Browns 2011 preview

Posted Aug. 30, 2011 @ 12:01 p.m.
Posted By Mike Wilkening

Eric Mangini lasted one year as Browns head coach on team president Mike Holmgren's watch, which was one more year than many expected. Mangini is an outstanding defensive strategist, and the special teams were very good in his two years in Cleveland. However, the offense left a lot to be desired, and it was no secret Holmgren fundamentally disagreed with offensive coordinator Brian Daboll's passing-game philosophy.

The Browns started slowly last season, rallied with surprising wins vs. top-class New England and New Orleans but faded badly in the final month of the season to finish 5-11. One day after the season ended, Holmgren fired Mangini. After contemplating a return to coaching and reaching out to high-profile candidates Jon Gruden and Bill Cowher, Holmgren hired Rams offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur as head coach. Shurmur will install Holmgren's preferred West Coast scheme, and the progress of the offense will be watched closely.

Shurmur doesn't inherit a completely bare cupboard. The Browns have some difference makers, with OLT Joe Thomas their best player and one of the game's top offensive linemen. Second-year QB Colt McCoy showed promise as a rookie and should be a good fit in Shurmur's scheme. Also, general manager Tom Heckert has skilfully begun to retool the roster. 

Nevertheless, the Browns are rebuilding once again — perhaps better than before, but rebuilding nonetheless.

 

OFFENSE

The Browns played a grind-it-out game under former offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, which might have been a nod to Cleveland's lack of playmaking punch more than anything else. Look for new head coach Pat Shurmur to emphasize working the outside of the field more than Daboll did. Rams wideouts were targeted on 65.1 percent of the team's pass plays in 2010, compared to 47.7 percent for Cleveland. The strength of the Browns' offense is their line, which features OLT Joe Thomas and C Alex Mack, both Pro Bowlers a season ago.

Quarterbacks: Injuries to Jake Del-homme and Seneca Wallace forced the Browns to thrust QB Colt McCoy into action as a rookie. McCoy handled the assignment well, and his time in the lineup coincided with the team's best play of the season. McCoy can create inside and outside of the pocket, throws with accuracy and possesses strong leadership traits for the position. His teammates quickly bought into the idea of him leading the offense and were his strongest supporters, which is a very positive sign. Simply put, he has a natural feel for the position and is going to put himself in the very best position to succeed. However, he is short and slightly built, and he lacks arm strength. While he has decent mobility, he takes too many sacks and will not be confused with a true magician once the rush flushes him outside. McCoy also needs to take better care of the ball, as he fumbled eight times a season ago (losing five). Moreover, he played his worst games against division rivals Baltimore and Pittsburgh late in the season. McCoy is the Browns' best starting option for 2011, but the jury is still out on whether he's the long-term solution at quarterback. However, he was very good in the preseason. Wallace will be McCoy's backup. He is well-versed in the West Coast offense. Like McCoy, Wallace is on the short side for the position.

Running backs: Peyton Hillis was exceptional last season, rushing for 1,177 yards and adding 477 yards receiving. Power defines the 6-1, 240-pound Hillis' game, but he has decent speed and relatively good explosiveness. He can run over defenders, and he can hurdle them. He is an above-average pass catcher, too, snagging 61 of the 77 passes thrown his way in 2010 and showing the ability to grab passes off the mark. Hillis' skill set was well-suited for the Browns' offense a season ago, and he should be able to fit in Pat Shurmur's scheme, too. That said, ideally, he will get less than the 331 touches he received in 2010. He noticeably wore down late in the season and might be best used in a rotation. If healthy, Montario Hardesty, who missed last season with a torn ACL, has a chance to cut into Hillis' workload. Hardesty is a hard-charging, physical runner, but his durability is a concern. Hillis and Hardesty could be an effective power-running duo, but the lack of playmaking punch in the backfield is no small concern. Ex-Packers RB Brandon Jackson will miss an
"extended period" with a toe injury, Shurmur said on Aug. 26. Rookie Owen Marecic is a hard-nosed lead blocker who replaces Lawrence Vickers (now with Houston) as the starting fullback.

