Projecting Cleveland Browns' Starting Lineup Post Week 1 of Free Agency

Mike HoagCorrespondent IIMarch 22, 2013

Projecting Cleveland Browns' Starting Lineup Post Week 1 of Free Agency

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    Predicting the 2013 Cleveland Browns' opening day roster isn't easy. The offseason is in full swing, the draft process has yet to play out and the team may still sign players or make trades.

    Then there is minicamp, organized team activities (OTAs) and the preseason. A lot can and will happen between now and then. But that isn't going to stop us from taking an early look and playing around with things a bit.

    The team has improved this offseason by making some key additions. However, some key departures have also left some possible voids in the process.

    Can a younger player surpass a starter, too? Guys like Tashaun Gipson, Buster Skrine, Travis Benjamin and Johnson Bademosi have massive potential. But is that enough to translate into becoming an every-down NFL player?

    We'll take a look at how we see things now and a little of what we expect to play out in the remainder of free agency and the upcoming draft.

    Let us know what you would do differently, if tasked with forming an opening day starting lineup with what the Browns currently have on their roster.

Quarterback

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    The Cleveland Browns have been unable to lock down the quarterback position since the franchise returned to the NFL in 1999. Thaddeus Lewis, starting in place of injured first- and second-string QBs Brandon Weeden and Colt McCoy, became the 19th player to start at the position during that span.

    Despite his age and general inability to make much of his rookie season, Weeden is the most-equipped QB on this roster. His talents match the vertical-passing attack that new offensive coordinator Norv Turner and new head coach Rob Chudzinski are likely to employ.

    Last season, the West Coast offense exposed some of Weeden's flaws. If he can catch on quickly to the new regime's terminology and game plan, he should lock up the starting job early this summer.

    The possibility exists for the Browns to draft a rookie, as they hold the No. 6 overall pick in April's draft and have had a private workout with former West Virginia QB Geno Smith.

    In the same report, however, team CEO Joe Banner indicated the team was not focused on upgrading QB with the first-round pick.

     

    Projected Starting QB: Brandon Weeden

Running Back

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    The Cleveland Browns selected running back Trent Richardson with the No. 3 overall selection of the 2012 NFL Draft. For that reason and the massive potential Richardson possesses, there is unlikely to be any change in the depth chart during this offseason.

    If Richardson is banged up, perhaps, but there isn't another scenario where the team fields a different starting running back on opening day.

     

    Projected Starting RB: Trent Richardson

Wide Receiver

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    Wide receiver, once a position of weakness for the Cleveland Browns, is beginning to turn around thanks to a calculated risk by former GM Tom Heckert Jr.

    The executive gambled with a second-round supplemental draft pick and ended up scoring the No. 1 receiver that the team desperately needed. Josh Gordon flashed massive potential in his rookie season, coming off a year of suspension for substance violations in college.

    While Gordon will likely lock down the No. 1 flanker position, the spot opposite him is up for grabs. Travis Benjamin makes the most sense here, given his speed and ability to stretch the field. He wasn't given many opportunities in 2012 but should get his chance to shine in this new offense.

    In the slot, third-year WR Greg Little makes the most sense. He demonstrated good ability to find soft spots in zone coverage and even an increasing talent at catching the football. Struggles with drops may be a thing of the past as the converted college running back continues to develop. His ability to rack up yards after the catch is also an appealing characteristic that will get him some consideration.

    This year's wide receiver draft class is pretty deep. While the Browns could select a WR No. 6 overall, it doesn't seem likely. Rather, they will likely go with some variation of what I have provided.

     

    Projected No. 1 Wide Receiver: Josh Gordon

    Projected No. 2 Wide Receiver: Travis Benjamin

    Projected Starting Slot Receiver: Greg Little

Tight End

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    The Cleveland Browns parted ways with Benjamin Watson, allowing the veteran tight end to ink a three-year contract with the New Orleans Saints. Prior to that, they signed free-agent tight end Gary Barnidge to a deal. Barnidge makes sense as he played in Rob Chudzinski's Carolina offense for the past two seasons.

