The Cleveland Browns are coming off another tumultuous season, finishing 4-12 in 2011. All the excuses of no offseason, a new coaching staff, and new systems implemented on both sides of the ball have been redundantly documented.
The franchise is at a pivotal point entering this season, in its third year under the Mike Holmgren-Tom Heckert regime. Question marks continue to lurk at nearly every position on the roster. All three opposing teams in the AFC North division qualified for the playoffs last year, which only intensifies the pressure on the Browns organization to win now.
While the Browns have solid special teams players in kicker Phil Dawson and punter Brad Maynard, as well as impressive kick coverage units, it won't matter without a good offense and a solid defense to back them up. These are the vital areas where the Browns have continued to fall short in recent years, with last year being no exception.
Here is how the 2012 Cleveland Browns stack up against their divisional foes, position by position. These match ups will serve as context to assess the state of the franchise, the quality of the roster, and where the team projects to finish in the AFC North this coming season.
Personnel: Brandon Weeden, Colt McCoy, Seneca Wallace
Assessment: The Browns raised more than a few eyebrows by drafting the oldest first round pick in NFL draft history by selecting Oklahoma State's Weeden with the 22nd overall pick.
Considering he will turn 29 this September, Weeden must quickly establish himself as the starter. His competition certainly helps: a career backup in Wallace who is statuesque and hesitant in the pocket despite his mobility and short stature.
Then there's McCoy, for whom exists a legitimate case that he had zero help around him last season. Perhaps given more protection and more offensive weapons, McCoy could thrive in his second year and first with a full offseason to prepare and show his proficiency running the West Coast offense.
However, one thing is clear: opposing defenses aren't respecting McCoy's ability to drive the ball down the field, and he hasn't shown the ability to hit that 17-back-to-15 on the sideline in the cold, or the ability to put touch on deep passes, which are often underthrown.
With Weeden, at 6'4" and 222 lbs, the Browns have a strong-armed, accurate quarterback in a division where every other team is completely sold on their guy. The Browns have not been sold on any one guy since they've been back in the league in 1999. The Steelers have Big Ben. The Ravens have the tall, dark, and handsome Joe Flacco. The Bengals have the Red Rifle Andy Dalton. I'm not sold on Flacco, but the Ravens are, and that means the Browns are the only team in the division without a franchise quarterback.
With Wallace and McCoy proving they won't be the answer, it remains to be seen whether Weeden can prove himself to finally be that guy for the Browns.
Division Rank: 4th
Personnel: Trent Richardson, Montario Hardesty, Chris Ogbonnaya, Brandon Jackson; Owen Marecic, Brad Smelley
Assessment: The Browns traded up and used the third overall pick of this year's draft on Alabama's Richardson, who is, according to NFL Network's Mike Mayock, the most talented running back prospect since Adrian Peterson in 2007. It remains to be seen how his versatility, power, and big play capability translates to the NFL.
Unfortunately for the Browns, today's NFL does not allow one back to carry the ball the entire time, and the position is dubious beyond Richardson's potential. Hardesty has been injury-plagued and has frankly been a disappointment as a second-round pick.
Ogbonnaya showed flashes last year as an effective runner and proved he can be reliable in pass protection despite being undersized.
Jackson was out the entire season with a toe injury and thus can't be assessed based on his production with the team, but he does bring West Coast savvy and a Super Bowl ring to the table.
This stable of running backs compares favorably to the Bengals' BenJarvus Green-Ellis-Bernard Scott tandem, and if not for Green-Ellis's incredible ball security (he has never fumbled in the pros), it wouldn't be very debatable.
Ray Rice of the Ravens has established himself as an explosive all-around back who should touch the ball more in Cam Cameron's pass-happy, too-much-faith-in-a-questionable-quarterback offense. Rashard Mendenhall has had fumbling and injury issues, but has shown he can be the feature back on a Super Bowl caliber Steelers team. Issac Redman also gives the Steelers valuable toughness between the tackles, and that depth the Steelers possess gives them a slight edge.
At fullback, Marecic wasn't much of a presence last year, and was a definite downgrade from Lawrence Vickers. Smelley was the team's 7th-round pick and a teammate of Richardson's at Alabama, and with the experience of playing tight end, has more of an offensive skill set than Marecic, which could make Marecic expendable.
