NFL Season Preview: The Cleveland Browns
Offense: The Browns made two big moves with their two first round picks in the NFL Draft this year, one that should be great for them in the long term and another that will more than likely be disastrous. Their first pick was used on Alabama Running Back Trent Richardson; one of the top prospects in the draft and arguably the best RB prospect to come out of college since Adrian Peterson. Richardson is solid in every aspect of the game. He has power to run between the tackles, breakaway speed, cut moves, excellent field vision plus he’s an excellent receiver out of the backfield and a good blocker on top of that. On top of that, Richardson doesn’t have a ton of mileage on him from college as 2011 was his only season not splitting carries so he’s relatively fresh. Richardson should be the centerpiece of Cleveland’s Offense for the next decade. The immediate problem for him however, is that the Browns are so berept of other offensive talent that teams will likely stack 8 or even 9 in the box to shut him down.
The other first round draft pick, Oklahoma State Quarterback Brandon Weedon selected at #22 was one of the most puzzling picks of the entire draft for a number of reasons. The biggest one is his age; Weeden is 28 years old and will turn 29 one month into the season. Players at that age should not be selected in the first round as by the time he figures out how to run an NFL offense (if he does at all) he’ll be 30 and starting a downswing on his career. Weedon was a very good college QB with some baudy numbers but this can be attributed to three things: Top quality, NFL starting receivers in Dez Bryant and now Justin Blackmon, running a spread offense where he barely had to make reads and playing against Big 12 defenses which are largely laughable. Weedon does have a good arm and seems intelligent but there will no doubt be a learning curve for him especially with the lack of talent around him, adjusting to legitimate NFL defenses (including two of the best, the Steelers and Ravens in his own division) and learning the subtleties of the game. Big 12 QB’s have had a high bust rate for quite some time now for all the reasons I mentioned and on top of that the Browns have one of those on the roster already in Colt McCoy. McCoy is injury-prone and doesn’t have a great arm but also never had as good a weapon as Richardson in the backfield. Does Weeden give them a better chance to win right now than McCoy? Doubtful. I personally wouldn’t have touched Weeden before the third round and even then he’d be best off holding a clipboard but time is working against him.
Cleveland’s receiving corps isn’t going to help matters much. Greg Little had a strong rookie season with 62 receptions and 8 touchdowns but he also had major issues with drops. He should improve in his second year but he’s still got a long way to go and didn’t get any help across from him. Mohamed Massaquoi has been almost completely ineffective since being drafted in the second round 4 years ago and likely wouldn’t crack the starting lineup on any other team. They drafted Travis Benjamin in the fourth round who has incredible speed but is very small for a receiver and is more than likely a project. Speaking of projects, the Browns just used a second round pick (one that they’ll probably regret having given up) on Josh Gordon in the supplemental draft. Gordon is a tremendous athlete but not much else. He projects as a very good long-term project but likely won’t contribute much this season. Josh Cribbs is a fantastic kick-returner and has had some success with trick plays but isn’t a true WR. Cleveland’s Tight Ends aren’t much help either. Former New England first round pick Ben Watson had three concussions in one season last year and will likely be very carefully monitored and use playing time. Evan Moore is decent but is used as a blocker more than anything.
The Offensive Line is a bit of a bright spot. Left Tackle Joe Thomas in one of the best at his position in the NFL and the same can be said for Center Alex Mack. The Right Tackle position received an upgrade in the draft with Cal OT Mitchell Schwartz. Schwartz will certainly have some growing pains but he should be better than pedestrian journeyman Tony Pashos was last year. Cleveland’s Guards are both mediocre but should benefit from the strength of the other three positions.
The Browns very quietly became one of the better passing defenses in the league last year, ranking 11th overall. This is in part due to shutdown corner Joe Haden, a 3rd year, 7th overall pick who has been great since coming to Cleveland and doesn’t seem to get much credit (although he did make the Pro Bowl). Safety TJ Ward is another very good player who is always around the ball and gets a ton of tackles. He should have a strong rebound year after an injury put him out for the latter half of the season in 2011. The Browns also have good depth at the safety position Usama Young playing pretty well. Opposite Haden could be a concern as Sheldon Brown is okay but is getting up there in age and behind him is the very mediocre Demetri Peterson and the inexperienced Buster Skrine.
Sadly, the secondary is the only unit with consistent strength for this team. The D-Line has some talent but the Browns were awful at stopping the run and rushing the passer last year with one exception; rookie Jabaal Sheard had 8.5 sacks as a rookie and should only get better in his second year. The Browns brought in free agents Frostee Rucker and Juqua Thomas-Parker but neither should be starting and both are most likely situational pass-rushers. The Browns took a huge blow in the offseason as 2011 first-rounder Phil Taylor, a huge cog in the middle of the D-Line suffered a torn pectoral and will likely miss most if not all of the 2012 season. Taylor’s development was an integral part of Cleveland’s developing defense. Ahtya Rubin is a good player at the other DT spot but he’ll have one of two rookies (John Hughes in the third round and Billy Winn in the sixth) starting next to him which isn’t a great sign. The Browns have a very good Middle Linebacker in D’Qwell Jackson who led the team in tackles again last season and was rewarded with a huge contract. He’s always around the ball and doesn’t have many weaknesses in his game. The other two LB’s however, could pose some problems. Scott Fujita and Chris Gocong are both very average players who are total sieve’s in coverage. Fourth-Rounder James-Michael Johnson will likely be pressed for playing time if they struggle, and will likely have to start the season anyway due to Fujita’s bounty gate suspensions.
Overall: It seems like the Browns have been one step forward and two steps back for years now. They are starting over at QB again which is a huge mistake. Richardson could be huge but Defenses will key in on him until they get more offensive talent. An overall lack of playmakers on both sides of the ball hurts the team in general. They play in one of the toughest divisions in football with three of their rivals coming off of playoff seasons. I just fail to see how the Browns can do much of anything this season and will likely be picking very high in the first round come 2013.