The Browns have been the picture of turmoil since returning to the NFL in the 1999 season. In that time period, they’ve had 7 different Head Coaches, 5 different general managers, 3 different principal owners, 18 different starting quarterbacks, and 0 playoff wins. Just their luck, new owner Jimmy Haslam, who cleaned house upon arrival firing both Head Coach Pat Shurmur and GM Tom Heckert, is being investigated by the FBI for fraud and is also facing at least 18 other civil lawsuits. This isn’t expected to affect his status for this season, but all bets are off for 2014 and beyond. It’s very possible they could once again be under new ownership in 2014 and that the new owner would clean house once again and fire Head Coach Rob Chudzinski and GM Michael Lombardi.
By that point, the Browns could also be bringing in a new quarterback as well. It’s very possible that the only thing stopping them from adding a new starter this off-season was the complete dearth of starting caliber quarterbacks available. They were known to have interest in Alex Smith, but were never able to get a deal done. However, next year is a much better quarterback class and Brandon Weeden could very well be on his last chance. He looked incredibly raw as a rookie, which is fine for an ordinary rookie quarterback, but Weeden turns 30 this season. He’ll be going into his age 31 season next off-season and whoever is in charge at that point will have no ties to him regardless. He’s older than Aaron Rodgers and if he doesn’t improve drastically this season, this could be it for him. A ridiculously short sighted draft pick at the time is looking even worse now.
It’s a shame because the Browns do have some really good non-quarterback talent. They actually have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL and their front 7 is very loaded. When not getting suspended for Adderall use, cornerback Joe Haden is among the best in the NFL at what he does. However, they just have too many holes and the quarterback position is just too important for the Browns to compete this year, especially in their tough division. They look destined to be bottom feeders once more.
I mentioned Brandon Weeden in the introduction, I had a 5th round grade on him coming out of Oklahoma State. I thought he was too raw, too inaccurate, and too prone to being flustered under pressure. Age out of the equation, I thought he had 2nd round talent, meaning that he had developmental talent after a year or so maybe, but at age 28 on draft day, he didn’t have two years to wait.
Weeden looked every bit that raw quarterback as a rookie, completing just 57.4% of his passes for an average of 6.6 YPA, 14 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions. He looked worse than Ryan Tannehill and Tannehill is 5 years younger and has time to develop. Weeden will have to hope that a year under his belt and a new offense which does fit him better under Rob Chudzinski and Norv Turner can develop him in a hurry. He’ll open this season as the starter because they don’t have another option, but don’t be surprised if Jason Campbell takes the job from him quickly (becoming the 19th Browns quarterback since 1999) and keeps it for the rest of the season.
Campbell really didn’t look good in about 6 quarters of work in place of an injured Jay Cutler in Chicago last year, but he was facing two of the best defenses in the NFL last season in San Francisco and Houston in those two games and he had very little offensive supporting talent around him. When last we saw him before Chicago, he went 11-7 with an Oakland team that hadn’t won more than 5 games in a season since 2003 and would go 8-18 in their next 26 games without him. However, heading into his age 32 season, Campbell, even best case scenario, is not a long term solution at all. They’ll be looking quarterback early in the draft in 2014.
Running backs going in the top-3 is incredibly rare these days (it’s happened just 3 times since 1998), but the Trent Richardson selection did make sense at the time for the Browns. After Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin, there wasn’t another surefire pick in the draft besides Matt Kalil, who didn’t really fill a need. Taking Richardson, despite the correct devaluation of the position, made as much sense as taking Justin Blackmon or Morris Claiborne did in that scenario. Of course, hindsight will tell us that Russell Wilson was the obvious selection there, but there was no way of knowing that then.
However, Richardson struggled as a rookie through injuries, averaging just 3.6 yards per carry on 267 carries, though he did catch 51 passes and score 12 times on an overall miserable offense. Now, Richardson is struggling through injuries once again this off-season. Injuries are often a concern for running backs and are largely responsible for the devaluation of the position. It usually just isn’t worth the risk using a 1st round pick on a running back because of injuries. Reggie Bush and Ronnie Brown were the other two top-3 pick running backs and both had their careers derailed by injuries.
