There is no way to sugar coat how pathetic the Browns offense was last season. Inept is not too strong a description. Less than 14 points per game. Only 20 combined passing and rushing TDs. There is no place to go but up for this group, and they will need immediate impact from this rookie class in order to pull it off. The front office focus the past few years has clearly been on the defense and team president Mike Holmgren inherited a roster that was full of recent draft busts on the offensive side of the ball.
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Obviously, all of that changed in April, when the Browns took what they figure will be their feature back in Trent Richardson and their long-term starting quarterback in Brandon Weeden. Look for both to start from Day 1, barring injury, and Richardson will be on the field in all situations and will have the ball in his hands a ton. He's facing some of the best rushing defenses in the league, however, in this division, which won't help his learning curve much. Over 16 games he must be one of the more productive backs in the NFL if Cleveland is going to have any chance to compete. The offense will revolve around him, something longtime Browns fans will be familiar with when they think back to the glory days of the franchise.
The unit was devoid of playmakers in 2012. Period. They need to get Josh Cribbs more involved, and Colt McCoy, not suited to the elements there and without any help, stumbled, but it was hardly all on him. No team dropped more passes. And with longtime stalwarts like Eric Steinbach no longer around the offensive line will be under the microscope as well (Richardson should help in pass protection). So no wonder why four of the first five picks were on the offensive side of the ball.
The good news was on defense, where the investment in recent years was paying dividends. The Browns got better as the year went on and they have developed impact players at each level of the defense. Unfortunately, Phil Taylor won't be able to build upon his fine rookie season up front, as he was lost for the season during offseason training. D'Qwell Jackson is coming off a monster season, and few linebackers were better or more well-rounded a year ago. He can do it all. On the back end, corner Joe Haden is a superstar in the making and the kind of young shutdown prospect every GM covets.
Cleveland will continue to try to sprinkle in others, but the unit jelled under Dick Jauron a year ago, seemingly taking to his even-keeled, more conservative approach. We'll see if they can keep it up in 2012, and how much better they can get, because the offenses in the AFC North aren't getting any worse and were already formidable enough. They'll also be without linebacker Scott Fujita for three games for his "Bountygate" suspension, barring him winning appeal.
Staff: Brad Childress brought in as offensive coordinator. Tim Hauck replaces James Harrison (who left for Dallas) as DBs coach.
The Browns are building through the draft, and really don't have another choice. Cleveland is a hard sell these days in free agency and it wouldn't be smart for the team to splurge yet, anyway, given where they are in the rebuild. And yes, it seems like a perpetual rebuild, I know, but having to chase Baltimore and Pittsburgh, and now Cincinnati as well, instills a longview, and GM Tom Heckert needs to continue to have more drafts like 2010, where the Julio Jones trade with Atlanta provided more desperately needed draft picks.
To that end, the biggest move here is, potentially, the addition of Childress. Rookie head coach Pat Shurmur was simply wearing too many hats, trying to coach the quarterbacks and call the plays and essentially run the offense will also fulfill the myriad responsibilities of the head coach. It became clear by midway through the season that he needed help and it would be on the way in the offseason in the form of one experienced former head coach from the West Coast offense or another.
Mike Sherman, who ended up in Miami as its offensive coordinator, was one possibility, and Childress was the other. He knows this kind of offense very well and will be a much-needed set of eyes and sounding board for Shurmur. These men will have to get Weeden up to speed from the get go, because they didn't take him in the first round to have him sit behind McCoy. Hillis is the biggest name to depart the roster, but his 2011 season was clouded by dysfunction and it was clearly time for him to move on, though his 2010 season was something to behold.
X-Factor: WR Greg Little
Little is as raw as they come, but also has exceptional upside and could be the go-to wide receiver this franchise has longed for. He's only been playing the position a few years -- and remember he was ineligible at North Carolina in 2010 -- but has a phenomenal skillset. Of course, learning this position at this level is no joke, and we've seen many a rookie receiver struggle to find his way.
Little must, must, must work on his hands and become a more sure target. The good news is that comes with repetition and time on the Juggs gun. He'll have to learn to think the game most rapidly as well, but, again, that comes with time as well. But he is clearly best positioned on this roster to become Weeden's favorite from the get go, and I suspect a whole lot of passes come his way, particularly in September and October. He was second only to AJ Green among all rookie receivers in receptions and finished strong, catching five balls or more in four of the final eight games for a pop-gun attack.
Little has the physical ability to win battles and he made some nifty plays down the stretch, the kind of efforts that make the quarterback want to keep feeding him. Continued progress from him, coupled with what should be a more sustained running game with Richardson, would go a long way to getting this offense to take a few steps in the right direction.
There was a lot of drama around McCoy at the end of last season, with the probe on the diagnosis of his concussion and some strong words from his father. That's just the kind of year it was for the Browns. McCoy still has designs on the starting job, and while it would likely take a major collapse from Weeden for him to get it, this kid is a fighter and the competition could bring out the best in him. Seneca Wallace is still around as well, and I doubt the Browns carry all three into the regular season, maybe flopping one of the backups for a late-round pick.
Regardless, the interplay between Weeden and McCoy, and how this competition plays out, will be the most watched and talked about issue through training camp, and beyond.
D'Qwell feeling well
Jackson proved just what a stud he could be when healthy ... which led to him getting a huge new deal. Well deserved. But can he avoid the injuries woes that have dogged him before? He is clearly the face of this defense and the man who sets the tone for them. The Browns aren't deep enough at this stage to survive losing too many starters, and as I mentioned, the Taylor injury already stings significantly. Jackson sets everyone else up to succeed and Cleveland needs him on the field as much as possible to continue the defensive resurgence.
