7 Players the Cleveland Browns Will Depend on in 2012
"Teamwork is essential. It allows you to blame someone else."—Unknown Cynic
Though football stands as an example of the ultimate team game, the Cleveland Browns face a production deficit in three essential areas: the rushing game, the passing game and defensively against the run.
The Browns' 2012 draft class will need to hit on all cylinders when they arrive back in Berea this summer to prepare for a cruelly-conceived third-strongest-in-the-league schedule, according to ESPN.
Six out of 16 games automatically pit the Browns against 2011 playoff squads, as the AFC North featured three in 2011. But even the matchups against teams with losing records look dubious at first glance: Washington, Kansas City and Buffalo feature remade units with high-profile draft picks and free-agency signees galore.
Indianapolis has cleaned house from the Peyton Manning era and will enjoy the services of the draft's top prospect: quarterback Andrew Luck.
Browns Backers: Rolling with the punches is kind of our thing at this point, so before we get all huffy about how the NFL likes the Steelers better—they do, let's get over it—it's important we consider that no wins will come easy this year (not that they ever do.) and we need not worry about a 2007-like mirage.
If these Browns demonstrate they can compete this year, the quality of their competition will provide outstanding battle-testing.
Browns Backers, brace yourselves: We're going to see what we need to see, not what we want to see.
1. Mitchell Schwartz, Right Tackle
Bet you expected to see Brandon Weeden or Trent Richardson in this spot, huh?
I give Tony Pashos all the respect in the world for playing on his injured foot last season, but the Browns' immobility at right tackle exposed them to overload rushes and crippled any chance of executing a zone-blocking scheme.
When you play a guppy at offensive line in the AFC North, your opponents run blitzes. When your opponents run blitzes, your running back gets killed. When your running back gets killed, you try to throw a play-action pass. Because you have a guppy at offensive line, your opponent blitzes again, forcing an incomplete pass.
On third down, everyone and their mother knows a five-step drop is coming and you don't need to know the rest.
Punt, rinse, repeat.
After three-and-outs for the entire first half, your defense gets tired. When your defense gets tired, your opponent starts running the ball at will with a lead.
When your opponent can run the ball at will in the second half with a lead, you lose 10-plus games.
Don't lose 10-plus games; make right tackle a priority.
Mitch Schwartz brings a little nasty in him from Cal, where the All-Pac-12 senior developed into a pugnacious blocker in space.
Kansas City paid their new right tackle (Eric Winston) exponentially more than their high-profile free-agency signee at running back, Peyton Hillis.
Cleveland similarly understands that the fate of Trent Richardson rests largely on Mitch Schwartz's undersized shoulders. That's the lone knock on Schwartz: He's "only" 6'5" and 318 pounds.
However, Schwartz not only has NFL bloodlines (brother Geoff is a Minnesota Viking), but also displayed the kind of physicality and mean streak the Browns need on the right side.
The Browns deliberately passed up several other pundit favorites on the offensive line to grab Schwartz at 37th overall; expect him to be a very familiar name in Cleveland in the coming years.
2. T. J. Ward, Strong Safety
Matt Sullivan/Getty Images
T.J. Ward electrified Browns fans with his wood-laying ability from the strong safety spot. Ward's run-stopping ability often left opponents with the impression they'd been hit by an extra linebacker.
However, Ward struggled to stay healthy in 2011 as a foot injury kept the second-year pro off the field for several weeks.
This year, with free safety Mike Adams leaving for Denver and veteran linebacker Scott Fujita suspended, Ward's importance magnifies considerably.
Phil Taylor's recent pectoral tear adds even more pressure for Ward to stay healthy and return to his bone-crushing 2010 form in the fall.
With rookies potentially replacing veterans like Taylor and Fujita for the beginning of the season, second- and third-year players like Ward and Haden must show them the way.
3. D'Qwell Jackson, Middle Linebacker
Matt Sullivan/Getty Images
Phil Taylor will fortunately have the support of his own veteran role model, defensive captain D'Qwell Jackson.
