|The O-line is part of the rebuilding, with rookie Mitchell Schwartz likely to start at RT. (US Presswire)|
BEREA, Ohio -- The Cleveland Browns enter 2012 after yet another season in the basement of the AFC North with nowhere to go but up. They have another nominal quarterback battle, at least on paper (Weeden vs. McCoy feels a bit like Quinn vs. Anderson), and yet again, there are possibly huge front-office changes on the horizon (and an imminent ownership change).
Just another summer for the Browns.
The coaches are hoping an infusion of offensive talent from the draft can lift the franchise, and last year's offense was downright unwatchable at times. All eyes are on Brandon Weeden, Trent Richardson, Josh Gordon and Mitchell Schwartz, to name a few. With incoming owner Jim Haslam a hands-on kind of guy, and team president Mike Holmgren possibly out soon, everyone knows more change is afoot and they might need to perform quickly to stick around.
Showing signs of life on offense is paramount.
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"We needed to get a running back, and I felt like we needed to upgrade at the quarterback position," coach Pat Shurmur said. "And then we needed to bring in a guy at the right tackle position who we could count on. Those were the three starting points, not to mention, what I thought was a good move on our part, to upgrade the receiver position."
• Score points. It sounds simple, but they have to get in the end zone. The Browns couldn't crack 14 points most weeks and couldn't score in the first or third quarter to save their lives. They have to play with the lead occasionally and there is no doubt Richardson will be a workhorse back. He'll be on the field in all situations. Getting Weeden on the same page with his young receivers is another mandatory step. It has to translate to Sundays. They need to sell some hope to the fan base on that side of the ball, and there's no better way than with a slew of top picks. Now they just have to produce.
• Stay healthy. The Browns love some of their key pieces on an improving defense -- and that side of the ball was the focus of the 2009 and 2010 offseason -- like D'Qwell Jackson, Joe Haden and Phil Taylor. But they also know they aren't deep enough to withstand the loss of key starters. Taylor is already hurt. "Our guys are comfortable within the scheme," Shurmur said, "but the key for us is to stay healthy. That's the key. As we go through camp the ones we've got, we've got to get them to the race, and unfortunately there are times you get guys banged up in camp."
• Win in the division. If this franchise is going to turn around, then at some point the Browns will have to be able to win consistently against the likes of Pittsburgh and Baltimore, and now Cincinnati as well. That's three teams with quality quarterbacks and some impressive talent. Cleveland is still playing catchup. When everyone else in the division is playing in the postseason, and you're jostling for a top-five pick, it's an indication of how far there is to go. Making Cleveland a tough place to visit again for divisional foes would be a nice step in the right direction.
Quarterback: There isn't anyone in this organization who doesn't think Weeden, the 22nd overall pick, will be the Week 1 starter. But Colt McCoy, the incumbent, is still getting some camp reps with starting receivers. At least on paper it's a competition. Weeden looked raw in special situations early in camp, like the two-minute drill, but that's to be expected. No matter how much he struggles in camp and the preseason, I can't see him doing anything but starting the season on the field. McCoy could be dealt before the season, with veteran Seneca Wallace a capable backup.
No. 2 and No. 3 wide receiver: After Greg Little, who returns as the top target, this group is entirely up for grabs. There are no real favorites and so much yet to play out. Gordon, taken in the second round of the supplemental draft, and fourth-round pick Travis Benjamin have a lot of promise. Holdover Mohamed Massaquoi, a bust to this point, looked energized early in camp. Josh Cribbs is seeing his role decline, with more of a focus on special teams, which opens up playing time for others. Regardless of how it shakes out, expect the youngsters to be in plenty of packages.
Right tackle: Tony Pashos is a courageous fellow, and he gutted it out with his body failing him last season. But right tackle was a huge issue in 2011 and having drafted yet another quarterback high, they need to find a bookend to complement left tackle Joe Thomas. Everyone expects Schwartz to get the gig, and he will. But he was having some trouble adjusting to the speed of the game early in camp as he worked with the starters. He will see a lot of action in preseason games. Journeyman Oniel Cousins provides the competition here.
Somebody to Watch
You can't miss Gordon at camp. He hovers over other guys on what is a receiving group with good size. He has freak-of-nature, matchup-nightmare speed and body type, but is ever so raw. He really only played one year of college football at Baylor and missed the entire offseason, having just been taken in the supplemental draft in mid-June. But a lot of teams liked him, and while the Browns surprised some by taking him so high, the potential is there. Gordon, despite all the missed time, was already getting reps in some three-receiver sets with the starters early in camp. "He's an extremely talented young man," Shurmur said. "We'll just see how far we can get him." It's worth noting after a shaky offseason that Benjamin was lighting up camp with his speed.
Defensive lineman Phil Taylor tore a pectoral muscle in the offseason and for a time it appeared he might be lost for the season, but GM Tom Heckert was confident he would be off the PUP list and ready to play by around Week 7. "He's already lifting," Heckert said. "We just have to make sure he doesn't do too much."
Defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin was being brought along slowly but is expected back after the first preseason game.
The Final Word
The Browns went 4-12 and are 18-46 the past four years. So all the hope must be somewhat tempered. They have made some strides and Heckert has pulled off some nice draft-day trades, but other execs see this team still firmly in rebuilding mode. Improving much on last year's win total will be a chore, and, especially if Joe Banner takes over as team president before the season, brace for sweeping changes throughout the organization heading into 2013.