by Andy Benoit
(Ed. Note: Thanks to The New York Times for allowing us to re-run Andy Benoit's annual team previews. Please be aware that these previews are more scouting-oriented than what we run in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, and they represent one man's opinion so they may differ from the forecast from our statistical team projection system. -- Aaron Schatz)
It’s year 14 of the Cleveland Browns rebuilding project. Or year three of their third or fourth rebuilding project -– whatever, you get the idea. The Browns finished 4-12 last season, marking the third straight year, and ninth time since their reinstatement in 1999, that they’ve lost at least 11 games. They did it primarily with bad offense (13.6 points per game, third worst in the NFL), though their defense was nowhere near as good as its No. 5 scoring ranking suggested.
Mike Holmgren knew the uphill climb would be steep when he agreed to take over as team president in 2010. He may not have known that Randy Lerner would soon be selling the team to Jimmy Haslam, and that the 2012 season would probably be his last in Cleveland. This comes just when it seemed like Holmgren was getting traction.
This past April, Holmgren did what he probably wanted to but couldn’t do his first two years: draft a quarterback in the first round. The selection of Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden meant that 30 of the NFL’s 32 teams currently have a signal-caller that was either drafted in the first round or is playing under a contract that guarantees them more than $20 million. (The only two teams that don’t are the Bengals, who have high second-round youngster Andy Dalton, and the Seahawks, who have free agent pickup Matt Flynn.)
Holmgren’s selection of Weeden upset incumbent quarterback Colt McCoy, but contrary to what the Browns have shown over the years, this isn’t pee-wee football. Players’ feelings don’t matter. What matters is being able to execute all of head coach Pat Shurmur’s offense. Holmgren knows what 30 other teams (plus the Bengals) know: you can’t win in today’s NFL with a middling player under center.
The 28-year-old Weeden is expected to start right away, though not many expect him to immediately set the world on fire. Holmgren would have selected Weeden much earlier than 22nd if that were the case. Cleveland had an earlier pick –- the fourth overall selection, which they traded along with fourth-, fifth- and seventh-round picks to Minnesota for the third overall pick. They spent that on Alabama’s Trent Richardson.
The Richardson pick is very revealing about how far Holmgren thinks this team still has to go. Richardson is viewed by many as the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson. But trading up to take a running back -– any running back –- third in today’s NFL is akin to pawning gold in order to buy the coolest landline phone on the market. If running backs can help win significant games, then why hasn’t Adrian Peterson’s team won anything without Brett Favre?
Holmgren isn’t oblivious to the ways of today’s NFL -– he knows Lombardi Trophies are obtained through the air. But he’s also not oblivious to the state of his team. He knows the Browns still don’t have the resources to truly compete in the AFC North. They don't have that kind of passing offense just yet. He also knows that the Browns will never rebuild if they don’t first stop the bleeding. This team needs to familiarize itself with winning –- it needs to have some sort of success to build on. It’s easier to build a long-term playoff contender coming off an 8-8 season than a 4-12 season. The Browns didn’t have the resources to build an immediately potent passing attack, but they did have the resources to build an immediately potent rushing attack. Baby steps are better than no steps.
Let’s suppose Trent Richardson lives up to the hype. Let’s suppose his combination of speed and power translate perfectly to the NFL, and that despite his physical (if not violent) running style, Richardson proves to be every bit as explosive in Weeks 13-17 as he was in Weeks 1-12. Let’s even supposed the 21-year-old is viewed as the second coming of Jim Brown. That’s great, but it won’t impact anything beyond fantasy leagues if the Browns can’t become respectable through the air.
A great season from Richardson in and of itself can’t propel the Browns to .500, it can only allow them to get to .500. They still need some sort of a passing game. This is why there’s no discussion about rookie Brandon Weeden competing with incumbent quarterback Colt McCoy. It doesn’t matter how likeable or noble McCoy is off the field; on the field, he can’t play -– at least not at the level needed for sustainable NFL success. The arm strength just isn’t there, and he doesn’t have the innate accuracy or dynamic athleticism to make up for it. It doesn’t help that McCoy struggled to read the field in his 13 starts last season, either.
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Keep in mind, McCoy’s struggles came in a West Coast offense -– a scheme supposedly manageable for meager-armed players. Weeden at least gives Pat Shurmur’s system a chance to function. The 6-foot-3, 221-pounder is said to be the best pure pocket passer in the 2012 draft class. His mechanics are borderline flawless. The caveat is that Weeden needs comfortable space in order to operate. At Oklahoma State, he was not a confident player when bodies were around him.