The Ravens have Vontae Leach, an All-Pro; the Bengals have Chris Pressley, who helped pave the way for another 1,000-plus yard season by Cedric Benson, and the Steelers have not used a fullback often, but according to F. Dale Lolley, new offensive coordinator Todd Haley plans to have one full-time in order to establish more of a running game than in years past under Bruce Aryans.
Based on Richardson's abilities to catch out of the backfield, pick up blitzers in pass protection, and of course running the ball, he has the potential to be the best running back in the division, and also curb concerns about the uncertainty at fullback. However, his success will hinge on the production in the passing game and whether any pressure can be taken off of his shoulders.
Richardson should be effective, and can make up for some of the offensive line's shortcomings by bouncing off tacklers with his 5'11", 224 lb frame. Like Weeden, though, his true impact is yet to be determined.
Division Rank: 3rd
Projected Starters: LT Joe Thomas, LG Jason Pinkston, C Alex Mack, RG Shawn Lauvao, RT Mitchell Schwartz (second-round pick)
Assessment: The Browns felt they needed to address the right side of the offensive line especially in the offseason, and Heckert has said time and time again that the team will build through the draft rather than splurge in free agency.
With the 37th pick, everyone expected the Browns to grab a playmaking wide receiver—one of the most glaring needs for the team from the previous season. Instead, they decided to nab the perceivable replacement for Tony Pashos by drafting the University of California prospect Schwartz. It should be an upgrade to the position since Pashos struggled mightily last season due to battling through significant injury.
Joe Thomas has proven he is among the best left tackles in the league, and Alex Mack is a two-time Pro Bowler. Pinkston, a fifth-round selection in last year's draft at right tackle, did a decent job filling in for former All-Pro Eric Steinbach, who was sidelined for all of 2011 with a ruptured disk in his back.
Lavao was a third-round investment, but hasn't blown anyone in the organization away with his play. Fifth-round selection Ryan Miller out of the University of Colorado should challenge Lavao for a starting job at right guard in training camp due to his athleticism and exceptional run blocking. The huge 6'7" Miller only weighs in at 321 lbs, and the agility he displays could be vital to the Browns' rushing attack.
Here's how I'd rank the offensive lines of the AFCN teams, with points being awarded to each team based on where their starters rank:
1. Thomas 2. Andrew Whitworth (CIN) 3. Marcus Gilbert (PIT) 4. Bryant McKinnie (BAL)
Whitworth has been a rock for years for Cincinnati, while Gilbert was the Steelers' 2011 Rookie of the Year after starting 13 games, allowing the older Willie Colon to move inside to left guard this coming season. McKinnie failed to get in shape in time for the season last year, being released by the Vikings. He filled in admirably for the Ravens, but questions must be raised about his work ethic and consistency moving forward.
1. Travelle Wharton (CIN) 2. Willie Colon (PIT) 3. Pinkston 4. Baltimore Ravens*
Wharton started 99 games for the Carolina Panthers over the previous eight seasons, and started every game last season for an explosive offense spearheaded by rookie phenom Cam Newton. Colon is a solid player but is transitioning, albeit favorably, to a new position. Pinkston should improve with a whole offseason under his belt and being settled at left guard.
1. Maurkice Pouncey (PIT) 2. Mack 3. Matt Birk (BAL) 4. Kyle Cook (CIN)
Pouncey has proven he was worth every bit of the 18th overall pick the Steelers invested in him in 2010. Mack had a bit of a down year last season and seemed to lack the chemistry with Pinkston that made the Thomas-Steinbach-Mack trio so effective on the Browns' left side in previous years. Birk is a future Hall-of-Famer; he isn't getting any younger, but is still a valuable veteran presence to the younger Joe Flacco.
1. Marshal Yanda (BAL) 2. David DeCastro (PIT) 3. Kevin Zeitler (CIN) 4. Lauvao
Yanda made the Pro Bowl last season, and DeCastro is considered by ESPN's Mel Kiper as, "the best guard prospect since Steve Hutchinson." Zeitler was selected in 2012 three picks after DeCastro in the first round.
1. Michael Oher (BAL) 2. Andre Smith (CIN) 3. Schwartz 4. Mike Adams (PIT)
Oher has looked more comfortable since sliding over to right tackle, perhaps due to not having to shoulder the burden of protecting the blind side. Andre Smith is blossoming into the player the Bengals hoped he would be when they drafted him two years ago. Schwartz should start on day one for the Browns, and Mike Adams has had character concerns coming out of Ohio State.
