Cleveland Browns 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterbacks

The Browns have infamously had 22 different starting quarterbacks since they returned to the league in 1999, most in the NFL over that time period. Over that time period, Brown quarterbacks have combined to complete just 57.2% of their passes for an average of 6.35 YPA, 275 touchdowns, and 301 interceptions. As you can imagine, that hasn’t translated to a lot of winning as the Browns have gone 84-172 over that stretch, making the playoffs just once and losing in the first round.

The Browns have tried to find a franchise changer at quarterback many times, using a 1st round pick on a quarterback four times in that 15 year stretch. However, those 4 picks have yielded them Tim Couch, Brady Quinn, Brandon Weeden, and, most recently Johnny Manziel, a 2014 1st round pick who is unlikely to be the week 1 starter in his 2nd year in the league in 2015. That week 1 starter is likely to be Josh McCown, who would be the 23rd quarterback in new Browns franchise history.

McCown will make a guaranteed 5.25 million this season, after signing a 3-year, 14 million dollar deal with the Browns this off-season. That’s a ridiculous amount considering that McCown is going into his age 36 season and coming off of a horrendous season in Tampa Bay, completing just 56.3% of his passes for an average of 6.75 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 34th ranked quarterback out of 39 eligible and went 1-10 in his 11 starts.

The previous off-season, he got a 4.75 million dollar first year salary as a free agent, signing in Tampa Bay on a 2-year, 10 million dollar deal. That was when he was a year younger and coming off of a 2013 season in which he randomly played brilliant in the absence of an injured Jay Cutler, completing 66.5% of his passes for an average of 8.17 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 1 interception, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked quarterback, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better. However, last season proved that 2013 season was a flash in the pan. 2013 is his only season of a 70+ QB rating since 2006. Going into his age 36 season, he might be the worst week 1 starting quarterback in the NFL.

The Browns would definitely like Johnny Manziel, the 22nd overall pick in 2014, to be able to beat McCown out, but that doesn’t seem likely after he had about as bad of a rookie year as you can have. Manziel had to wait until week 15 to make his first NFL start, despite the fact that Brian Hoyer was struggling, finishing with 55.3% completion, 7.59 YPA, 12 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions and grading as Pro Football Focus’ 35th ranked quarterback out of 39 eligible. There were reports that Manziel wasn’t learning the playbook quickly, wasn’t displaying maturity on or off the field, and generally didn’t seem ready for the NFL.

Once Manziel got onto the field, he was a disaster, completing 51.4% of his passes for an average of 5.00 YPA, no touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. After the season ended, even more reports came out detailing just how bad it was behind the scenes with Manziel last season. Manziel also spent a 3 month period of time in rehab for drug and alcohol related issues. The Browns were linked to both Marcus Mariota and Sam Bradford on draft day, armed with two 1st round picks. Manziel is back at practice now and the Browns didn’t draft a single quarterback, but the Browns have reportedly borderline moved on from him and see McCown as the clear starter ahead of him, especially since Manziel’s play in off-season practices hasn’t been good either.

Even before you take McCown’s advanced age into account, he’s a downgrade from Brian Hoyer, the Browns’ quarterback last year and now a competitor for the starting job in Houston. McCown played even worse last season than Hoyer did. McCown ranked slightly farther from the bottom on Pro Football Focus’ quarterback rankings than Hoyer, as McCown ranked 34th out of 39 eligible and Hoyer ranked 35th, but McCown also did that on about 300 fewer snaps. McCown was also worse in pure passing grade, 36th to Hoyer’s 32nd. McCown QB rating was significantly lower (76.7 vs. 70.5) and Tampa Bay’s offense moved the chains at a 63.46% rate when McCown started, while the Browns’ moved at a 69.36% rate when Hoyer started. This might be the worst quarterback situation in the NFL.