    That leaves former fourth-round pick Jordan Cameron as the likely opening-day starter at tight end. Cameron, like Norv Turner's former tight end Antonio Gates, is a converted basketball player with massive athletic ability. He makes sense as the guy the Browns will go with next season, but there are some concerns about his durability.

    That has prompted the Browns to explore the free-agency market to bolster the position. Initially, they were reportedly interested in free-agent tight end Fred Davis. On March 21, the team reportedly met with former Chicago Bears tight end Kellen Davis, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter (via Twitter):

    Tony McDaniel is visiting with Seattle today and Kellen Davis is visiting the Browns.

    — Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 21, 2013

    Davis, like Barnidge, is better suited as a run-blocker than as a pass-catcher, which would almost surely give the starting job to Cameron.

     

    Projected Starting Tight End: Jordan Cameron

Fullback

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    Cleveland Browns fullback Owen Marecic never developed into the hard-hitting player the team thought they were getting when they took a chance on him in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL Draft. However, the role of the FB in Norv Turner's new offense isn't going to be as demanding in some areas as it was in Pat Shurmur's West Coast offense.

    Marecic stumbled, fell and dropped every pass thrown in his direction.

    How bad was he? The team converted veteran tight end Alex Smith into his role, and he finished the season in plain clothes watching from the sidelines.

    Brad Smelley may be able to work into the starting position, but he is still a big unknown. I think Marecic will work hard this offseason after last year's disappointment and gain good favor with the new regime.

    He will be the starting FB on opening day.

    Drafting a late-round fullback or bringing in an unsigned rookie are huge possibilities here, though, so things could change quickly at the position.

     

    Projected Starting FB: Owen Marecic

Offensive Line

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    Few offensive lines performed better overall than the Cleveland Browns' unit last season. Pro Football Focus ranked the group as the fifth-best in the entire NFL.

    If Jason Pinkston can make a timely recovery from a medical condition that kept him sidelined for 2012, the team will be able to finally move on from Shawn Lauvao at right guard. Lauvao struggled the most of any player on the team's line last season, including rookie right tackle Mitchell Schwartz.

    John Greco filled in admirably in Pinkston's absence, which likely earned him a look from the new regime. He has the potential to replace Lauvao at right guard.

    Adding a player in the draft is certainly a possibility, but the team already has a competent group to field on opening day.

     

    Projected Starting Left Tackle: Joe Thomas

    Projected Starting Left Guard: Jason Pinkston

    Projected Starting Center: Alex Mack

    Projected Starting Right Guard: John Greco

    Projected Starting Right Tackle: Mitchell Schwartz

Defensive Line

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    The Cleveland Browns' defensive line is pretty much set after they released Frostee Rucker and signed disruptive defensive tackle Desmond Bryant. Bryant is a physically gifted and imposing defensive lineman that will likely fit into the Browns' right defensive end position in its new base 3-4 defense.

    Opposite of Bryant, the team will likely employ Ahtyba Rubin. The big man formerly played defensive tackle in the team's 4-3 defense and would be a good option to help lock down the left side of the defense.

    At nose tackle, Phil Taylor makes the most sense as he has the ability to command double-teams and beat them with quickness and brute strength. He is definitely a load that opposing defenses will have to game-plan and scheme to get out of the way each and every week. That will free up D'Qwell Jackson and Chris Gocong to fly to the ball.

     

    Projected Starting Right Defensive End: Desmond Bryant

    Projected Starting Nose Tackle: Phil Taylor

    Projected Starting Left Defensive End: Ahtyba Rubin

Linebacker

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    The Cleveland Browns went out and signed pass-rusher Paul Kruger for their new 3-4 defense. They believed him to be the top outside linebacker on the market. In addition, Chris Gocong will be coming back from injury and makes sense playing inside next to defensive captain and tackling machine D'Qwell Jackson.