Aggregate score (4 pts for #1, 3 pts for #2, etc):
Pittsburgh & Cincinnati: 13
Cleveland & Baltimore: 12
The difference between the Browns and Ravens is that the Ravens can score, and until the Browns prove their unit can work in harmony with its skill players to put more points on the board, it will be viewed as the worst in the division.
Division Rank: 4th
Personnel: Greg Little, Mohammed Massaquoi, Josh Cribbs, Travis Benjamin, Carlton Mitchell
Assessment: A position at which the Browns are starved of production is wide receiver. Much criticism has been leveled at the team for not chasing a prized free agent this offseason, where a plethora of receivers were floating around. The only big target the team went after was former Colts WR Pierre Garcon, but the front office was outbid by the Washington Redskins, according to the Washington Post, and actually lost out on Josh Morgan to the Skins as well.
A bit of background: the Browns also had the opportunity to draft the explosive Percy Harvin in 2009, but chose Alex Mack instead, while the Vikings took Harvin one pick later. Hard to blame the Browns for that, but it's what happened after that that leaves fans scratching their heads.
Second round, 37th pick: Brian Robiskie; second round, 50th pick: Mohammed Massaquoi
To say these players have been underwhelming to this point is quite an understatement. Robiskie is no longer with the team, and Massaquoi has battled through injuries, multiple concussions and has not been consistently effective as a pro.
It also doesn't help that, several picks later, the Pittsburgh Steelers used their 75th overall pick to select a young speedster named Mike Wallace out of Ole Miss, creating another New Miss for the Browns' front office. This offseason, Wallace has held out and won't sign unless he gets "Larry Fitzgerald money." The Browns still aren't pursuing him.
2011 presented the team with the 6th overall pick, but they traded down again, and the Falcons select the dynamic Alabama receiver Julio Jones. In return for that trade, the Browns have netted Phil Taylor, Greg Little, Owen Marecic, and Brandon Weeden.
Little is the projected No. 1 receiver in 2012, and had a decent rookie campaign in 2011 as the club's leading receiver. This despite being out of football for a year after various NCAA rules violations at the University of North Carolina. Joshua Cribbs, always more dynamic in the return game than when split wide, showed improvement last season, and was the second leading receiver on the team despite a mere 41 receptions.
The Browns whiffed on free agent wideouts in 2012, and waited until the fourth round to pick up Miami (FL)'s Travis Benjamin with the 100th selection. The 5'9", 170 pound Benjamin certainly can fly, possessing elite 4.33 40 speed, but is obviously small, and although he held up as a four-year starter in the ACC, durability will be a constant question in his career.
For now, it looks as though the Browns will work with Little on one side, Cribbs and MoMass competing for the No. 2 job, and Benjamin vying for time in the slot against the loser of the No. 2 competition. Carlton Mitchell is a wild card who has exceptional speed, huge hands, and provides a big target for the quarterback, but has yet to prove anything entering his third year in the NFL.
Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Steelers expect to have Wallace back, and have promising young targets in Emmanuel Sanders and especially Antonio Brown. The Ravens got surprising production from 2011 first-rounder Torrey Smith, and Anquan Boldin is still himself.
The Bengals have seen AJ Green emerge from Week 1 as a No. 1 target for years to come, and he will be surrounded by talented youngsters such as Jordan Shipley, Ryan Whalen and Brandon Tate, who has been unexpectedly impressive early this offseason, according to ESPN's AFC North blogger Jamison Hensley.
The Browns still simply don't have the firepower to compete with the playmakers in their division, and it's not close.
Division Rank: 4th
Personnel: Benjamin Watson, Evan Moore, Alex Smith, Jordan Cameron
Assessment: Watson was the leading receiver for the Browns in 2010, and had 37 catches last season, ranking third on the squad. Beyond Watson, however, tight ends have been a massive letdown for the Browns.
Moore was supposed to show off his incredible hands and potential to be split out wide this past season, but barely saw the field. Smith is a valuable blocker and a decent receiver, but doesn't have the ability to scare a defense vertically. Cameron is still a raw project who could morph into the next Jimmy Graham with his skill set, but could also get cut in camp and never see the field in the NFL. No rave reviews on him from Browns camp as of yet.
Pittsburgh has Heath Miller, a 2009 Pro Bowler. The Ravens have Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, who are both solid and early in their careers, and the Bengals have Jermaine Gresham, who, at 23 years old, is the top receiving threat at the position in the AFC North and is also showing his effectiveness as a blocker.