Receivers: The wideouts will be a bigger part of the offense in Pat Shurmur's scheme. The question is, which of the wide receivers will step up? Rookie WR Greg Little will get a chance to play and perhaps start immediately. Athletic, competitive, physical and confident, he is a good scheme fit, but he lacks deep speed. Veteran WR Joshua Cribbs has had a strong summer and is in the mix to start, too. He has made strides as a receiver, but he has been most effective on offense when used as a "Wildcat" quarterback. He has RB-like qualities, with very good lower-body strength. Mohamed Massaquoi has flashed intriguing potential in his first two NFL seasons, but he has lacked consistency. Massaquoi, who was injured to begin training camp, has good speed and might be a beneficiary if the Browns decide to open up the offense more. This is a very important season for him. He returned to practice on Aug. 28. Brian Robiskie is a physical possession receiver who came on late last season. Robiskie is not a burner but has good size for the position and is smart. Second-year WR Carlton Mitchell played sparingly as a rookie but is a big target who covers a lot of ground quickly. Third-year pro Jordan Norwood, a favorite of the new regime, is expected to be the slot receiver. The Browns have two capable receiving options at tight end in Benjamin Watson and Evan Moore. Watson (club-high 102 targets in '10) has seam-stretching speed and thrived getting more opportunities as a receiver in Cleveland's offense than he did in New England. Moore is essentially a wide receiver playing tight end. Rookie TE Jordan Cameron is a size-speed prospect. Veteran Alex Smith could stick if the Browns keep four tight ends.

Offensive linemen: OLT Joe Thomas is a blue-chip performer — very possibly the best player at his position in the NFL. Thomas is athletic, versatile and smart and a standout as a run blocker (the Browns gained 5.01 yards per carry off left tackle last season) and pass protector (19¼ sacks allowed in four NFL seasons). He has never missed an offensive snap for Cleveland. Thomas has won far more battles than he has lost at a difficult and all-important position. Athletic OLG Eric Steinbach is out for an indefinite period with a disc injury in his back, and rookie Jason Pinkston will step into the lineup. Pinkston has good size but lacks agility. C Alex Mack already has established himself as one of the NFL's best at his position. He has excellent size for the position, and he is smart and tough. In an offense that has been defined by its physicality, he has been a very good fit. Shaun Lauvao will start at right guard. Lauvao had a somewhat disappointing rookie season. Physical ORT Tony Pashos has missed 21 games the past two seasons because of injury. Veterans John Greco, Pat Murray, and Steve Vallos provide depth inside. Greco, acquired from St. Louis on Aug. 1, is tough but lacks athleticism. Branndon Braxton and Phil Trautwein are reserve tackles.


DEFENSE

The Browns will switch to a 4-3 scheme under the leadership of new defensive coordinator Dick Jauron. The biggest challenge Cleveland faces in the scheme switch is in the front seven, as the Browns had employed the 3-4 the previous six seasons. Jauron figures to blitz less than predecessor Rob Ryan, who didn't shy away from dialing up some creative and aggressive pressures.

Defensive linemen: The Browns are retooling up front. NT Ahtyba Rubin was the team's best defensive lineman last season. Rubin is very good vs. the run. His motor is always running, as evidenced by his 82 tackles last season. He is an average pass rusher but is a stout, strong, active force on early downs and figures to be a key player in the 4-3. Rookie Phil Taylor will start next to Rubin. Taylor has excellent athleticism for a 355-pound nose tackle and has the ability to be a very good starter, but his weight has fluctuated, and his work habits have sometimes disappointed. Brian Schaefering, Scott Paxson, Travis Ivey and Ko Quaye are the other options inside. Schaefering, a nine-game starter at end last season in the 3-4, is strong but not a big rush threat. At defensive end, rookie Jabaal Sheard will have a chance to hold down a starting job. Quick off the ball, Sheard possesses a variety of rush moves and plays hard but must get stronger. Jayme Mitchell is expected to start at left end. He has good size and pass-rush potential but never before has been a starter. Marcus Benard, who led the Browns with 7½ sacks a season ago, will back up Sheard at right end. Benard has fairly good speed off the edge, uses his hands well and possesses a good swim move. Derreck Robinson is the top backup at left end. Brian Sanford and Auston English are other reserve ends.