Grade: F

Receiving Corps

Hoyer was more productive with the Browns’ offensive supporting cast last season than McCown was with the Buccaneers’ offensive supporting cast. That was despite the fact that McCown was throwing to Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans, who persevered through terrible quarterback play to be one of four wide receiver duos to each go over 1000+ receiving yards. The Browns don’t have anything like that. They added a few veterans to the receiving corps this off-season, but no one game changing. They also didn’t add a pass catcher in the draft until the 4th round, even though it was arguably their biggest need, and they saw tight end Jordan Cameron sign with the Dolphins.

The Browns go into 2015 with Dwayne Bowe as their #1 receiver, which might have been fine in 2012, but not so much now, especially as he goes into his age 31 season. From 2007-2012, Dwayne Bowe caught 415 passes for 5728 yards and 39 touchdowns in 88 games in his career, despite playing with the likes of Brodie Croyle, Damon Huard, Tyler Thigpen, Matt Cassel, Tyler Palko, Kyle Orton, and Brady Quinn at quarterback. That earned him a 5-year, 56 million dollar deal, but it’s been all downhill for Bowe over the past 2 seasons since signing that deal. Despite playing with Alex Smith over the past two seasons, who has been easily the best quarterback he’s had in his career, but Bowe has put up 57/673/5 and 60/754/0 slash lines in 2013 and 2014 respectively.

The Browns are really banking on his reduced production over the past two seasons being the result of Alex Smith’s love of throwing over the middle and fear of throwing to outside receivers, but it’s also very possible that Smith’s inability to complete passes outside the numbers over the past 2 seasons had to do with his lack of talent in that area, notably Bowe. Besides, it’s not like McCown is a better outside thrower. He might throw there with more volume, but he’s certainly a downgrade. Bowe has graded out below average as a pass catcher on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 2 seasons and his best days are behind him. The Browns are in trouble with him as their #1 receiver and drastically overpaid him on a 2-year, 12.5 million dollar deal with 9 million guaranteed.

Opposite him, the Browns brought in a younger player to be the likely other starter, but he has a similar skill set to Bowe. That player is Brian Hartline. Hartline was one of the worst wide receivers in the NFL in 2014, which led to his release from the Dolphins, a move that saved Miami 5.95 million in cash and 3.15 million on the cap. Hartline played all 16 games in 2014, but caught just 39 passes for 474 yards and 2 touchdowns on 62 attempts (62.9%) and 490 routes run, an average of 0.99 yards per route run. He was also Pro Football Focus’ 103rd ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible. However, he graded out above average in both 2012 and 2013, putting up 1000+ yard seasons in both of those years. Only going into his age 29 season, Hartline has a good chance to bounce back in 2015. He’s not that athletic, but he’s big, sure handed, and a good route runner.

Andrew Hawkins will likely be the slot receiver. Even though he’s 5-7 175, I think he’s more than just a slot receiver and he should push the underwhelming duo of Bowe and Hartline for outside snaps. He ran 42.4% of his routes not on the slot last season. On 234 snaps on the slot, he had 394 yards, an average of 1.68 yards per route run. Meanwhile, on snaps where he was not on the slot, he had 431 yards on 172 routes run, an average of 2.51 yards per route run. Those figures are both very solid considering the quarterback play. Buried on the depth chart in Cincinnati to start his career, Hawkins finally got a shot in 2014 and led Cleveland wide receivers in snaps played, 667 snaps overall, and receiving yardage last season, 825 yards, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked wide receiver in the process. More versatile than he’s given credit for, it wouldn’t be a bad thing for the Browns if he led them in routes run again in 2015.

