has just 9 career starts in 3 years in the league though, since being drafted in the 2nd round by the Dolphins in 2013, and has graded out below average in all 3 of those seasons, including 106th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on 712 snaps last season in the first significant action of his career. There’s a reason he was available for a swap of late round picks this off-season, despite still being affordable on a rookie deal. If he starts, it’s a bad sign for Williams’ career.

At the very least, Taylor should open the season as the 3rd cornerback, after the Browns cut slot cornerback K’Waun Williams, even though he excelled in that role over the past 2 seasons, since going undrafted in 2014. He was Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked cornerback on 351 snaps as a rookie and then finished 43rd in a larger role (516 snaps) in 2015. He apparently had ankle surgery against the team’s wishes and they cut him, locking Taylor into a top-3 job. He’s an obvious downgrade.

The Browns also lost both of their starting safeties this off-season, two of many starters who are not returning. Tashaun Gipson struggled last season, finishing 87th out of 89 eligible safeties, but Donte Whitner finished 24th and the Browns don’t have an obvious replacement for either of them. At one spot, last year’s 4th round pick Ibraheim Campbell will compete with this year’s 4th round pick Derrick Kindred out of TCU. Kindred is likely too raw to start as a rookie and Campbell flashed on 102 snaps as a rookie, so he figures to get the first shot at it, but there’s no guarantee he can play well in a much bigger role. It wouldn’t be shocking if the rookie saw action in 2016.

At other spot, last year’s 3rd safety Jordan Poyer will compete with veteran free agent addition Rahim Moore. Poyer struggled mightily on 425 snaps last season in the first significant action of the 2013 7th round pick’s career, finishing 75th out of 89 eligible safeties. Moore has much more of a history of success, finishing 11th among safeties in 2012. Moore hasn’t come close to that since and graded out below average on 451 snaps last season, but, other than last season, he’s graded out at least around average in every season of his career, since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2011. Still only going into his age 26 season, he’s a bounce back candidate. It’s going to be a tough season overall for the Browns’ defense.

Grade: C-

Conclusion

It’s going to be a tough season overall for the Browns. One of the worst teams in the league last season, the Browns lost a lot of talent this off-season and should remain in the cellar again this season. They still have a strong offensive line, even after losing 2 key starters, and they have an intriguing passing game with Robert Griffin coming into a system that fits him well, with promising deep threats to throw to, including rookie 1st round pick Corey Coleman and the finally reinstated Josh Gordon (after week 5). However, on the other side of the ball, they probably have the worst defense in the league. The Browns set themselves up well for the future by trading down multiple times in the draft, but this team is 2-3 years away at the least.

Prediction: 4-12 4th in AFC North

  One Response to “Cleveland Browns 2016 NFL Season Preview”

  1. BLUF –(Bottom Line Up Front)–There’s no where to go but UP!

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