Richardson certainly has the talent to be one of the best running backs in the NFL, but the question isn’t with his talent. It’s whether or not he can stay healthy. If he can’t, it would be up to Montario Hardesty to carry the load. The 2010 2nd round pick has never shown anything more than backup caliber talent thus far in his career so the Browns really are hoping Richardson can play all 16 games and play them well.
One reason Trent Richardson could be particularly scary in Cleveland if he can stay healthy is the strength of this offensive line. Everything their inconsistency at the quarterback position takes away from Richardson’s running room, the offensive line gives back. Though they were only ProFootballFocus’ 14th ranked run blocking offensive line last year, they have a chance to be even better this season and they did grade out as their 5th ranked pass blocking offensive line, while ranking 3rd in pass block efficiency. As it stands right now, I don’t see a hole on this line.
At left tackle, everyone knows about Joe Thomas. I don’t think he’s well rounded enough to be considered the best left tackle in the NFL or anything as his run blocking is only average, but I think he’s the best pass blocking offensive tackle in the game. In terms of purely pass protection, he’s ranked 7th, 3rd, 6th, 1st, and 2nd respectively in the last 5 seasons and has never missed a start. He’s also been a top-11 overall tackle in each of those 5 seasons.
Opposite him, the Browns have Mitchell Schwartz, a very good right tackle as a rookie last year, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 23rd ranked offensive tackle and 8th ranked right tackle. Like Thomas he was much better in pass protection than run blocking, actually grading out below average as a run blocker, but he was 15th in pass protection and committed just 5 penalties all season. Going into his 2nd season in the league, I don’t expect anything different from the 2012 2nd round pick out of California.
At center, the Browns have another former 1st round pick in Alex Mack, who graded out 10th overall last season on ProFootballFocus among centers, the 4th straight year he’s been in the top-10, which he’s done every year with the exception of his rookie year. He’ll be flanked by Jason Pinkston at left guard and John Greco at right guard.
Pinkston, who struggled mightily as a 5th round rookie in 2011, was off to a solid start to his 2012 season before a blood clot ended his season. Going into his 3rd year in the league, he is still a bit of a mystery, but you can do a lot worse than him as your worst offensive lineman. When he got hurt last year, he was replaced by veteran journeyman John Greco, who will start at right guard this season.
Every chance Greco has gotten, he’s shown himself to be a very good guard. A 3rd round pick of the Rams in 2008, Greco graded out positively on ProFootballFocus on 174, 279, and 153 snaps from 2008-2010 as a valuable reserve of the Rams. The Browns acquired him for a late round pick after the 2010 season, but he didn’t really play much in 2011, playing 52 offensive snaps and primarily being a special teamer. However, in 2012, when Pinkston went down, Greco got his first chance to be a full-time starter, starting the final 10 games of the season.
Greco made the most of his opportunity, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 19th rated guard, with no one playing fewer snaps than him and grading out higher. He did his best work as a run blocker, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 7th best run blocking guard, but also held his own as a pass protector, allowing just 3 sacks, 7 hits, and 7 hurries. He was a big part of the reason why the Browns averaged 4.19 yards per carry behind left guard, as opposed to 3.86 yards per carry elsewhere.
Heading into his age 28 season in 2013, Greco is expected to be week 1 starter for the first time in his career, sending long-time turnstile Shawn Lauvao to the bench where he belongs. This is a very, very solid group that could really be an asset if they ever had a quarterback to block for. In the meantime, they’ll continue to make Brandon Weeden’s life as easy as possible (important because Weeden completed just 41.8% of his passes under pressure last season) and do solid work in the running game.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
One of the bright spots of the Browns’ 2012 season was the developmental of rookie Josh Gordon, a risky 2nd round choice in the supplemental draft. Naturally, Gordon got himself suspended for the first 2 games of the season for repeated violations of the NFL’s substance abuse policy and is one strike away from being suspended for an entire season.
Not only will he miss 2 games, but this could put a developing young receiver behind the 8-ball when he does return for week 3 and beyond. At this point in his career, Gordon is a great deep ball receiver and little else, playing inconsistent overall, but he could really shine in Rob Chudzinski’s offense. More likely, he’ll need another year of developmental and a new quarterback to reach his potential, provided, of course, that the oft troubled receiver can keep his nose clean.