Taylor Gabriel will then slot into the #4 receiver job, where he’ll provide very strong depth. Gabriel, a 2014 undrafted free agent, flashed in limited action as a rookie, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked wide receiver on 629 snaps (2nd among Brown wide receivers), catching 38 passes on 71 targets (53.5%) for 633 yards and a touchdown on 334 routes run, an average of 1.90 yards per route run, mostly in the absence of Josh Gordon to start the season. Capable of playing both inside and outside, Gabriel will backup all 3 spots and could push for snaps on the outside at the absence of either Bowe or Hartline. The Browns have a quartet of decent wide receivers, but no one to really fear. Rookie 4th round pick Vince Mayle is unlikely to have much of an impact as a rookie.

Former Browns tight end Jordan Cameron was 2nd on the team in receiving yards in 2013, behind Josh Gordon’s league leading 1646 yards. Cameron caught 80 passes for 917 yards and 7 touchdowns, but saw those numbers go down to 24 catches for 424 yards and 2 touchdowns as the Browns passed less, he missed 6 games with injury, and his receiving abilities generally slipped. Still, his loss hurts the team because Jim Dray, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 44th ranked tight end out of 67 eligible in 2014 on 612 snaps as Jordan Cameron’s replacement while he was injured, will now compete with free agent acquisition Rob Housler for the starting tight end job.

Rob Housler came into the NFL with a lot of promise, drafted in the 3rd round in the 2011 NFL Draft by the Cardinals after running a 4.55 40 at 6-5 248. However, he never lived up to that potential, grading out below average in all 4 seasons he’s been in the NFL and averaging 418 snaps played per season, including just 327 snaps in his contract year in 2014. He never developed as a blocker and caught just 105 passes in 55 career games. He’s expected to be the starting tight end in Cleveland with Cameron’s departure, with Dray focusing on being a blocker. It’s a position of weakness in an overall underwhelming receiving corps.

Grade: C

Running Backs

With a weak passing game once again, expect the Browns to try to be as run heavy as possible, which was the case last season as well. They finished last season with 477 carries, 6th in the NFL, as opposed to 502 pass attempts, 26th in the NFL. With a strong defense supporting them again, the Browns should be able to achieve a similar mix in 2015. The Browns signed Ben Tate to a 2-year, 7 million dollar deal to be their lead back last off-season, after he spent a successful 4-year tenure in Houston as Arian Foster’s backup. However, Tate ended up getting hurt, averaging 3.14 yards per carry on 106 carries, and getting cut midway through the season, not even finishing his first season in Cleveland.

Instead, it was a pair of rookies, Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell, who carried the load for the Browns. West was the higher draft pick, going in the 3rd round, but the undrafted Crowell had the better rookie year statistically. Crowell had a tumultuous collegiate career that saw him get kicked off the Georgia team and end up at Alabama State, but he was, at one point, a 5-star recruit and he rushed for 607 yards and 8 touchdowns on 148 carries as a rookie, an average of 4.10 yards per carry. West, meanwhile, rushed for 673 yards and 4 touchdowns on 171 carries, an average of 3.94 yards per carry. As long as he stays out of trouble, Crowell should be the lead back in Cleveland, with West working as the backup.

The Browns also used a 3rd round pick on Duke Johnson, a smaller scatback at 5-9 207 who can provide a change of pace from Crowell (5-11 225) and Terrance West (5-10 225). He’s also a much better pass catcher than either of them as Crowell and West caught just 9 and 11 passes respectively as rookies, while Johnson caught 38 passes in his final season at the University of Miami. There’s going to be opportunity for all three running backs, though I should point out that both West and Crowell graded out below average on Pro Football Focus last season and both looked better than they were as a result of a strong offensive line that finished 11th in team run blocking grade on Pro Football Focus last season. Even still, the Browns averaged just 3.62 yards per carry last season, 28th in the NFL. They run better than they pass, but neither is a very good option for this team in terms of trying to move the chains.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

As a mentioned, the Browns have a strong offensive line. Not only did they finish 11th in run blocking grade, but they also finished 2nd in pass blocking grade. The Browns have an extreme lack of offensive skill position players, but they do have an offensive line that makes things close to as easy as can be for them. Given that, it was perplexing why the Browns used the 19th overall pick on offensive lineman Cameron Erving. Erving is a talented player, but the pick doesn’t make any sense.

