BEREA, Ohio -- Just looking over the practice field Friday, I would never have known the Browns haven't won a championship since 1964 or that they have only 23 wins over the last five seasons.
Fans were six deep all the way around the field and excited about the team. I spoke to many fans before, during and after practice and all of them had reasonable expectations for the season. None had aspirations for a Super Bowl or even the playoffs -- all they want this year is improvement and a belief in the quarterback that wins the job.
I sat down for extended conversations with General Manager Ray Farmer and coach Mike Pettine, and interviewed Brian Hoyer, Ben Tate, Jordan Cameron, Alex Mack, Karlos Dansby, Terrence West and Billy Wynn among others.
What to expect from the offense
The quarterback competition is real and on this day it appeared Brian Hoyer was the front-runner with Johnny Manziel settling in at the No. 2 spot. But after talking with Pettine it looks like Manziel will start getting reps with the first offensive line in front of him. In fact, Pettine said the first offensive line may play more than usual in the preseason games in order to make the QB competition fair.
The Browns' offense will be based on the zone run scheme, which is new especially for the offensive linemen. Alex Mack, the All-Pro center, admitted that the team really needs to practice this running scheme at full speed to get a feel for all the stunts and fronts they may see. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan recognized that it took time in his last stop in Washington to get the running game up and functioning at a high level.
Don't expect the Browns to come out in September and look like the Seahawks running the ball. Ben Tate is a solid back and he will be pushed by rookie Terrance West, the fourth-round pick from Towson. West is a 225-pound, hard runner with open-field burst and is capable of 10-yard-plus explosive runs, which he demonstrated in practice.
The passing game is going to come off play action a lot and the bootleg game will be an important phase. The Josh Gordon situation muddies the waters and the club is still looking for receivers that may be available in a trade or claimed off waivers later in the summer. Tight end Jordan Cameron will be the featured receiver for now and he will get some help from Andrew Hawkins. Hawkins is an explosive slot receiver. One coach said to me, "We need to get Hawkins the ball 10 times a game."
As for the quarterbacks it may come down to two different offenses. Hoyer can run an offense at the line of scrimmage and could have a bigger traditional playbook. Kyle Shanahan said, "We don't want to lose what Manziel is," but he also said running can't be your biggest asset at the position.
Manziel may have more of an RG3 playbook for the time being with more pistol and read option plays. Manziel made a play in the live goal-line scrimmage that reminded me of the great plays he had at Texas A&M. He came out on a bootleg left, sold the idea he was running, got the only defender out there to commit to him and he simply left his feet and flicked a bullet pass inside for a touchdown.
What to expect from the defense
Everyone from the personnel department to the water boys expects big things from this defense. It looks similar to last seasons' 3-4, but I expect more pressure calls because of the nature of Pettine and the new players he has on that side of the ball.
It starts outside with rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert. Gilbert already looks like an All-Pro candidate and will provide them with a man-to-man matchup player that can cause trouble for the bigger receivers they face. Donte Whitner replaces TJ Ward, who left in free agency and he will be an upgrade in the passing game. Karlos Dansby may be a little long in the tooth but for the short term he is a fiery leader who looked tremendous in the goal-line, short-yardage scrimmage.
Barkevious Mingo looks bigger and faster at OLB in his second season and rookie Christian Kirksey is already working with the first defense at inside linebacker. I expect the sack and turnover totals to improve this year and give their offense some extra chances to move the ball.
The biggest questions
• Who wins the quarterback job and how long will he keep it? The first three games are at Pittsburgh and then home against New Orleans and Baltimore followed by a bye. That could be the time Manziel takes over the job.
• What happens if Gordon is suspended? Right now the answer may not be on the roster considering Gordon caught 87 for 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns a year ago.
• Where will the Browns get help at guard? John Greco will be back and the club loves rookie Joel Bitonio. Pettine described Bitonio as exactly what the team is looking for in guys that will "play like a Brown." After those two the position needs some help and the pro personnel department will be looking all summer.
• Is there depth at safety? The team addressed the issue by signing Jimmy Leonard on Thursday and hopefully that fixes the problem.
• Will the fans and media be patient? The Cleveland situation is a team in development and the schedule is brutal early. Hopefully the people in Cleveland will not blame Farmer and Pettine for the things that went on before them and more importantly won't judge Manziel when he first goes on the field as a starter.
• Can the offense protect either quarterback? Last year the Browns gave up 30 sacks and that ranked them 30th.
I think all six drafted rookies will make the team and I wouldn't be surprised to see four of them start (Gilbert, Manziel, Bitonio, Kirksey) and the other two play important roles (West, Desir).
The Browns are headed in the right direction under Farmer and Pettine, but it is going to take time. Farmer said the club will "advance the roster" whenever possible and we could see changes all season long.
The defense is strong but not dominating enough to win games without significant help from the offense. Cleveland has a first-time GM, first-time head coach, a new scheme on offense and defense and Rome wasn't built in a day. Hopefully, owner Jimmy Haslam has learned his lesson about turning the organization upside down and lets this group build the right way.
This Browns were 4-12 last season and could advance to 6-10 this year.