That prompted them to focus their draft the offensive skill positions, but 2012 will likely be a tough season again in Cleveland.
Today’s 32 in 32 looks at the reasons for Browns fans to be concerned and the reasons for them to be confident that the team can improve, albeit probably with more of an eye to the future than this season.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1) Not Your Average Joe (part one)
The one consistent positive on the Cleveland roster since 2007, left tackle Joe Thomas has continued to perform at a high level since entering the league, despite the struggles of those around him. Recent years may not have seen him rise to the fantastic level of his 2009 campaign, where he was far and away our highest-graded LT, but he has still ranked in the Top 5 players at his position the past two seasons. His run blocking (-6.2) let him down last season, but as a pass blocker he was once again the cream of the crop in the league, allowing Browns quarterbacks to be knocked down just six times and hurried just 15. Regardless of who starts at QB for the Browns in 2012, they can take heart in the knowledge that Thomas continues to be the best blind-side protector in the entire league.
2) Not Your Average Joe (part two)
Proving that, if nothing else, the Browns know how to draft elite talent with the first name Joe, cornerback Joe Haden is part of the second tier of players fighting to get to the level of New York Jets superstar Darrelle Revis. While he may not quite be there yet, Haden has ranked in the Top 5 at his position in terms of coverage in each of his first two seasons in the league. He began the 2011 season with a bang against the Cincinnati Bengals, allowing just three receptions, and breaking up five of the passes thrown into his coverage. The rest of his season didn’t quite reach those heights, possibly partly to do with a midseason injury, but Haden was still not someone opposing quarterbacks had much success challenging–despite not picking off a single pass last season. He still broke up 17 passes, so you can’t say that he doesn’t know how to make a play on the ball. The task for Haden in 2012 is to step up his game even further and position himself next to Revis as the best CBs in football.
3) Sheard and Rubin
Another big plus on the Browns defense last season was the play of defensive linemen Jabaal Sheard and Ahtyba Rubin, who both performed well on a very high workload as the two main men on the defensive line. In his first season in the league, Sheard was a force to be reckoned with as a pass rusher, registering nine sacks, four hits and 42 hurries. His play dipped, particularly against the run, in the final four weeks of the season, which was possibly a sign that he had been overworked. However, he still looks primed to give the Browns a legitimate pass rush threat for years to come. After a poor second half to the 2010 season, where he graded negatively in every game from Week 10 onwards, defensive tackle Rubin returned to his solid best in 2011, finishing the year as our 19th-ranked DT, and grading positively as a pass rusher and against the run. He too seemed to struggle in the last quarter of the season, so the Browns could do with a bit more rotation along that defensive line to keep both players fresh through the year.
4) D’Qwell Jackson
After not seeing the field since Week 6 of the 2009 season, it was a pleasant surprise to see D’Qwell Jackson fit in so well as the man in the middle of the Browns’ defense. Jackson hardly set the world on fire as a pass rusher–he registered four sacks, five hits, and 10 hurries–or in coverage, but against the run he was superb and finished the year as our fourth-highest rated inside linebacker in that regard. The team took a chance in re-signing a player who missed so much time in 2009 and 2010 to such a big deal, especially in the first two years, but, provided he can stay healthy, Jackson should continue to be among the league’s best as the anchor of the Cleveland defense.
5) Addition by Subtraction
We haven’t seen Trent Richardson yet in NFL action, but it’s hard to imagine him being as ineffective or unreliable as the man the Browns had running the ball last year. It’s hard not to like Peyton Hillis, but the 2012 Madden coverboy followed up his breakout year by not doing much of anything. Sure, he still made things happen with the ball in hand, but the problem was he missed too much time to be counted on. That forced both Chris Ogbonnaya and Montario Hardesty into more action, which didn’t go well. A team with constant quarterback problems needs a runner who can carry the load; they look a lot closer to that with Richardson on the roster.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1) Still Question Marks at Quarterback
After spending the 22nd overall pick on him in the 2012 NFL Draft, the Browns appear poised to hand the starting job to rookie Brandon Weeden from Day 1. That makes sense given that the other two quarterbacks on the roster are Colt McCoy and Seneca Wallace, neither of whom showed much, if anything, last season. McCoy was once viewed as the answer to Cleveland’s problems at the position, but a very poor 2011 forced the Browns hand again this offseason. The concern, however, is throwing a rookie straight in at the deep end, as you simply don’t know what you’re getting. With so many young players on offense, signing a veteran quarterback to steady the ship may have been a better idea than a rookie and two disappointing veterans.
2) Who Steps up at Wide Receiver?
Similar to their struggles at quarterback, the Browns continue to have issues at the wide receiver position. Greg Little appears locked-in as the team’s top player at the position, despite dropping 14 passes as a rookie. None of those drops came in the last four weeks of the season, however, so Cleveland is pinning hopes on a stronger 2012. There’s even more question marks beyond Little on the roster with Mohamed Massaquoi set to battle with rookies Josh Gordon and Travis Benjamin for a starting spot. While Massaquoi is the veteran, he simply hasn’t done enough since entering the league to make the job his, and, even if he begins the season as the starter, it’s highly likely one of the rookies will have taken his job by the end of the year. Regardless, the Browns need someone to step up here.
3) Offensive Line
Outside of Thomas, and center Alex Mack, questions still need to be asked of the Browns’ offensive line. Both starting guards, Jason Pinkston and Shaun Lauvao, graded negatively last season with Pinkston being bad enough to be ranked as our seventh-worst guard. The team spent a second-round draft pick on right tackle Mitchell Schwartz and he’ll go straight into the starting lineup on the assumption that he can’t be any worse that Oneil Cousins, who allowed three hits and eight hurries on just 52 plays in pass protection in 2011. Keeping Cousins out of the starting lineup is a plus in itself, but it’s once again a position where the Browns will have to trust a rookie. Ideally, Schwartz will slot right in at the position and give the Browns a pair of bookend tackles for years to come, but right now there alot of uncertainty.
4) Strange Move at Safety
Despite a solid season by Usama Young, particularly against the run where he was our joint-seventh-ranked safety, the team appears ready to hand the starting job to Eric Hagg. A seventh-round draft pick a year ago, Hagg missed most of his rookie campaign with a knee injury and when he did see the field, on a total of 182 snaps, he didn’t look to give any reason to be pushed into the starting line-up. Young and strong safety T.J. Ward seemed to have the making of a strong partnership at the position, so Hagg will surely need to up his game if he is to keep the starting job throughout the season.
5) Too Much Youth?
The underlying theme throughout all of these concerns appears to be the overall lack of veteran leadership on the Browns’ roster. The whole offense is filled with rookies and second-year men who are expected to step up, and while that is fine for some positions, so much youth is definitely a concern. They obviously feel like the younger players are talented, but going into the season with a rookie or second-year player starting at running back, both wide receiver spots, quarterback and right tackle is clearly a risk. Who knows, all of these players could play big roles in the Browns season, but if they don’t, there’s a lack of proven players to pick up the slack.
What to Expect
In a division that sent three teams to the playoffs last season, and with the NFC East on the schedule, the Browns know 2012 is going to be tough. It’s difficult to see them making the playoffs, barring a fantastic season by more than a few untested players, however, the season can be considered a success for the Browns if they come out of it knowing that they have found the answer at a number of positions. That, rather than the number of wins, will tell the true story of their season.