Erving played all over the line at Florida State, but didn’t really see his draft stock move into the 1st round until he moved to center as a senior. In Cleveland, the center position is taken by Alex Mack, who, despite the fact that he broke his leg last season, is still one of the top centers in the NFL. Mack has the ability to opt out of his contract after this season, which he very well could do, so Erving makes sense long-term there if the Browns have already resigned themselves to the fact that they’re going to lose him, but he’s not a short-term option there.

Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz is probably the weak point on this offensive line, but the 2012 2nd round pick has graded out above average in all 3 seasons he’s been at the league, making 41 starts at right tackle. He ranked 33rd among offensive tackles last season. A better player inside than outside, Erving would not be an immediate upgrade at right tackle, though he could be a long-term option there if the Browns don’t have interest in re-signing Schwartz to an extension, ahead of a 2015 contract year.

It looks a lot like the Browns drafted Erving for the future, which isn’t the worst idea, but it also means the Browns, as much cap space as they have, don’t think they’re going to be able to keep this offensive line together long-term. It would have made more sense to take someone who could make an immediate impact at wide receiver and then dealt with the offensive line in next year’s draft or in a later round just in case one of Mack or Schwartz leaves. In the short-term, Erving is expected to battle John Greco for the starting right guard spot.

Unless the Browns are desperately to get the rookie onto the field, Erving is unlikely to beat out Greco and I think the Browns would be making a mistake forcing Erving onto the field over Greco, as Greco graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked guard last season. A reserve early in his career, Greco has graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in each of his 7 seasons in the NFL, including each of the last 3 seasons as a starter. Making 40 starts over the past 3 seasons, 20 at left guard, 15 at right guard, and 1 at center, Greco has graded out 19th, 30th, and then 11th respectively in each of the last 3 seasons respectively. He and Schwartz form a solid right side of the offensive line and the Browns shouldn’t mess with that.

At center, Mack returns after missing 11 games last season. The 2009 1st round pick had made 85 straight starts at center to begin his career before going down with that broken leg last season, so he should be able to bounce back. Mack graded out in the top-11 among centers in each of his first 5 seasons in the league, one of two centers to grade out that well in every season from that time period (2009-2013), with the other being Houston’s Chris Myers. Through the first 5 weeks of the season last year, Mack was 4th among centers before the injury. He should be able to pick up right where he left off in 2015.

It’s worth noting that the Browns moved the chains at a 76.83% rate in games that Mack started, as opposed to 62.34% in their other games. It’s unfair to give Mack all that credit and suggest that Mack was the missing piece to a strong offense. The Browns also didn’t have terrible offensive injury luck in general last season (ranking 16th in offensive adjusted games lost) so I don’t think it’s quite accurate to suggest that the Browns are going to have significantly better offensive health in 2015 and that alone will get their offense out of the cellar, but Mack’s return is definitely welcome.

Part of that is just how bad their center play was in his absence. Paul McQuistan and Ryan Seymour were horrific in limited action, while Nick McDonald, who made 7 starts at center, graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 39th ranked center out of 41 eligible despite playing just 481 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out worse at the position. In that sense, the addition of Erving could be valuable. As long as they don’t force him into the starting lineup over an established starter, Erving can provide value as a utility 6th offensive line capable of playing anywhere if injuries strike. He doesn’t provide as much value in that role as someone like wide receiver Breshad Perriman would have as an upgrade outside over Brian Hartline, but still.

Things are very good on the left side as well with Joel Bitinio at left guard and Joe Thomas at left tackle. Bitinio had a fantastic rookie year as a 2014 2nd round pick, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked guard. He’s obviously still a one year wonder as he’s only played one year in the league and the 2nd rounder doesn’t have a great, high ceiling or anything, but he should once again have a strong year at left guard.

