With the preseason officially underway, so are our team previews as we offer fans five reasons to be confident, and five reasons to be concerned for where the team is headed in 2014. We’re going in the same order as May’s NFL Draft, so next up we take a look at the Cleveland Browns.
The Browns head into the season with a new head coach for the fourth time in the last six years. Former Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine takes over looking to snap the Browns’ streak of six consecutive sub-.500 seasons. Many fans are naturally excited about the influx of rookie talent from this year’s draft class including Justin Gilbert, Joel Bitonio, Terrence West, and of course Johnny Manziel. However, with our in-depth Rookie Impact series covering first year production last month, let’s take a look at what we can expect from the rest of the roster.
Five Reasons To Be Confident
1. Joe Thomas
The Browns may not yet know who will be under center for their Week 1 matchup in Pittsburgh. However, there is no debate who, if healthy, will be protecting the quarterback’s blind side: Joe Thomas, the game’s premier left tackle. His +23.4 pass blocking grade was, by a significant margin, the best of any offensive tackle in 2013 with Trent Williams putting in an impressive but distant second-place effort of +17.1. He has shown an amazing combination of durability and skill during his pro tenure that few are able to achieve. Somehow missing just two snaps and amassing an incredible +185.8 overall grade since entering the league in 2007. He is without question the Browns’ best player and the type of fixture at left tackle that every franchise is looking for.
2. The Defense
The Browns’ defense finished last season ranked in the bottom half of the league, but it appears that they have only gotten better since. They released D’Qwell Jackson (-7.5 overall) just two years into his five year, $42.5 million contract extension following back to back disappointing seasons. Struggling especially in the run game (-9.4) Jackson’s Run Stop Percentage of 5.9% ranked 37th of 40 eligible inside linebackers. Enter Karlos Dansby (+16.0).
Rebounding after a rough start to the season, Dansby posted positive overall grades in 10 of the last 11 games and tied for seventh among inside linebackers with an RSP of 10.8%. Looking at Pettine’s track record, the emergence of John Hughes’ (Browns 2013 Secret Superstar) stellar run defense (+9.6), and the addition of Gilbert and Donte Whitner to the secondary, the Browns’ defense seems poised be an improved group in 2013.
3. Securing Mack
We have not seen a player of Alex Mack’s caliber receive the transition tag since the Minnesota Vikings used the infamous ‘poison pill’ to snag All-Pro guard Steve Hutchinson from the Seattle Seahawks in 2006. Eight years later, with the poison pill now outlawed, Browns GM Ray Farmer decided to designate the Pro Bowl center with the tag and the Jacksonville Jaguars came calling with a contract offer shortly after. This turned out to be a great move by Farmer, though, as the Browns locked up one of the best centers in the game until 2016 (Mack can opt out in the third year of the contract) and saved $4 million by not having to tag him the next two years.
Mack (+19.3 overall) played every down for the Browns’ offense last year and backed up his success in the run game in 2012 (+17.3) with a strong encore performance (+14.9) in 2013. His Week 8 matchup vs. Dontari Poe & Co. served as his only game with a negative overall grade (-2.0) last season. With Thomas, Mack and positive comments from players and coaches coming out of training camp on the rookie Bitonio, look for the left side of the offensive line to lead the offense in 2014.
4. Improved Running Game
Whether its Manziel or Brian Hoyer under center it will be important for the Browns to have a strong rushing attack as its unlikely either will be able to move the offense consistently without it. To help with that, the Browns drafted Terrence West and signed former Houston Texan running back Ben Tate this offseason. Tate likely won’t be breaking any records, with an average run grade of just +3.7 over the last three seasons, but he was last year’s eighth-best running back in terms of Elusive Rating (47.6%) and should certainly be an upgrade over the 32-year-old Willis McGahee who led the team with a paltry 377 rushing yards in 2013.
5. Health at Quarterback
Last year, by Week 12 fans had seen Hoyer, Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell each get knocked out of games due to injuries. The Browns brought in Tyler Thigpen to add depth after Weeden and Campbell left in free agency. Hoyer remains, though, competing with Manziel for the starting job. There likely isn’t a team in the league that can maintain success when forced to play their third string quarterback, so just having three healthy players competing is an improvement from where they finished in 2013.
Five Reasons To Be Concerned
1. Gordon’s Uncertain Future
Statistically speaking, Josh Gordon has probably had a better start to his pro career than any player ever taken in the NFL’s Supplemental Draft. His record breaking back-to-back 200+ yard receiving performances, second-place finish in Yards Per Route Run among wide receivers (2.68), and league-high 1,646 receiving yards on the year were all phenomenal (especially considering who was throwing him the ball). His troubles off the field, however, may be just as unrivaled. Since entering the league he has simply not found a way to stay out of trouble and his most recent violations may leave the Browns without their prolific playmaker for the entire 2014 season.
2. Questions At Quarterback
The Browns have found themselves in familiar territory heading in to yet another preseason without an established passer. Hoyer flashed potential early last season and Manziel is, of course, a rookie looking to go the way of many recent quarterbacks drafted in the first round by beginning his pro career as a starter. While they are better situated than in years past, neither player has proven enough — if anything — to warrant high expectations. New Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan will tailor his offense to whoever gets the nod, but with no quarterback in the league having more play action drop-backs the past two years than his former starter Robert Griffin III (despite missing four games) it would be a surprise if he didn’t try to lighten the load by opening things up through the air with play action as he’s done in the past.
3. Lack of Wide Receiver Depth
Releasing former second-round pick Greg Little along with veteran wide receivers Davone Bess and Earl Bennett leaves the Browns very thin at the wide receiver position – even more so with Gordon’s status unknown. They did sign Nate Burleson (-4.5 overall), oft-injured Miles Austin (-4.6) and slot receiver Andrew Hawkins (-0.5) formerly of the division rival Cincinnati Bengals. But all three struggled to stay on the field in 2013, missing seven, six, and seven games, respectively. The Browns’ offense might be able to get by if all three stay healthy, but if not, they could find themselves in a rather precarious situation.
4. Schwartz’s Inconsistency
Mitchell Schwartz is a perfect example of why it’s worthwhile to look deeper into certain segments of a player’s performance throughout the season. At first glance his strong rookie campaign in 2012 (+11.2 overall) was a clear sign of promising young talent. Yet in the first half of each of his first two seasons he has compiled an overall grade of -11.2. Alternatively, in both years he finished the second half with much better play recording a +23.9 overall. If Schwartz can start the season the way he finishes them he will be on his way to help solidify the Browns’ offensive line and recognized as one of the better right tackles in the NFL.
5. Cameron’s Poor Finish
Jordan Cameron burst onto the scene early in the year catching five touchdown passes and posting positive overall grades in each of the first five games of the season (combining for a +10.6 overall mark). However, it was mostly downhill from there as he would catch only two more touchdown passes and log back-to-back positive overall grades just once the rest of the year (combining for -14.7). It might be tempting to attribute his drop-off in touchdown receptions to the Browns’ shaky quarterback play, teams doing more to contain him after watching him catch fire early on, or for all we know playing with an undisclosed injury. However, his grades clearly show a slip in play as the year progressed and with the uncertainty of Gordon’s availability and lack of wide receiver talent remaining on the roster, the Browns would love to see Cameron recapture and maintain the solid play he flashed early last season to help keep opponents honest in the passing game.