32 Teams in 32 Days: Cleveland Browns
For years the Cleveland Browns have been stuck at the bottom of the AFC North, rarely threatening their divisional foes and not taking advantage of their high draft picks. That’s lead to regime change after regime change, with new head coach Rob Chudzinski taking over heading into the 2013 season.
Chudzinski made some impressive hires in his coaching staff, bringing in Ray Horton and Norv Turner as his coordinators, but the team still faces an uphill battle this year. Stuck in one of the toughest divisions in the league, there may still be some tough days ahead yet for fans at the Factory of Sadness as the team tries to build themselves into something more. That said, they’ll be a fun team to watch in 2013, with several exciting offensive weapons.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1. One of the Best Offensive Lines in the NFL
They’ve built it over a number of years, but the Browns this season will field one of the strongest starting offensive lines in the entire league. It starts with left tackle Joe Thomas, who has never finished lower than eighth among all offensive tackles in terms of their PFF grade since we began grading back in 2008. The good news for Browns fans, however, is that after making do with journeymen like Tony Pashos and John St. Clair, who didn’t perform too badly it has to be said, they look to have a star in the making in Mitchell Schwartz at right tackle. He was at times a little underwhelming in the run game, but his strength was as a pass blocker and the flashes of good we did see as a run blocker make you believe that he’ll form a nice partnership with Thomas. Inside, it looks like they’ll go with Jason Pinkston and PFF Secret Superstar John Greco on either side of the ever solid Alex Mack at center.
2. Focusing on the Pass Rush
With the team switching to a 3-4 this offseason, it became a priority to find some quality outside pass rushers. Their first big splash came in signing free agent Paul Kruger from the division rival Baltimore Ravens, paying him enough that it priced the Ravens out of any attempt at keeping him around. The knocks on Kruger are valid — he loses the edge against the run a little too often and good tackles can make him look fairly average, but it’s hard to argue with how productive he was a year ago. With a Pass Rushing Productivity rating of 12.2 in 2012, he led all outside linebackers, getting more pressure on a per snap basis than the likes of Clay Matthews, Aldon Smith, and DeMarcus Ware. That wasn’t the only move the Browns made, as they used their top draft pick on Barkevious Mingo and, while many wondered if he was big enough to succeed in the NFL, he’s received rave reviews from training camp so far. It’s easier to look good on the practice field, however, and I’m looking forward to seeing how he does in preseason over the next few weeks.
3. Legit Receiving Options
Although he’ll miss time at the start of the season, it’s hard not to get excited about Josh Gordon in the Browns’ offense. He took a couple of weeks to get going after the Browns gave up a second-round pick to select him in the supplemental draft, but when he did he gave Cleveland its first genuine receiving threat since Braylon Edwards — and he even dropped less passes! His blend of size and speed is tough for any defensive back and they’ll miss him at the start of the year. While he’s out, the Browns will have to rely on Greg Little more, a prospect that would terrify most Browns fans in the past, however his ability to hang onto passes improved greatly as last year wore on. In his first 21 games in the league he had 20 dropped passes, but after Week 5 last year he turned it around, dropping just three balls in the remaining 11 games. Instead, he started to look dangerous with the ball in his hands, including forcing five missed tackles on eight receptions in Weeks 13 and 14.
4. Trent Richardson
Though they’ll be happy with the rookie seasons of Schwartz and Gordon, the real jewel in Cleveland’s 2012 draft class was their very first pick. There might have been genuine concerns about his health at times, but when he’s been on the field Trent Richardson has been a joy to watch. Finishing seventh in our rankings with an Elusive Rating of 38.8, Richardson made defenders miss when the ball was in his hands, regardless of if it was as a runner or a receiver. Finishing the year with 59 missed tackles from 318 touches on offense, Richardson has put opposing defensive players on notice that they better come prepared to wrap up well when they play the Browns.