After him, things in the receiving corps are pretty depressing. Greg Little, a 2011 2nd round pick, played better down the stretch, but only by default as he caught just 11 of his first 29 targets, including 6 drops. In the final 8 games of the season, he did catch 31 passes for 398 yards and 2 touchdowns with just 3 drops, so perhaps he’s finally turned a corner going into his 3rd year in the league. He’s an unexplosive athlete, however, who is among the worst in the NFL in yards per reception and yards per reception after the catch. His future is as a #2 possession receiver at best.
Travis Benjamin could get the start in Gordon’s absence. Benjamin is really just a return man and caught just 18 passes as a 4th round pick rookie last season. He might have some upside as a receiver, but I doubt it. The other option is veteran David Nelson, who is coming off a torn ACL. He caught 61 passes for 658 yards and 5 touchdowns in 2011 with the Bills, but wasn’t very explosive even before the injury.
Davone Bess, meanwhile, will man the slot, which is his specialty. He’s caught 321 passes in the last 5 seasons in that role, but like Little and Nelson, he isn’t a deep threat. Benjamin and the suspended Gordon are their deep threats and their lack of speed in their receiving corps is an issue considering Weeden is best when throwing downfield and considering that’s what Rob Chudzinski wants to do. I bet the Browns wish they hadn’t essentially traded Julio Jones for Phil Taylor, Greg Little, Brandon Weeden, and Owen Marecic.
Their best deep threat until Gordon returns might be tight end Jordan Cameron. Cameron is very inexperienced having caught just 26 passes in his 2 years in the league since being drafted in the 4th round in 2011, but the starting job is finally his with Ben Watson gone and while he might still be raw, his freakish athleticism and pass catching ability is exactly what Chudzinski and Turner want out of their tight ends. The 6-5 254 pounder ran a 4.59 with a 37.5 inch vertical at The Combine and was a basketball player at USC, much like Jimmy Graham and Antonio Gates at their respective alma maters. He’s reportedly been great this off-season and he has potential for a breakout year, though, of course, he’ll be handicapped by his quarterback play.
When new Browns GM Michael Lombardi was with the NFL Network on Path to the Draft, he frequently mentioned how, when he was an NFL GM, he wished he could take a pass rusher with every pick of the draft. Given that, it’s no surprise that Lombardi spent most of the team’s off-season effort on upgrading the pass rush, signing two big time free agents in Desmond Bryant and Paul Kruger, while using the 6th overall pick on Barkevious Mingo. This was a big time need for a team that had ranked 26th on ProFootballFocus in terms of rushing the passer. Now, they arguably have one of the deepest front 7s in all of football.
They are going to be going to a 3-4 defense this season, with the hire of new Defensive Coordinator Ray Horton. 2011 1st round pick Phil Taylor will line up at nose tackle, but he’s not just a true nose tackle. He can move around a little bit too and may stay on the field for some passing downs. However, run stopping is his specialty, as he ranked 4th among eligible defensive tackles in terms of run stop percentage (percent of snaps in which a player recorded a tackle without 4 yards of the line of scrimmage on 1st down, 6 yards on 2nd down, and the full distance on 3rd or 4th down) last seasonHow. Of course, he did only play 273 snaps thanks to a torn pectoral that cost him the first half of the season. Going into his 3rd year in the league, he should have a very good year.
Ahtyba Rubin and Desmond Bryant will start at five-technique defensive end around Taylor. Rubin has experience in a 3-4 defense, playing in the Browns’ old 3-4 before 2011, but he played the nose tackle position and in his final year in that role he was a train wreck. He’s been better in the last 2 years at 4-3 defensive tackle and might be a better fit at five-technique than nose tackle. He doesn’t get a lot of pass rush and I don’t expect that to change with his new position, but he holds up against the run well enough to make up for it and grade out above average in each of the last 2 seasons.
Bryant, meanwhile, played well for the Raiders on 645 snaps last year, taking over as a starter week 10 after Richard Seymour got hurt and grading out as ProFootballFocus’ #7 defensive tackle, excelling as a pass rusher and holding his own against the run. In 2011, he graded out slightly above average on 596 snaps, including 9 starts, and in 2010, he was very good on 333 snaps. He’s played both defensive tackle and defensive end for the Raiders in his career and at 6-6 300, he seems like a natural fit at 3-4 end for the Browns.