With the Steelers having a solid anchor for years, the Ravens having two young guns, and the Bengals having the best player in the division at the position, an aging Watson and unimpressive remaining corps put the Browns last in this category as well. Not much of an argument needs to be made, and there can't be much of an argument made to prove otherwise.
Division rank: 4th
Personnel: Jabaal Sheard, Phil Taylor (injured), Ahtyba Rubin, Brian Schaefering, Scott Paxson, Billy Winn, John Hughes, Frostee Rucker, Juqua Parker, Marcus Benard
Assessment: The Browns invested first and second round picks in 2011 to fortify this unit, drafting Baylor's Phil Taylor (21st overall) and U of Pitt's Jabaal Sheard (37th overall). Both had impressive rookie seasons, with Sheard recording 8.5 sacks and Taylor also starting all 16 games, creating a formidable inside tandem with the underrated Ahtyba Rubin.
However, Taylor recently tore a pectoral muscle during voluntary workouts, making the rotation thin out. Brian Schaefering and Scott Paxson will return, but the Browns will have to rely on rookies John Hughes (Cincinnati, third round, 87th overall) and Billy Winn (Boise St, sixth round, 205th overall) to fill in for the injured Taylor, at least until midseason, although according to ESPN Cleveland's Tony Grossi, Taylor could return by Week 9 or 10.
Hughes went much higher than projected, and Winn went much lower than projected in the draft, so the fact the Browns got both of them evens out any questions outsiders may have had about taking Hughes so high, since the team "stole" Winn late in the draft.
Sheard is the only legitimate pass-rushing threat, as the promising Marcus Benard broke his arm in a motorcycle accident, and Jayme Mitchell failed to prove Heckert right that he was the best pass rusher on the roster from 2010. Outside of Rubin and Sheard, the rotation looks pretty bleak for the Browns in 2012.
As underrated as Rubin might be, each team in the division has a better player at his position. The Steelers have Casey Hampton, the Ravens have Haloti Ngata, and the Bengals have Domata Peko. A potential Hall-of-Famer, a surefire Hall-of-Famer, and the best young defensive tackle this side of Ndamukong Suh. This is far more star power than the Browns can boast.
The Steelers also have depth at defensive end in Brett Kiesel, Ziggy Hood, and Cameron Hayward. The Bengals have the explosive Carlos Dunlap, who registered 9.5 sacks without starting a game in 2010, returning from an injury, as well as veteran Robert Geathers The Ravens don't boast big names at defensive end, but Ngata is enough of a presence to command a double team, and even that's not enough oftentimes.
Until the Browns prove they can get pressure on the quarterback at all outside of Sheard, fielding such a solid secondary, this unit will continue to dwell at the bottom in the division. Free agent acquisitions Juqua Parker and Frostee Rucker provide some depth at defensive end, with Parker projected to start opposite Sheard, but both are aging, and Parker may be playing his last season as a pro.
Division rank: 4th
Personnel: Chris Gocong, D'Qwell Jackson, Scott Fujita, James-Michael Johnson, Kaluka Maiava, Titus Brown, Emmanuel Acho
Assessment: Gocong and Jackson signed extensions, which presumably plugs them into starting positions for the next few seasons. Nevada product Johnson has been impressive in minicamp, and ESPN Cleveland's Grossi believes he could "shock the world" and start this season, referring to Johnson by his initials in this Scott Fujita will be out for the first three games due to suspension in the aftermath of the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal.
Jackson had a monster season in 2011, leading the AFC with 158 tackles, mostly as a result of stopping the run after the ineffective, thin defensive line let ball carriers frequently get to the second level.
Gocong is a solid starter, but nothing spectacular, and will have to do a better job in man coverage against tight ends when filling in for Fujita. Weak side looks like it will belong to Johnson, who would bring more of the necessary athleticism and range the Browns' front seven needs to improve against the run in 2012. His scouting report from sidelinescouting.com also indicates he can rush the passer effectively, something the Browns have consistently struggled with in recent years in the linebacker corps.
Maiava and Brown provide depth and should contribute on special teams, which is always a solid unit for the Browns. University of Texas product Acho should do the same, provided he makes the team as a sixth-round pick.
As solid as the linebackers seem for the Browns, the unit pales in comparison to the Steelers' James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons, Larry Foote, and whoever else fills in with the absence of James Farrior.