Meanwhile, at left tackle, Joe Thomas is one of the best players in the league.  Since being drafted 3rd overall in 2007, Thomas has made 128 of 128 starts and graded out as a top-10 offensive tackle in all 8 seasons, including 4th overall in 2014. With 5 All-Pros and 8 Pro-Bowls, Thomas’ career is on a Hall of Fame track. It’s just too bad he’s had to spend that career in an offense habitually without talented skill position players. Only going into his age 31 season, another dominant year should be on its way. It’s one of the best offensive lines in football on one of the worst offenses in football. One final thing that should be noted is that the Browns lost offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who always has done good work with running games and offensive lines like his father, and replaced him with first time play caller John DeFilippo, which doesn’t help this offense.

Grade: A

Defensive Line

As bad as the Browns’ offense was last season, they still did manage to finish with 7 wins, which isn’t horrible. That was as a result of a defense that ranked 11th in rate of moving the chains allowed. Their defense was able to prevent opponents from consistently moving the chains on them, which allowed them to run the more conservative offense they wanted to, despite the fact that their run defense was pretty bad. They allowed 4.53 yards per carry, 28th in the NFL.

A big part of the problem was Athyba Rubin, a veteran who struggled mightily at nose tackle, grading out 74th among 81 eligible defensive tackles. He left as a free agent and was replaced by Danny Shelton, the 12th overall pick in the draft. Shelton has drawn comparisons to Dontari Poe, a player who was drafted in relatively the same spot in 2012 who has become an every down player in a traditional nose tackle’s body. However, while Shelton could become an every down player long-term, he’ll see the majority of his snaps as a rookie in base packages and a two-down run clogger.

The Browns are also getting defensive linemen John Hughes and Phil Taylor back from injury, after they each missed 11 games last season. Hughes was given a 4-year, 14.4 million dollar extension this off-season, ahead of his contract year, which suggests the Browns still see him as a big part of their future defensive line. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2013 on just 402 snaps and was poised for a bigger role in 2014, before being limited to 212 snaps in 5 games thanks to injuries. He still played well in 2014 when on the field and, without much of a serious injury history, Hughes should have a fairly significantly role this season, particularly as a run stopper in base packages.

Taylor’s role is less clear. A 2011 1st round pick, Taylor has largely been a bust thus far in his career and there’s talk that, even though they don’t need the cap space, the Browns could cut him to save 5.477 million in cash and cap space. After playing just 133 snaps in 5 games last season, he has now missed 20 games in 4 seasons in the NFL since getting drafted in the first round in 2011 and only graded out above average once, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked defensive tackle in 2013. He can play both defensive end and defensive tackle, but if he’s unable to carve out a role on a deep defensive line, very much a possibility, he could be shown the door in final cuts, if not sooner.

Speaking of this deep defensive line, Desmond Bryant will return as a starter at one spot and could lead the defensive line in snaps played for the 2nd straight year. Bryant signed a 5-year, 34 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, after grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked defensive tackle in 2012, but he hasn’t lived up to it, grading out below average in both seasons in Cleveland. He graded out 31st out of 45 eligible in 2013 and 37th out of 47 eligible in 2014. He’s a well-rounded player with a solid history of success earlier in his career in Oakland, but he’s entering a make or break 3rd year with the Browns. He could be cut next off-season if he doesn’t turn it around. Even if he does lead the Browns in snaps played on the defensive line again, he probably won’t see 749 snaps again because of the depth the Browns added this off-season and the guys the Browns have returning from injury.

Another player who should see a smaller role in 2015 is Billy Winn, who finished 2nd on the Browns’ defensive line in snaps played with 511 last season, largely playing in the absence of Hughes. With Hughes healthy now, Winn will be a pure reserve, which is a good thing because he’s graded out below average in 2 of 3 seasons in the league, including 39th out of 47 eligible 3-4 defensive ends last season.

