NFL 2014: Cleveland Browns A Playoff Sleeper For Next Season

By Kyle Pappas
Jordan Cameron
Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

The year of 2013 was a chaotic season for the Cleveland Browns. It started sans star-wideout Josh Gordon, forced to sit two games due to violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. Week 2 brought an injury to starting quarterback Brandon Weeden. He’d eventually lose his job to journeyman Brian Hoyer permanently, following a string of poor performances.

The misfortune didn’t stop there. Then-GM Michael Lombardi dealt running back Trent Richardson, the third-overall pick in 2012, to the Indianapolis Colts for a first-round pick in this year’s draft. A washed-up Willis McGahee and virtual-unknown Chris Ogbonnaya would split backfield duties for the remainder of the season.

Cleveland fans were livid; its team appeared to essentially be giving up halfway through September. Hoyer’s season-ending MCL tear in Week 5 was simply the cherry on top — the Browns would limp their way to a 4-12 finish. Per usual, paper bags over heads were aplenty throughout FirstEnergy Stadium.

But as the Kansas City Chiefs proved last season, much can be accomplished over the course of a single offseason. Cleveland has already been an early winner in free agency, and appear prepared to make several more acquisitions in the coming days/weeks. I’m even beginning to believe the Browns could be a sleeper for the playoffs next year.

Yes, Browns and playoffs were both used in the same sentence. It’s not a typo.

Don’t gather the lynch mob just yet. Despite all the calamity throughout the course of its season, Cleveland actually appeared to be a decent squad at times, even with third-stringer Jason Campbell under center. Lacking a legitimate ground attack, opposing defense routinely loaded the secondary to limit Gordon’s big-play potential. With no capable No. 2 receiver on the field opposite him, focusing in on the second-year man from Baylor was easy.

Stopping him, however — not so easy. Despite missing games early, Gordon still finished with a league-best 1,646 yards receiving, sprinkling in several highlight-reel grabs along the way. It’s hard to fathom, but Gordon’s ceiling is still much higher if the Browns can find stability at quarterback, add another decent wideout and develop a ground game.

Cleveland appears to be a prime candidate to land the services of top free-agent running back Ben Tate. Tate has been considered a starting-caliber back for the past couple of seasons, but has been firmly planted behind Arian Foster on the Houston Texans‘ depth chart. He’s a hard-nosed, downhill runner whom possesses capabilities as a pass catcher out of the backfield to boot. He’d be a clear upgrade from the McGahee/Ogbonnaya tandem of last season, and force defenses to acknowledge the Browns’ ground attack at the very least.

As for QB, many analysts have Cleveland pegged as selecting one with its fourth-overall pick in May’s draft. I believe grabbing a wideout to complement Gordon is a more pressing concern.

If Hoyer can return healthy, he has starter potential; the guy was surprisingly impressive pre-injury last season. The pick could more wisely be spent on Clemson‘s Sammy Watkins; the idea of a Watkins/Gordon combo is almost unfair. The Browns own a late first-round pick as well — from Indy in exchange for Richardson — and can grab a top prospect there too.

Defense wasn’t necessarily an issue last season, but with cap space to blow, Cleveland has already seriously upgraded there anyway. New general manager Ray Farmer inked safety Donte Whitner and linebacker Karlos Dansby on the first day of free agency, adding to an already stout defense that finished top 10 in most major defensive categories. As good as it was last year, expect the Browns’ D to be among the most improved in 2014-15.

With one of the NFL’s best young tight ends in Jordan Cameron to boot, circumstances finally seem to be improving in America’s saddest sports town. As bad a rep as the Browns caught from the media last season, they’re currently one of few bottom-dwellers close to getting over the proverbial hump.

Depending on how Farmer utilizes his two first-round picks, this Cleveland team could be dark horse to become a post-season player for the first time since 2002.

Kyle Pappas covers the Kansas City Chiefs and NFL for Follow him on Twitter @KylePap or add him to your network on Google+.

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