So really, Weeden is the best clean pocket passer in the 2012 class. He’ll find that in Cleveland, clean pockets can be harder to come by than quality Cavaliers. This isn’t because the Browns offensive line is bad –- it’s because NFL defenses are good. No NFL quarterback plays from a consistently clean pocket. The Browns offensive line actually has a chance to be pretty good, though last year it wasn’t the firm unit that it’s mostly been since Joe Thomas’s arrival in 2007. Thomas wasn’t the problem last season –- his fifth Pro Bowl honor was well-deserved. It was the rest of Cleveland’s line, save for center Alex Mack, that was iffy.
Poor initial quickness made left guard Jason Pinkston a liability at times. The 2011 fifth-round pick did a better job at holding his ground as a pass-blocker late in the season, but it’s not a coincidence that the Browns spent a fifth-round pick on Ryan Miller this season. Shawn Lauvao is slated to start at right guard, in part because backup John Greco, who pushed him hard a few times last season, doesn’t offer good mobility in the run game. It’s unfortunate that Mack, one of the game’s best all-around centers, is flanked by such limited teammates.
Cleveland’s up-and-down guard play was a minor issue compared to the problems at right tackle. The hope is that the second-round selection of Mitchell Schwartz will fix things. Schwartz isn’t believed to have great upside, but he’s a well-sized, tough, competitor who started 51 games at California. He should easily beat out Oniel Cousins for a starting job.
Improved pass protection is just part of the equation: Weeden will have to get more help from his wide receivers. Colt McCoy’s shortcomings weren’t the only reason Cleveland’s passing attack often revolved heavily around the designed catch-and-run gimmicks of Joshua Cribbs or the short inside receiving of tight ends Benjamin Watson and Evan Moore. Wide receivers Greg Little and Mohamed Massaquoi simply could not defeat man coverage on a regular basis. Both were plodding possession types. Little might actually have the athleticism to be more than that, but we won’t know for sure unless he gets more comfortable with the timing and speed of the NFL. There’s also the issue of drops. Little led the AFC with 13 of them last season, each one more baffling than the last.
There isn’t much hope for Massaquoi. He’s shown hints of smart route running, but heavy legs and poor separation skills make him look like a former sixth-rounder, not second-rounder. The Browns gave up their 2013 second-round pick to snatch the troubled-but-talented Josh Gordon in the supplemental draft this past summer. Gordon hasn’t played in an organized game since 2010, but he should be able to claim the No. 2 job. Massaquoi has played the slot at times, but if demoted there, he’s liable to get beat out by fourth-round rookie Travis Benjamin, a 5-foot-10, 172-pound electric playmaker from Miami.
The Browns would like to see Little and Gordon be the focal points of the passing attack, though the tight ends still figure to be a priority. Weeden is very good at throwing the seam route, and Evan Moore, with his big frame and upright style, has proven effective on these patterns. Moore isn’t a true matchup nightmare, though, and neither is Watson. In fact, Watson might not be a matchup period, given the three concussions he suffered last season. If he’s unavailable, 2011 fourth-round pick Jordan Cameron could get significant snaps. Cameron’s receiving versatility could bring more dimension to Shurmur’s offense. Also in the equation could be journeyman Alex Smith.
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As for the ground game, Richardson will be the workhorse, which means Montario Hardesty will probably never get a chance to live up to his second-round billing as a Brown. Hardesty has some short-area explosiveness, but he lacks refinement and has durability issues.
The Browns figure to stay in base personnel most of the time, which means a dual backfield. A fullback can help ease a rookie runner into the NFL, as instead of reading defenses, the rookie can just follow his lead-blocker. With this in mind, don’t be surprised if seventh-round pick Brad Smelley (imagine growing up with a name like that) makes the roster as a backup to versatile bruiser Owen Marecic. On passing downs, it will be interesting to see if the Browns keep Richardson on the field (he has fairly soft hands) or go with former Packer Brandon Jackson. It will likely come down to how well Richardson understands pass protection concepts.
The Browns defense may not have been quite as good as its numbers in 2011, but it was still a solid unit. Simple reasoning says that with every key player back and its rising youngsters a year older, this unit should be even better in 2012. But that’s hard to imagine given all three levels of the defense have at least one glaring hole.
Generally, a defensive coach will mask glaring holes with schematic wrinkles such as pre-snap disguises or overload blitzes, but coordinator Dick Jauron adheres to a fairly basic 4-3 zone scheme, relying on his players to perform with intelligence and fundamentals. That’s what makes Cleveland’s underwhelming defensive line so alarming. Aside from 2011 second-round pick Jabaal Sheard, a potent pass-rusher and phenomenal run anchor who is great sliding east-and-west, there’s not a single notable threat up front. Newly acquired defensive end Frostee Rucker can show a burst in run defense but, prior to recording four sacks with the Bengals last season, he’d had just two sacks since first stepping on an NFL field in 2007.