While Shelton was an addition through the draft (replacing Rubin) and Hughes and Taylor are additions in terms of returning from injury (assuming Taylor makes the final roster), the veteran Randy Starks was an addition through free agency, signing with the Browns on a 2-year, 8 million dollar deal after the Dolphins cut him to save 5 million in cash and cap space. He graded out below average on 544 snaps last season, the first time he had graded out below average in Pro Football Focus’ history, since 2007. Starks could bounce back in 2015, but, going into his age 32 season, it’s more likely that his best days are behind him. He’s solid depth though.

The Browns also added Xavier Cooper in the 3rd round of the draft, but he’ll probably have to wait for 2016 to get any sort of real playing time. With Danny Shelton, Phil Taylor, John Hughes, Desmond Bryant, Billy Winn, Randy Starks, and Cooper, the Browns have plenty of depth, but no real game changers on the defensive line. Still, it should be a better group than last year’s, which relied heavily on Desmond Bryant, Billy Winn, and Ahtyba Rubin, all of whom struggled mightily.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The linebacking corps and the secondary was where the real strength of the Browns’ defense was last season. Paul Kruger led the way with 12 sacks last season and returns to an every down role. Kruger has graded out above average in 4 straight seasons, including the last 3 as starters, ranking 6th among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2012, 20th in 2013, and 14th in 2014. The Browns signed him to a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, a risky deal because he had only been a starter for one year, but the Browns’ risk has paid off.

Jabaal Sheard was the starter opposite Kruger last season, but he left as a free agent, signing with the Patriots on a 2-year, 11 million dollar deal. He might have taken a significant discount to play for a contender in New England, but I’m still surprised that the Browns, armed with a bunch of cap space, weren’t able to keep a valuable contributor. Barkevious Mingo, who played 681 snaps as the 3rd 3-4 outside linebacker last season, will be the starter in his absence. The 2013 6th overall pick struggled on 668 snaps as a rookie, grading out 38th out of 42 eligible, but graded out 15th among 3-4 outside linebackers last season and could have a breakout 3rd year in the league in his first season as an every down player in 2015. 2nd round rookie Nate Orchard, meanwhile, will be the primary reserve.

At middle linebacker, Karlos Dansby will once again be an every down player, after grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked middle linebacker last season, after being signed to a 4-year, 24 million dollar deal as a free agent last off-season. He’s graded out above average in 6 straight seasons, in the top-12 among middle linebackers in 5 straight seasons, and above average in 7 of 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history. The issue is he’s going into his age 34 season and he won’t be able to play like this forever. His abilities could fall off the cliff at any point, including this season.

At the other middle linebacker spot, it’ll be a competition between Chris Kirksey and Craig Robertson for playing time. Robertson, a 2011 undrafted free agent, struggled mightily in 2012 and 2013, after not playing a snap as a rookie. In 2013, he was Pro Football Focus’ 52nd ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible, prompting the Browns to draft Kirksey in the 3rd round in 2014. Robertson turned it around in 2014 though, grading out above average for the first time in his career, ranking 18th among middle linebackers on 674 snaps. Kirksey, meanwhile, graded out below average on 693 snaps. Kirksey might have to wait until Robertson, a free agent next off-season, leaves Cleveland before he can become an every down player. In 2015, I expect the Browns to once again use Robertson in base packages and Kirksey in sub packages.

Grade: B+

Secondary

The Browns lost Buster Skrine in free agency and he was a 16-game starter at cornerback for them last season. However, he won’t really be missed as the Jets massively overpaid him on a 4-year, 26 million dollar deal this off-season. Skrine was just a 5th round pick of the Browns’ in 2011, but he made 37 starts in 4 seasons with the Browns and started 31 of 32 games over the past 2 seasons. The problem is he’s not very good, grading out below average in all 4 seasons, with his worst year coming in 2013, when he graded out 105th out of 110 eligible, leading the position in both missed tackles and touchdowns allowed. Last season, he graded out 82nd out of 110 eligible thanks, in large part, to a whopping 17 penalties. The Browns drafted Justin Gilbert in the first round in 2014 to be an upgrade over him and Skrine only remained a starter last year because Gilbert was a slow learner as a rookie.