Billy Winn and John Hughes will serve as the top reserves on a very deep defensive line. They were 6th and 3rd round picks respectively in 2012 and both played extensive snaps as rookies last year. Winn, the 6th rounder, was a steal at that point as many expected him to go in the 3rd or 4th round and he looked the part as a rookie, grading out as an average starter on 721 snaps, 2nd on the defensive line. He could start on a lot of teams. Hughes, meanwhile, wasn’t nearly as good. He was a reach in the 3rd round and ironically was projected to go around the 6th round. He didn’t even plan on having a draft day until the 3rd day of the draft, not expecting to be drafted before the 4th round. He looked the part as a rookie, struggling mightily on 530 snaps. He’s more suited for a reserve role.
The Browns needed to find an upgrade opposite Jabaal Sheard this off-season and they found two, adding Paul Kruger, and Barkevious Mingo, who will form a potentially deadly trio with Sheard. Sheard will probably begin the season as the starter over the rookie Mingo, who is expected to be used in an Aldon Smith type role initially, only rushing the passer.
Sheard has never played in a 3-4 in his career and might not be a natural fit. He rushed the passer well as a 2nd round rookie in 2011, but didn’t play the run well. Last year, it was the complete opposite. He graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 4th ranked run stopping defensive end and their 5th worst pass rushing defensive end. As a base player, his job will be primarily to stop the run and then get after the quarterback, with Mingo coming in during obvious pass rushing situations. Mingo is incredibly raw, but he seems well suited for this role as a rookie and the 6th overall pick has immense upside, especially in a 3-4, if he can ever put it all together.
Paul Kruger will probably lead the trio in snaps, though he too will rotate. The Browns took a big chance giving Kruger a 5 year, 40.5 million dollar contract this off-season. He played incredibly well down the stretch for the Ravens last season, particularly rushing the passer with 15 sacks, 17 hits, and 43 hurries on 528 pass rush snaps, a ridiculous 14.2% rate. He graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 2nd ranked pass rushing 3-4 outside linebacker behind only Clay Matthews and he led the position in pass rush efficiency.
However, most of that production came in the 2nd half of the season, once Terrell Suggs returned and started taking some of the pressure off of him. The 14 sacks, 14 hits, and 33 hurries he had in his final 12 games were incredibly impressive, but the 1 sack, 3 hits, and 10 hurries he had in his first 8 were not. He didn’t bring Suggs to Cleveland with him. He also has just 8 career starts under his belt and didn’t even start in the Super Bowl, actually only playing 22 of 62 snaps for matchup purposes. He’s also very poor against the run, grading out 24th among 33 eligible at his position in that aspect.
All that being said, he was very good as a situational player even before this season and it’s very possible he just turned a corner down the stretch last year. In that case, the Browns stole a very talented pass rusher from a division rival. It was a risk, but it could pay off. Either way, I like the talent the Browns have at rush linebacker. Quentin Groves is also in the mix, coming over from Arizona as a solid reserve pass rusher.
Moving inside, D’Qwell Jackson remains a fixture. He’s played in both a 3-4 and a 4-3 in his career and that’s going to be incredibly valuable. However, he’s an overrated volume tackler who has graded out negatively in two of the last three full seasons he’s been healthy, excluding a two year stretch from 2009-2010 where he missed 26 games. That includes last year, when he ranked 41st out of 53 eligible at his position, managing only 42 of his tackles for a stop and only 31 of those for a run stop as he ranked 41st out of 50 eligible in run stop percentage. He struggled mightily against the run, though did well in coverage.
Craig Robertson will move inside and play next to Jackson. A coverage specialist linebacker in their 4-3 last season, Robertson struggled, especially against the run, and was ProFootballFocus’ 35th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 43 eligible. I don’t know if he’ll be much better inside in a 3-4. The inexperience bunch of LJ Fort, Tank Carder, and James-Michael Johnson could also be in the mix for snaps. This is easily the weakest part of the Browns’ front 7, but they should get after the quarterback plenty.
