Cleveland Browns 2013 Training Camp Preview
Cleveland Browns 2013 Training Camp Preview
The Cleveland Browns haven't eclipsed the five-win mark since 2007. No need to pile on too much, but in the time since three coaches have been fired as the team struggled on both sides of the ball with little hope of contending.
However, 2013 possesses a far more optimistic ring to it than any offseason since the Derek Anderson-Braylon Edwards "era" fizzled out. It always helps said optimism when there's plenty of cap space and money thrown at prized free agents. Then there's the prospect of change under a new head coach in Rob Chudzinski.
Vegas responded to this sense of optimism, with many book releasing the Browns' season win over-under at six. Perhaps the former Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator can fair better than last offensive coordinator Cleveland signed on as head man, the recently deposed Pat Shurmur. It's hard to say there's any real formula here, as Romeo Crennel before him came from the defensive side.
Outside of ranking 10th in total defense in 2011, the Browns haven't ranked higher than 22nd in that category since 2005. Yet there's talk that this unit could return to prominence under Ray Horton, who comes over from working wonders with the Arizona Cardinals defense. With a couple elite players already in the secondary joining some promising young front-seven acquisitions in free agency, there's substance behind theories of a sleeper defense out of Cleveland, unit that has some positional transitions to handle in training camp.
Still, one giant question mark remains that could down them once again....
Quarterback play has sunk better rosters than this and Pro Football Focus graded out Brandon Weeden as the worst starting quarterback in the league last season while having the most batted throws. On the bright side, Weeden has an NFL arm and enters just his second year, but the elephant in the room says he's hovering around 30 thanks to his minor-league baseball stint. Perhaps new offensive coordinator Norv Turner can craft a better scheme and a better year for the first-round selection. Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer seemed destined to ride out the remainder of their careers as backups but may get one more shot at a permanent gig here in Cleveland, given the state of the position right now.
Trent Richardson has all the talent in the world and that motivated Cleveland to trade up and snag him at third overall in the 2012 NFL draft. Montario Hardesty and Dion Lewis sit behind him but T-Rich should get an overwhelming bulk of the carries as he's capable in both the run and pass game. Richardson battled a litany of nagging injuries last year and is suffering from a shin ailment this offseason but flashed the ability of a player capable of averaging far more than 3.6 yards per carry, including in his midseason performance against the New York Giants.
Wide Receiver/Tight End
In an increasingly pass-happy league the Browns suffer from having their two weakest positions at quarterback and receiver. Josh Gordon showed speed to burn and a knack for making plays downfield, which as Mike Wallace shown offenses will give an arm and a leg for, but Gordon will begin year two on a two-game suspension. Greg Little gives the Cleve another receiver with outstanding athleticism, and must prove that he can be trusted during Gordon's time out and continue to lower his drop totals.
Veteran receiver Davone Bess also fills a valuable role after having spent 433 snaps in the slot last season. Before the Miami Dolphins traded Bess, a fifth-rounder and a seventh-rounder for the Browns fourth and fifth-round picks, Bess had caught 43 passes from the slot in 2012, good for eighth in the league. Free agent acquisition David Nelson provides another veteran presence. Travis Benjamin and Josh Cooper add receiver depth with upside, and Benjamin doubles as a good punt returner who proved he can take it the distance last season.
Meanwhile at tight end, the Browns jettisoned Ben Watson and Evan Moore to give athletic third-year man Jordan Cameron more of a shot to display his receiving abilities. Cameron could easily eclipse his career total in just this coming season. Cleveland smartly complemented these moves with blocking tight end Kellen Davis from Chicago.
The performance of Cleveland's offensive line has been somewhat polarizing. While many note that Weeden was given every chance from a protection standpoint to succeed — the unit ranked fifth in PFF pass block grading — it also struggled to create a ton of open lanes for their top selection. T-Rich really had to fight for his yards as the lanes didn't come all that easy. You can also argue that lanes are harder to come by when absolutely no one is worried about the quarterback beating them, but I digress as it's probably a combination of the two elements.
I believe the Browns could very well possess the league's best offensive line this season, however, with Mitchell Schwartz proving a second-round gem at right tackle and Joe Thomas remaining the NFL's best left tackle. Meanwhile, first-round center Alex Mack holds down the middle while John Greco, Jason Pinkston and Shawn Lauvao battle for the two guard spots. Greco filled in adeptly last season and is favored well ahead of the other two at this moment, but must continue to prove himself to the new coaching staff in training camp.
Some teams inspired more head-scratching upon switching from 4-3 to 3-4 this offseason, but with Cleveland it translates pretty well, especially on the defensive line. 2011 first-rounder Phil Taylor seems a nice fit at the nose when healthy while Ahtya Rubin and high-priced free agent Desmond Bryant possess the strength to man the end spots, and Bryant throws in some pressure as a bonus. Billy Wynn and John Hughes could also factor in providing breathers off the bench.
Cleveland signed perhaps the most highly sought edge rusher on the market this offseason in Paul Kruger, who will bookend the edge rush with probable ROLB Jabaal Sheard. It remains to be seen whether Sheard can effectively transition from 4-3 end, while first-round rookie Barkevious Mingo must prove a lot in training camp to emerge as more than a situational pass rusher in year one and Quentin Groves could get some run here too. D'Qwell Jackson's been a longtime stalwart at 4-3 MLB for Cleveland and is now joined by inexperienced Craig Robertson in first-team reps at the two 3-4 ILB spots. Robertson heads up a position battle that includes second-year backers Tank Carder, L.J. Fort and James-Michael Johnson.
The Browns secondary possesses arguably the league's best strong safety-CB1 combo in TJ Ward and Joe Haden. Ward has been a huge proponent of Horton's scheme and mentality. Everywhere else remains a rather large question mark, with some nice depth at corner in Buster Skrine and Chris Owens but a third-round rookie likely starting at No. 2 CB in Leon McFadden. Then there's the relatively unproven free safety battle between Tashaun Gipson and Johnson Bademosi, who each were decent in limited action last season.
Cleveland lost the best returner in franchise history with Joshua Cribbs' but have a good backup plan on punts in Benjamin, who took one back late last year. The kick returner spot could see Bademosi, Benjamin or easily another emerge in camp. Phil Dawson departed after his first Pro Bowl selection, to be replaced by journeyman Shayne Graham or rookie Brandon Bogotay.