Rucker will be a boost to the Browns only if backup Marcus Benard can be poignant spelling him as a pass-rusher on third downs. Benard showed great potential as a specialized outside linebacker in Eric Mangini’s 3-4, but he missed most of his first season under Jauron recovering from various injuries suffered in a motorcycle accident. Benard still must show he can turn the corner coming off the line of scrimmage. If he can’t, veteran Juqua Parker will get the primary backup snaps.
The minor question marks at defensive end are dwarfed by major question marks at defensive tackle. With last year’s first-round pick Phil Taylor expected to miss a chunk of the season after tearing a pectoral muscle in May, the Browns are looking at either uninspiring veterans Brian Schaefering and Scott Paxson or rookie John Hughes to start. Hughes was considered by many to be a reach in the third-round, due to questionable work ethic and the fact that he’s projected to be a better run-defender than pass-rusher. Also in the mix is rookie Billy Winn, a versatile sixth-rounder who had an up-and-down career at Boise State. As Taylor showed last season, it is very difficult for rookie defensive tackles to adjust to trench warfare in the NFL.
Whoever replaces Taylor will play next to Ahtyba Rubin, who has became arguably the most overrated defensive tackle in football. Rubin is lauded for his run-stopping ability because he led all NFL defensive linemen in tackles last year, but the truth is most of his tackles came downfield, after he got handled up front. Rubin’s propensity to play too light and too laterally was a big reason why zone-blocking run offenses destroyed the Browns. Dawg Pound fans who don’t buy this can go back and look at the film ... or they can just ask themselves: if our leading defensive tackle is truly that good, then why did our run defense rank 30th last season?
Rubin isn’t the only one to blame. Outside linebackers Chris Gocong and Kaluka Maiava were unimpressive between the 20s. Gocong is out this season with a torn Achilles. Maiava will likely start in his place opposite a now-healthy Scott Fujita. Fujita brings leadership and recognition skill, but he’s not great in coverage. That could keep him on the weak side, depending on how the Browns feel about Maiava’s pass-defending abilities.
In the middle, undersized D'Qwell Jackson is highly productive but only truly effective when he can run to the ball without encountering blockers. In Jauron’s 4-3, Jackson should theoretically stay clean all game. Holmgren must believe he can. Despite missing virtually all of the 2009 and 2010 seasons with pectoral injuries, the soon-to-be 29-year-old Jackson was signed to a five-year, $42.5 million contract this past February. This made it a little surprising two months later when Holmgren spent a fourth-round pick on James-Michael Johnson, a classic Mike ‘backer from Nevada. Getting insurance for Jackson is understandable, but a fourth-round pick is a lot to give up for a projected backup who doesn’t appear to have the change-of-direction prowess to compete for a nickel job. Johnson could also see action on the outside, filling in for Fujita during his BountyGate suspension.
The Browns secondary was impressive last year given that it didn’t have the luxury of playing behind a dominant pass rush. Sheard led the team with 8.5 sacks, while all other defensive ends accounted for just two of Cleveland’s other 23.5 sacks. Give credit to the cornerbacks for consistently adjusting their coverages for the game’s situation.
As is customary with most Cover 2-oriented schemes, each Browns cornerback often aligns on the same side of the field every down. Joe Haden left, Sheldon Brown right. This may have to change in 2012. Haden is simply too good to not be shadowing the opposing team’s top wideout. The third-year pro transitions in and out of his backpedal as smoothly as any defender in the game, and what he lacks in strength he makes up for in quickness. The 33-year-old Brown, on the other hand, is getting stiffer by the day. It’s amazing he’s held up as well as he has since leaving Philadelphia. Brown can still be very good near the line of scrimmage and in run support, but he’ll need more and more safety help moving forward. It’s possible that nickel back Dimitri Patterson could challenge for Brown’s starting spot. Though somewhat inconsistent, Patterson can be a very solid man defender.
Just who will be providing Brown with safety help remains to be seen. Eric Hagg is getting the first crack at the starting free safety job, but if there were truly a lot to like about the second-year pro, he wouldn’t have lasted until the seventh round. Usama Young is likely the better athlete of the two, but he’s failed to capitalize on countless starting opportunities over his five-year career. Young’s primary contributions have been as a dime defender (though he could lose those duties this season if last year’s fifth-round corner Buster Skrine impresses). The good news is that at least the strong safety position is stable under T.J. Ward, a vitriolic hitter and improving pass-defender.
At 37, Phil Dawson remains one of the most reliable kickers in the game. Punter Reggie Hodges is trying to bounce back from the Achilles injury that cost him all of 2011. If he’s unsuccessful, second-year man Spencer Lanning will get the job. Josh Cribbs may not be valuable enough as a wide receiver to re-sign after this season, but the Browns return game would take a significant step backwards without him. Cribbs will likely pull double-duty again this season and be featured on punt and kick coverage.
The Browns are far and away the least talented team in the AFC North. Their hope is that a dominant ground game can eke out a few extra victories while the passing attack develops. The defense is adequate but short on big-play flair.