    On the other side of Kruger, former defense end Jabaal Sheard is expected to transition to the other outside linebacker position. Putting him on the strong side of the defense makes sense, which will allow Kruger to play his former position.

    Overall, this group flashes massive potential on paper. If Sheard and Kruger can be even close to as productive in the pass rush as they are capable of, this offseason will have been a success for this organization.

    Drafting another outside linebacker is also still a strong possibility. The Browns have the sixth selection in April's draft, and there are a plethora of talented pass-rushers in this draft class.

     

    Projected Starting Strong Outside Linebacker: Jabaal Sheard

    Projected Starting Right Inside Linebacker: Chris Gocong

    Projected Starting Left Inside Linebacker: D'Qwell Jackson

    Projected Starting Weak Outside Linebacker: Paul Kruger

Cornerback

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    There is no question that Joe Haden, barring an unforeseen injury or trade, will be the opening day starting cornerback for the Cleveland Browns. Other than that, everything else is up in the air for a team that currently is missing two of its top three cornerbacks from last offseason.

    Dimitri Patterson was cut by the team, and Sheldon Brown is an unrestricted free agent who the team isn't expected to bring back. That leaves a gaping hole on the team's defense, prompting them to take a look at free-agent cornerback Brent Grimes recently.

    There is a big possibility of the Browns inking Grimes or another free-agent cornerback. Also, the team will likely explore all options during April's draft. Heading into the season with the current group of cornerbacks is risky, considering the struggles exhibited by everyone not named Haden last season.

    Johnson Bademosi came on late in the season to fill in for injured starters and played admirably in his first action at cornerback. He is physically capable of playing the position, is tenacious and will not be as technically raw as last year. That alone should put him on the radar, allowing him to surpass Buster Skrine—who should be pushed to his better-suited nickel cornerback position.

     

    Projected Starting Left Cornerback: Joe Haden

    Projected Starting Right Cornerback: Johnson Bademosi

    Projected Starting Nickel Cornerback: Buster Skrine

Safety

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    The Cleveland Browns are still looking for a reliable option at the free safety position. Last season, they tried a multitude of different combinations to anchor their defensive secondary. T.J. Ward, who presumably has the strong safety position locked down, has been a liability due to injuries.

    Of all of the young safeties the team has tried, Tashaun Gipson flashed the most potential a season ago. As a former undrafted free agent, he wasn't given many opportunities initially but made the most of them when they came to him.

    Eric Hagg was demoted to the practice team last season after early-season struggles, and Usama Young has proved to be wildly inconsistent, especially in the tackling game.

     

    Projected Starting Strong Safety: T.J. Ward

    Projected Starting Free Safety: Tashaun Gipson

Special Teams

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    An era ended in 2013 free agency when kicker Phil Dawson signed a deal with the San Francisco 49ers. Dawson was the last member of the 1999 Cleveland Browns.

    Spencer Lanning is the only punter currently on the Browns roster, and the team does not currently have a place kicker. Lanning has moved around quite a bit during his short NFL career. He landed in the UFL last season after being cut by the Browns and New York Jets prior to the start of the season.

    Reggie Hodges could still be retained, but as of right now, he is an unrestricted free agent.

    Drafting a kicker to replace Dawson seems like the best route for the Browns. The team needs to find the next-best thing and not attempt to revive a kicker's career in Cleveland. The Browns need a kicker with a strong leg who can kick against the harsh winter winds at their lakefront stadium.

    That guy, if I had to guess, would be Florida's Caleb Sturgis. He has the boot necessary and should be around late in the draft for the team to scoop up.

     

    Projected Punter: Spencer Lanning

    Projected Place Kicker: Caleb Sturgis (Rookie)

    Projected Long Snapper: Christian Yount