After leading the NFL in tackles in 2008, Jackson suffered a torn pectoral of his own. The resilient linebacker out of Maryland returned strong as ever to lead the AFC in combined tackles for the 2011 season.
The Browns pounced on one of their few long-term employees when contract time came: Jackson's heroics earned him a five-year, $42 million payday.
The message? We're building this defense around you, Mr. Jackson.
With Taylor out, Jackson will depend on players like rookie John Hughes (the Pretty in Pink wisecracks during breast cancer month should have a pretty deep well) and offseason signee Brian Schaefering to keep him clean of pesky blockers as he hones in on enemy ball-carriers.
If Jackson continues to live up to his role as captain and stay healthy, Browns fans can expect an improvement the run defense despite the devastating loss of Taylor.
4. Jason Pinkston, Left Guard
Scott Boehm/Getty Images
Jason Pinkston suffered tremendous setbacks in development when the 2011 NFL lockout prolonged through the summer months right up to the opening of training camp.
Pinkston was a tackle when the Browns drafted the 6'3", 320-lb offensive lineman out of Pitt in the fifth round in 2011. The Browns converted Pinkston to a "left guard" in about a month.
Despite the requisite "rookie" mistakes, Pinkston rose to meet the challenge, outplaying 2009 third-rounder Shawn Lauvao and starting all 16 games in the process.
Playing between Alex Mack and Joe Thomas admittedly sounds like it should be one of the easiest offensive line gigs in the league. If Pinkston can continue to develop and fill it, the Browns will have gotten themselves an absolute steal of a starter in the fifth round: another Tom Heckert snipe.
5. Trent Richardson, Running Back
Trent Richardson's performance will not only determine the Browns' fate in the stat book as far as improving their anemic rushing game, it will also in large part set their psyche.
Brandon Weeden, D'Qwell Jackson, Joe Haden and others may also fill the headlines and media guides, but the fact is the Browns traded up to draft the phenom out of Alabama with hopes of adding a Canton-caliber talent to the backfield.
The Browns will depend on Richardson to produce consistently as an every-down back, threaten the defense as a receiver and grind opponents down as they protect (hypothetically) a lead in the second half.
Richardson's performance will depend on other young players like Weeden, Pinkston, Lauvao and Schwartz, but his ability to finish runs and inject the same energy into the Browns as he did the Crimson Tide can make or break the team's future in 2012 and beyond.
6. Brandon Weeden, Quarterback
Video Credit: ESPN NFL Live
Cleveland didn't draft Brandon Weeden to watch the season opener against Philadelphia. At 28 years old with a mature disposition, athletic frame and gifted passing arm, Weeden figures to take the helm sooner rather than later for the Browns.
Weeden vowed to stay in the Cleveland area through the offseason in order to prepare himself for the rigors of life as a Browns quarterback, an abjectly wise decision.
If the Browns' instincts prove correct with Weeden, they could compete as early as this year: There's no quicker way to launching a franchise from the doghouse to squeaking into the playoffs than a young, inspiring quarterback (see: Dalton, Andy; Tebow, Tim).
Weeden has drawn dubious comparisons to Chris Weinke and other minor-league-prospects-turned-QB's, but the Browns hope Weeden's professional baseball experience will expedite his psychological transition from college to professional football.
7. James-Michael Johnson, Linebacker
Jason Miller/Getty Images
The Browns drafted James-Michael Johnson out of Nevada fully cognizant of the likelihood that veteran Scott Fujita could miss a chunk of the season as a result of his involvement with the Saints' Bountygate scandal.
Cleveland now knows decisively they must develop the rookie linebacker quickly if they hope to stay competitive through the first quarter of the schedule.
A vicious tackler with a thick frame, Johnson fits the run-stopping prototype the Browns needed badly in recent years, as AFC North foes have worn down the defense consistently.
Additionally, Johnson could be groomed to replace D'Qwell Jackson in the middle, should the veteran fail to live up to his contract or suffer another devastating injury. Depth and experience at linebacker will never hurt.