As the Browns will struggle will struggle to pass the ball on offense, they will struggle to cover the pass on defense, which is an issue considering this is a passing league. Luckily they have a good pass rush to bail them out somewhat. Joe Haden is what’s good about this secondary. Last season, he ranked 20th on ProFootballFocus among cornerbacks, which was actually the lowest he’s been in his entire career. A 4 game suspension for Adderall had something to do with that. In 2011, his only full season, he ranked 13th, while he ranked 6th in 2010, despite being a rookie and not taking over as a starter until mid-season. He’s one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL and as long as he stays on the field, he should show that this season, especially with an improved pass rush.
However, an asset like Haden becomes less valuable if you can just throw away from him and opponents will have success picking on other defensive backs. The Browns will miss departed free agent Sheldon Brown. While the 34-year-old remains unsigned as of this writing, he actually played very well for them as a starter last year, allowing just 52 completions on 90 attempts for 655 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while deflecting 10 passes, and committing 9 penalties. For his efforts, he was ProFootballFocus’ 21st ranked cornerback, one spot below Haden.
He’ll be replaced in the starting lineup by 3rd round rookie Leon McFadden, which should be a recipe for disaster. McFadden may be a good player long term, but it’s hard to count on much positive from him as a rookie. Buster Skrine, meanwhile, will serve as the 3rd cornerback. He struggled mightily last year, allowing 68 completions on 93 attempts for 751 yards and 5 touchdowns, without intercepting a pass. He did deflect 10 passes, but also committed 9 penalties.
Moving on to safety, the Browns, for some reason, cut functioning starter Usama Young, even though his salary was reasonable. They also cut backup Eric Hagg and will go into the season with a pair of very unproven 2012 undrafted free agents competing for the free safety job in Johnson Bademosi and Tashaun Gipson. They both played nondescript last year in limited action, Bademosi playing 24 snaps and Gibson 377. 6th round rookie Jamoris Slaughter could even be in the mix, which shows how desperate things are. Young, meanwhile, was ProFootballFocus 12th ranked safety last year and making a very cheap salary going into his age 28 season. I still don’t get that move.
TJ Ward at strong safety is a very solid starter as well, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 6th ranked safety last season. The 2010 2nd round pick has an injury history dating back to his days at Oregon though and he missed half of the 2011 season, so that’s worth noting and a concern here. He’s much better against the run than in coverage anyway. Overall, it’s a weak coverage group.
Rob Chudzinski was a surprise hire for the Browns as Head Coach, but the last time they were even respectable on offense, he was their offensive coordinator. He started his career at the University of Miami as a graduate assistant after being a 3-year starter at tight end and then became tight ends coach, where he helped develop first round picks Bubba Franks, Jeremy Shockey, and Kellen Winslow. He then followed Butch Davis to Cleveland, where he served in the same role, along with being the offensive coordinator. After Davis was fired, Chudzinski caught on in San Diego as a tight ends coach, working alongside Norv Turner and working with Antonio Gates, who was probably the best tight end in the NFL at the time.
He then returned to Cleveland as offensive coordinator for two years under Romeo Crennel and then when Crennel was let go, he went back to San Diego as tight ends coach, but earned the title of assistant Head Coach from Turner. He spent the last 2 seasons as the offensive coordinator in Carolina under Ron Rivera, a former San Diego defensive coordinator, and helped develop Cam Newton. Now he’s back in Cleveland again with Norv Turner as his offensive coordinator. He has a background in making offenses successful and developing tight ends (add Kellen Winslow and Greg Olsen to the aforementioned group), but it’s tough to grade first time Head Coaches and I like to temper my expectations.
In the toughest division in the AFC, the Browns should once again be bottom feeders. It’s going to be very tough to win more than one game against Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore and they could lose all 6. Outside the division, they host Buffalo, Miami, Detroit, Jacksonville, and Chicago. Buffalo, Miami, and Jacksonville aren’t tough games and the other two aren’t impossible either, so they should win about 3 of those. They also go to Minnesota, the Jets, Green Bay, New England, and Kansas City. I think they’ll win one of those games and probably win around 5 games on the season, which is where they’ve been stuck lately. Fortunately, it’ll be a good draft class to have a top-10 pick in and maybe they can finally fix this quarterback thing.
Projection: 5-11 4th in AFC North