Cleveland Browns: 5 Players with the Most to Prove After the Bye Week
The Cleveland Browns' bye week is upon us, and the results from what was supposed to be a very optimistic 2012 campaign have fallen short yet again. Currently, the Browns sit at the bottom of the AFC North and sport a record of 2-7 as they enter the second half of a schedule that will highlight the Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos and the Pittsburgh Steelers (twice).
Cleveland has had some positive surprises despite their dismal record and have also had some colossal disappointments. Cleveland's offense is clearly more proficient this season than in years past, but the defense has lacked the spark that made them one of the best units in the NFL a season ago.
This slideshow will highlight five players who need to step up their game after the bye week, either to save their jobs as a member of the Browns or to help the team become more successful in the weeks to come.
No. 5: Jabaal Sheard
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Jabaal Sheard appeared to be on the fast track to becoming one of the most feared defensive ends in the NFL after a 2011 season that netted him eight-and-a-half sacks, 55 tackles and seven tackles for loss.
However, 2012 has been a letdown for Sheard as he has failed to match the production that made him such a breakout star last year. So far this season, Sheard has only tallied 30 total tackles, one-and-a-half sacks and one tackle for loss.
Sheard has been given the opportunity to be the uncontested starter for the Browns at the defensive end position, but he has not shown that he can handle the every-down duties this season. If he cannot pick up his game in the second half of the year, he may force the Browns' hand during the offseason and have the team pick up another end that can rotate in at his position.
Frostee Rucker and Jaqua Parker have been been working a steady rotation at the other end position and have both made some big plays when the team has needed them.
Mel Kiper (via WFNY) seems to think that defensive end is Cleveland's second-biggest need come draft time next season, and Sheard could do a lot to change that notion if he can pick up his production in the second half of 2012.
No. 4: Kaluka Maiava
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Kaluka Maiava has been thrust into a starting role on the Browns defense due to injuries to Chris Gocong and Scott Fujita earlier in the year. Maiava has been a bit of a role player since he was drafted by the Browns in 2009, and with his opportunity to start this season comes the chance to remain a contributor on a linebacker corps that is aging very quickly.
L.J. Fort, James Michael Johnson and Craig Robertson seem to be on the fast track to becoming consistent players on the Browns defense because of their age and ability level, but Maiava can do a lot for his personal worth with some solid play over the course of the rest of the season.
Whether or not Maiava's future is with Cleveland will depend greatly on his production after the bye week and what types of moves are made within the organization in the weeks following the regular season. The current coaching staff seems to like Maiava's ability and have commended his work ethic and leadership over the course of the first 10 weeks.
Maiava is currently ranked seventh on the Browns defense with 33 total tackles and is tied for fifth on the defense in sacks with one.
No. 3: Brandon Weeden
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The Cleveland Browns organization and its fans have seen both ends of the spectrum for Brandon Weeden over the course of the 2012 season. Weeden opened the 2012 campaign against the Philadelphia Eagles with a four-interception effort on his way to a 5.1 quarterback rating. Since that game, Weeden has thrown for multiple touchdowns on four different occasions and has boasted a quarterback rating greater than 75 four times as well.
The Browns have struggled to find their offensive identity for much of the season and have started four rookies consistently on offense for much of the year. The Browns' receiving group has not been much help either as they are tied with the Detroit Lions for the most dropped passes in the NFL with 22.
Weeden has shown that he has the arm strength to compete in the NFL and has hit on some deep passes, specifically to Josh Gordon, on several occasions. However, Weeden has struggled with accuracy at times and has had multiple passes miss wide open receivers for big gains.
The Browns have a group of coaches that all have reputations for developing young talent at the quarterback position. Pat Shurmur, Mark Whipple, Brad Childress and even Mike Holmgren have all been in Weeden's ear since he arrived in Cleveland, and apparently, they have all trusted Weeden enough to stake their jobs on his success.
It appears that Cleveland will continue to ride Weeden's arm throughout the rest of the 2012 season, and by all accounts, that is the right decision. What happens beyond 2012 is the real question once new owner Jimmy Haslam takes over and a potential change of the coaching staff takes place. Weeden will have to continue to impress his new owner if he intends on remaining the starter of the future for the Browns after the wave of changes come this spring.
No. 2: Greg Little
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Greg Little has shown some flashes of great play in his season-and-a-half in Cleveland. Little was the Browns' leading receiver in 2011 with 61 catches and currently leads Cleveland's receiving corps in catches this season with 27.
Unfortunately for Little, the talk surrounding his play has not been because of the balls he has caught, but because of the passes that have slipped through his fingers over the last two years.
According to Pro Football Focus, Little's 61 catches last season should be considered flawed because of the 75 "catchable" passes that were thrown his way. That means that Little was among the league leaders in 2011 with 14 drops and is currently tied for first in the AFC (fifth in the NFL) with five drops in 2012.
The Browns have been clear that Little has been doing work behind the scenes in order to correct the dropped balls, and Little has seemed to do a little better holding onto passes over the past few weeks. Little has shown that he has the talent to produce at an elite level in the NFL, but consistency has been the real issue over his first 25 NFL games.
The Browns tried hard not to make excuses for Little's inconsistency in 2011 despite the fact that he had time away from football before he was added to Cleveland's roster. Now that he has been a Brown for the better part of two years, it is time for Little to step up and be the player that Cleveland needs to create mismatches for opposing defenses and guide their rookie quarterback.
Little will be under contract with the Browns for at least the next two seasons, and Cleveland hopes that the next half of Little's tenure in the orange helmet is even better than the first.
No. 1: Mohamed Massaquoi
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Mohamed Massaquoi has had four seasons to show the Browns organization that he was worth the 50th overall selection that Cleveland used on him in the 2009 NFL Draft.
Injuries, inconsistent quarterback play and a coaching carousel have all contributed to what many Browns fans have considered the biggest wide receiver flop that the organization has had since Braylon Edwards caught a case of the drops after the 2007 season.
Cleveland has needed a wide receiver to step up for them in a big way over the last four seasons, and Massaquoi has simply not been able to answer the call. In fact, "MoMass" has not had a 100-yard receiving game since Week 10 of the 2009 season when he caught five balls for 115 yards in a 38-37 loss to the Detroit Lions.
It is hard to believe that the switch will suddenly flip on for Massaquoi, especially after he reportedly suffered another leg injury in Sunday's loss against the Baltimore Ravens. Greg Little, Josh Gordon, Travis Benjamin and Josh Cooper all seem to have a higher ceiling at this point in their careers, and all of them have produced in some fashion in Massaquoi's absence this season.
It is reasonable to believe that Massaquoi's days in a Browns uniform are severely numbered unless he breaks out in a big way over the last seven weeks of this season.