Holmgren for the long haul?
The Browns have a 9-23 record since owner Randy Lerner reached deep in his pockets to hand over total control of the franchise to Holmgren in an attempt to finally get things turned around. Thus far, it hasn't worked, and at this stage of his life and his career, there are rumblings around the league about how much longer Holmgren will remain unless the Browns take a leap forward quickly.
The reality is that whether it be Joe Gibbs or Bill Parcells -- or others who have already accomplished it all and are in that retirement age -- these kind of guys rarely are there for the full five years and whenever they go, the organization generally changes greatly in their wake, with the coaching staff and front office reshuffled again. And, as much as Holmgren has always deflected it, questions about him one day returning to the sidelines will continue to be asked as well.
"I don't see any real hope there. They improved some defensively but that's just not a very good football team. Maybe four wins? They have a long ways to go to compete in this division. From what I hear, Holmgren is committed to all five years and I don't see them firing him. I guess the question is does he come back to coach?"
Xs and Os
By Pat Kirwan | NFL Insider
|Browns' Rivals: AFC North|
2012 Preview Schedule
Ravens @ Browns: 11/4 (1 p.m. ET)
Browns @ Ravens: 9/27 (8:20 p.m. ET)
2012 Preview Schedule
Bengals @ Browns: 10/14 (1 p.m. ET)
Browns @ Bengals: 9/16 (1 p.m. ET)
2012 Preview Schedule
Steelers @ Browns: 11/25 (1 p.m. ET)
Browns @ Steelers: 12/30 (1 p.m. ET)
The Browns are a pure West Coast offense, stemming from GM Mike Holmgren (a disciple of Bill Walsh) through coach Pat Shurmur and offensive coordinator Brad Childress. Drafting running back Trent Richardson will mean more running than usual in a scheme that prides itself in moving the chains with the short passing attack. The Browns surprised a number of people when they didn't take a wide receiver in free agency and held off until the fourth round to grab Travis Benjamin. Cleveland still could find receiver help in the veteran market and may keep a close eye on players from teams like Green Bay and Philadelphia that are already trained in their system. Last season, the Browns simply couldn't score enough points to win and only reached 20 points in two games. Childress will take more shots downfield off play action now that Richardson is the running back. Last year the Browns stuck to the run as much as possible with 53 percent on first down, 40 percent on second down and 19 percent on third.
Rookie QB Brandon Weeden has the arm and intelligence to play early but there really isn't a receiving threat that will dictate coverage, so defenses can disguise what they have in mind for him. There's little doubt the Browns will play lots of catch-up football. Pass protection should be good on the left side but rookie Mitchell Schwartz will need help on the right side. Teams will come after Weeden, who isn't the most mobile QB -- and with the number of receivers that can be single covered blitzing will be a solid option. The Browns will utilize a lot of quick pass from the shotgun to counter the pressure.
Cleveland's 4-3 is underrated in one sense (10th overall) but couldn't stop the run. Teams sat on early leads which inflated the Browns' pass defense numbers. Eleven teams didn't even throw for 200 yards against the Browns but were 8-3 in those games. DC Dick Jauron knew he needed more people upfront to keep players fresh and added three defensive linemen (Frostee Rucker, Juqua Parker and John Hughes) to improve the pass rush. That should help a zone coverage secondary that only managed nine interceptions. Jauron would rather not blitz too often although he did get 10 sacks from non-defensive linemen last year.
This season the Browns pass rush up front could be Jabaal Sheard, Parker, Rucker and Ahtyba Rubin which should reduce the need for pressure calls to some degree. Keep in mind the better the Browns offense plays the more the defense gets exposed.
By Rob Rang | NFLDraftScout.com Senior Analyst
Trent Richardson is a dynamic interior runner with the speed to turn the edge and pull away. He could teach a clinic on lowering his pads at contact and running through hits. He has soft, reliable hands as a receiver and is among the more physical and attentive pass blockers I've scouted at the position. I gave him a higher grade than I gave Adrian Peterson coming out of Oklahoma.
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Later in the first round, the Browns snagged what they believe might be their starting quarterback for the next several years in Brandon Weeden. He has the size, arm strength and intelligence to be successful in coach Pat Shurmur's West Coast offense. He lacks Colt McCoy's athleticism, but Weeden's progression through the offseason program speaks to his maturity and leadership.
Meanwhile, offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz was characterized as a reach pick as the fifth choice of the second round by some, but he could wind up surprising as a rookie. A 51-game starter at Cal, Schwartz has starting experience at both tackle positions and is one of the few rookie offensive linemen with plenty of experience playing against both three- and four-man fronts.
The rest of the Browns' picks:
1st Round - No. 3 overall - Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama
1st Round - No. 22 overall - Brandon Weeden, QB, Oklahoma State
2nd Round - No. 37 overall - Mitchell Schwartz, OT, California
3rd Round - No. 87 overall - John Hughes, DT, Cincinnati
4th Round - No. 100 overall - Travis Benjamin, WR, Miami
4th Round - No. 120 overall - James-Michael Johnson, ILB, Nevada
5th Round - No. 160 overall - Ryan Miller, OG, Colorado
6th Round - No. 204 overall - Emmanuel Acho, OLB, Texas
6th Round - No. 205 overall - Billy Winn, DE, Boise State
7th Round - No. 245 overall - Trevin Wade, CB, Arizona
7th Round - No. 247 overall - Brad Smelley, FB, Alabama