Linebackers: The Browns are better positioned to transition to the 4-3 at linebacker than along the defensive line, with each of their projected LB starters having experience in a "40" front. Scott Fujita will start on the strong side. He is smart and showed a real playmaking flair in his first season with Cleveland. Chris Gocong will play on the weak side. The 6-2, 263-pound Gocong has good size for the position and had a solid first season with Cleveland playing inside in a 3-4 scheme. D'Qwell Jackson has struggled with pectoral injuries the past two seasons. He'll play in the middle. Keeping Jackson free of blockers could be crucial to allowing him to stay in the lineup. The move to the "40" front could suit him well. The scheme change could also help reserve LB Kaluka Maiava, who is small but fast and the top reserve on the weak side. The LB depth is a concern. Physical Titus Brown will be the top backup inside linebacker, with Brian Smith among those vying to back up Fujita.

Defensive backs: The Browns broke in CB Joe Haden slowly, and he did not earn a starting job until the second half of the season. However, he clearly was the team's best defensive back by season's end. The athletic Haden moves smoothly, makes up ground quickly and closes fast on the ball. He also possesses above-average ball skills. Only 22, he still has room to develop further, and he must, as his inexperience showed at times as a rookie. Nevertheless, he is an exciting prospect, the most talented cornerback the Browns have had since returning to NFL play in 1999. The other starting cornerback, Sheldon Brown, is tough, physical and reliable. However, he struggles with speed and eventually could move to safety. Ex-Eagles CB Dimitri Patterson will vie for time in sub packages. He struggled as a starter last season but could be a good fit as a reserve and special-teams player. Fast-but-small rookie CB Buster Skrine will compete for playing time in sub packages. Hard-hitting SS T.J. Ward led the Browns in tackles as a rookie. He is a solid run defender, although pass coverage is not his strength. Mike Adams likely will get the call at free safety with Usama Young missing a good deal of the summer with a hamstring injury. Young is athletic but was stuck behind some talented players in New Orleans. Adams has the ability to play cornerback and safety but is best in a reserve role. Rookie James Dockery and veterans DeAngelo Smith, Coye Francies and Ramzee Robinson are backup options at cornerback, with athletic but raw rookie Eric Hagg and veteran special-teamer Ray Ventrone vying for reserve roles at safety.

 

SPECIAL TEAMS

Extremely dangerous RS Joshua Cribbs has returned more kickoffs for touchdowns than any player in NFL history. He is strong and quick and has proven he has enough breakaway speed time and again. However, the move of the kickoff line of scrimmage to the 35-yard-line likely will decrease his prime return opportunities, and opponents did a great job holding him in check last season. PK Phil Dawson is reliable on field-goal attempts (83.2 percent career accuracy). He does not have an exceptionally strong leg, but the kickoff-rule change helps him. The special teams suffered a big loss in training camp when P Reggie Hodges suffered a season-ending Achilles injury. Ex-Bear Richmond McGee, who never has punted in an NFL game, was signed to replace him. The Browns' punt- and kickoff-coverage units were major strengths last season.

 

SUMMARY

Pat Shurmur inherits a more talented team than Eric Mangini did two seasons ago, but the Browns still face an uphill battle in the AFC North. Cleveland lacks the playmakers on offense and defense of the division's elite. Moreover, the Browns' scheme changes on both sides of the ball complicate matters further.

 

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