The Browns replaced Buster Skrine by signing Tramon Williams to a 3-year, 21 million dollar deal, a better deal than the one the Jets gave to Skrine. Williams is going into his age 32 season, but he should still be a solid starter next season. He’s not the player he was in 2009, when he graded out 9th, or 2010, when he graded out 8th, but he’s graded out above average in 6 straight seasons and made 95 of 96 starts over that time period.

Of course, the signing of Williams signals the Browns still are not confident in Justin Gilbert, the 8th overall pick in 2014. Gilbert will now compete with 2014 undrafted free agent K’Wuan Williams for the #3 cornerback job and Gilbert might not win it. Even though Gilbert went 8th overall and Williams didn’t get drafted, Williams had easily the better rookie year. While Gilbert graded out below average on just 373 snaps before getting suspended for the final game of the season for a violation of team rules, Williams graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked cornerback on 351 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out better, as Williams allowed just 4.91 yards per attempt into his coverage last season. Gilbert still has more long-term upside than Williams, but Williams played so well on the slot last year that they might just keep him there. That would put Gilbert in as the 4th cornerback, waiting for an injury.

Joe Haden remains the #1 cornerback and will start opposite Williams. The Browns signed him to a 5-year, 68 million dollar deal last off-season, making him the highest paid player on the team. Haden didn’t quite live up to that last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 28th ranked cornerback, but he’s still a very valuable member of this secondary. Since being drafted 7th overall in 2010, Haden has graded out 6th, 10th, 20th, 17th, and 28th in all 5 seasons of his career respectively among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus.

Things are strong at safety as well. Tashaun Gipson is coming off of a breakout year, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked safety. He’s still a one year wonder though as the 2012 undrafted free agent graded out below average in each of his first 2 seasons in the league, including 69th out of 86 eligible in 2013 in his first year as a starter. He’ll need to prove it again. He’s going into a contract year, but the Browns don’t seem too eager to give him a long-term deal. They’ll have the franchise tag available next off-season and they don’t want to commit too much guaranteed money to a one-year wonder, especially one who missed the final 5 games of the season with a knee injury, which the Browns apparently still have concerns about.

Opposite him, the Browns have a veteran who is also coming off of a strong season, as Donte Whitner graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked safety. Whitner, a 2006 1st round pick, was just an average player in 5 years in Buffalo to start his career, but was a much more dominant player on his 2nd contract in San Francisco from 2011-2013 and then continued that into his 3rd contract in 2014 with the Browns, after signing on a 4-year, 28 million dollar deal last off-season. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked safety in 2011, 7th ranked in 2013, and then 11th in 2014 (with a below average season in 2012 in between). He’s going into his age 30 season, but he should have another strong year.

Grade: A

Conclusion

The Browns are frustrating. As you can see, they do have a good deal of talent, especially in the secondary and on the offensive line. However, their lack of offensive skill position talent, particularly at the quarterback position, will keep them out of the playoffs and in the cellar of the AFC North. With even an average quarterback, they have a good shot to make the playoffs as their supporting cast is better than San Diego’s, Pittsburgh’s, Kansas City’s, among others, but Josh McCown is a veteran journeyman at the end of his run and Johnny Manziel doesn’t seem like he’s going to beat him out any time soon. The Browns won 7 games last year with a similar team. This year, they might be more talented, but they might not win as many games. Their schedule gets much tougher, after they had the 8th easiest schedule in the league in 2014, and they weren’t quite as good as their record suggested last season, finishing 26th in rate of moving the chains differential. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Browns after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: 6-10 4th in AFC North

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