The Ravens also have a player named Ray Lewis, and another player named Terrelle Suggs, and just drafted Alabama's Courtney Upshaw in the first round. Sergio Kindle also is eager to prove himself after a fall down some stairs has stunted the beginning of his career.
The Bengals have a young, extremely speedy and athletic group consisting of Thomas Howard, Rey Maualuga, and Manny Lawson. Although Maualuga is drawing comparisons to former youthful standout Odell Thurman for frequently being in trouble off the field, his talent is immense, and he may already be better than Jackson.
The fact that one of the Browns' top five players is equally or over-matched by a player in the division shows the level of talent on the Browns' roster. On the surface, the linebackers look solid, but in comparison to the rest of the division, the Browns once again lag behind.
Division Rank: 4th
Personnel: Joe Haden, Usama Young, Eric Hagg, TJ Ward, Sheldon Brown, Dimitri Patterson, Buster Skrine, Trevin Wade (7th-rd pick)
Assessment: In drafting CB Joe Haden and SS TJ Ward, the Holmgren-Heckert tandem nailed the first part of their first draft with the Browns franchise. Haden has proven to be a dependable No. 1 corner. Although he may not be "shutdown" status yet, and though he may have dropped a few interceptions last season, those numbers are sure to pick up this year.
Ward is a hard-nosed player who isn't afraid to stick his nose in and light somebody up when he crashes the box to defend the run. His zone and man coverage skills also took a huge leap from his rookie season, and he should continue to be a solid safety for years to come.
Opposite Haden, Sheldon Brown provides a veteran presence and serves as a mentor for the rest of the relatively young secondary unit. Brown is versatile and could move to free safety this year, a move the Browns may want to consider due to the strong play of Dimitri Patterson, who was a free agent acquisition after a stint with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Free safety could be a liability if Brown doesn't move over. The Browns have a hole to fill with the departure of Mike Adams. It looks as though it will be a competition between Usama Young and Eric Hagg, a 2011 seventh-round selection who actually saw action in 10 games last season.
Still, it is a position the Browns don't stack up well with against their AFC North counterparts. The Ravens have Ed Reed, perhaps the best ever. The Steelers have Ryan Clark, an underrated, top five safety. The Bengals have Reggie Nelson, who is starting to stride toward the perceived potential he had coming out of the University of Florida in 2007 as a first-round pick.
One other player to watch for the Browns is second-year nickelback Buster Skrine. He possesses mind-boggling speed and, although undersized at 5'10", 186 lbs, was a sure tackler in college. He managed 20 repetitions of 225 lbs. on the bench press at the 2011 NFL Combine.
He's still a bit of a project player and very raw, but he could be a valuable asset for the Browns moving forward. He has the foot speed to cover any deep threat in the league, and if the Browns can develop him properly, he could emerge as a formidable force on the other side of Haden, and should make strides with extra reps in the preseason.
The secondary is one of the few bright spots for the Browns, as they finished 2nd in the NFL in pass defense, giving up just 184.9 yards per game in 2011. Part of this may have had to do with the fact that the defense was 30th against the run, and teams simply pounded away and didn't throw as often.
This was also because the offense couldn't stay on the field, so the fact that the number was so low speaks volumes to what first-year coordinator Dick Jauron did with his 4-3 scheme with the secondary being the only solid unit he had to work with on his side of the ball.
Division Rank: 1st
On paper, position by position, the Browns don't stack up very well to their division counterparts, and they also went 0-6 in the division last year. The schedule is brutal, as their cross-conference divisional opponents are in the NFC East.
The most important position, quarterback, is by far the most turbulent in the Browns' case. Whoever is dropping back for the team this season needs to be protected, and the Browns haven't proven they can consistently do that.
Heckert has given the quarterback Trent Richardson to give the ball to, which can only help, but the passing game shouldn't improve drastically at all without any additions at the wide receiver position. A lot will hinge on Greg Little's improvement, the possible breakout by Carlton Mitchell, or some other unforeseen development.
Depth on the front seven will likely result in another year struggling to defend the run, especially with the loss of Phil Taylor for at least half the season.
The secondary is really the only area the Browns, at this moment, are unquestionably competitive in with other teams in the AFC North. It will be at least another season before the Browns make any significant improvement. There may be a one or two-win improvement from last season, but it's difficult to imagine anything more optimistic based on personnel, schedule, and divisional competition.
Final AFC North Rank: 4th, 5-11.