5. T.J. Ward
After showing flashes in his first two seasons in the league, safety T.J. Ward took a significant step forward in 2013, grading positively both in coverage and against the run. It was against the run where he impressed the most, finishing the year as our highest-ranked safety in that regard and his value there is indicated by how good he was when the Browns brought him close to the line of scrimmage. With 17 tackles resulting in a defensive stop on plays when he lined up within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage, he had a Run Stop Percentage of 10.3%, bettered by only three players.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1. Is Brandon Weeden the Answer?
For many people the biggest question about Brandon Weeden coming out of Oklahoma State a year ago was how old he was and whether or not he would have the time to develop in the NFL. A year into his career and the question still remains, however the bigger question is even simpler — is he even good enough to be a starting NFL signal-caller? On the evidence of his rookie season, it’s hard to say ‘yes’. Finishing his rookie year as our lowest-graded quarterback, even lower than Mark Sanchez, he failed to grade higher than +2.1 in a single game, grading positively in just six starts, and having horrorshows like the season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles. He’s going to get the chance to prove everyone wrong, but he surely needs to make some massive strides in 2013 to keep his job.
2. Where Does Sheard Fit?
The move to a 3-4 will see third-year player Jabaal Sheard move from defensive end to outside linebacker and, like anytime a player is asked to move, it’s fair to question how well he’ll cope. That’s the case with Sheard, however it’s just as fair to question which version of Sheard we’ll see in 2013. As a rookie he struggled more against the run, while impressing as a pass rusher with 55 total pressures. Last year that flipped, with him looking much more solid against the run but struggling to generate much as a pass rusher. At his best, Sheard has shown the ability to be a very good player, though you have to wonder if he’ll see his snaps decrease significantly if he struggles again and Mingo and Kruger prosper.
3. Replacing Sheldon Brown
While Ward and cornerback Joe Haden are players who have impressed in the past, the rest of the Browns’ secondary has its question marks. Chris Owens looks to be the other starter at cornerback and, while he was solid when called upon in Atlanta last season, his career has as many impressive games as it does disappointing ones. It’s not unrealistic to expect an up-and-down season from him as a full-time starter for the first time in his career and it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Browns miss Sheldon Brown, who was a fairly reliable player for them over the course of his career in Cleveland.
4. Brutal Divisional Games
For some of the teams who finished at the bottom of the pile in 2012, there is a genuine chance that they can turn it around and jump up at least a couple of spots in their division with some key acquisitions. For the Browns, it’ll take a pretty incredible turnaround for them to even be the best team in the state of Ohio. That’s not even so much a knock on the Browns, who have done a lot to improve in the past few years, and more a nod to the strength of the AFC North. The North has perennial Super Bowl contenders in Baltimore and Pittsburgh, and the Browns now have to deal with Cincinnati turning themselves into a contender before our eyes.
5. Who Steps Up at Inside Linebacker?
Another key position as the team switches to a 3-4 will be inside linebacker where, if we’re being honest, the Browns are lacking anything of real excitement. They lost Kaluka Maiava in free agency while D’Qwell Jackson struggled last year, as he did in his last full season in a 3-4 back in 2008. Craig Robertson, an undrafted rookie in 2011, had an impressive game to open the year in 2012 but did little to fill you with confidence as the year wore on. This is the type of team who could benefit from bringing in a guy like Bart Scott. He might not be what he once was, but Scott is still good enough to help a team like Cleveland against the run.
What to Expect
Over the past few years, the Browns have made improvements on the field, and have looked like they were on the verge of breaking through a couple of times. Too often though, they have ripped it up to start over — as they have done again this year — and they need to have realistic expectations for how this team will perform as they continue to rebuild.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see them lose all six divisional games given the strength of their opponents, and while that would be disappointing, it shouldn’t be seen as a huge failure. If the Browns come out of this season having been competitive, securing six wins or so and learning whether or not Weeden is the answer at quarterback, that would be a success.
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