Which question marks will step up?
The 2013-14 Cleveland Browns have their most talented roster since 1999. However, as minicamp comes to an end and the team gets ready for training camp, there are several issues facing them that could prevent the Browns from winning more than six games. Brandon Weeden and the corners are both huge threats to a successful season.
I have ranked the top 10 issues for Cleveland, and in order to merit inclusion on the list, the player/position or position group either has depth concerns, injury history, no viable solution has surfaced yet or the player needs to prove himself.
The subjective criteria I used to rank the issues included the following questions: How big of a question mark is it for the Browns, and how much could it hurt them if the issue isn't properly addressed?
It will feel weird not having Phil Dawson kicking for the Browns
Three honorable mentions for my list: Can Travis Benjamin or Dion Lewis fill Josh Cribbs' shoes on special teams? Can T.J. Ward stay healthy? Who will replace the reliable Phil Dawson?
The Browns could finally have an elite receiver of their own
Josh Gordon and Greg Little definitely look the part and had a promising second half of the season in 2012-13. Gordon has the potential to be an elite receiver with his combination of speed, soft hands and prototypical body type. Little doesn't have elite speed, but is a very physical receiver when he can run after the catch.
Little needs to prove for a whole season that he has reliable hands as he did in the final 11 games of the season.
Gordon needs to prove he can run disciplined routes.
This ranks No. 10 on the list because while the two young receivers have shown flashes that they can be an excellent tandem, the new vertical offense will feature Gordon and Little, and if they aren't consistent catching the football then there is no hope for an exciting offense this season.
It ranks the lowest in the top 10 because there is definitely a lot of talent to work with. They just need to establish themselves over a full season.
The Browns signed former Baltimore Raven Paul Kruger to be THE MAN in this new attack-style defense implemented by new defensive coordinator Ray Horton.
Kruger could fly under the radar in Baltimore as Terrell Suggs got the majority of attention from opposing offensive coordinators. That won't be the case here, as Kruger will need to pile up double-digit sacks and consistently be able to make the quarterback uncomfortable.
Kruger ranks No. 9 on the list because his time in Baltimore, in a very similar defensive 3-4 scheme, will allow for a seamless transition, but he will have to adjust to being the focal point of the pass-rush and be able to fight off double teams. Getting to the quarterback is being stressed more than ever under Horton, and Kruger needs to lead the charge.
If Kruger doesn't produce or is just average, then not only did they waste a lot of money, but it would be a huge blow to the entire defense.
Heal up now, dish out punishment later
Trent Richardson played with broken ribs the majority of the season, so we already know he has a high pain tolerance. Richardson's running style where he looks for contact puts him at an even higher risk than other backs.
Offensive coordinator Norv Turner has proven over his long career that he uses his tailback A LOT. The offense will rely heavily on Richardson, and how effective he is will make a big difference on how the downfield passing game takes shape.
Richardson is ranked No. 8 because he has the thick build to be a durable back and skills to be one of the best running backs in the entire NFL, but being hurt the majority of last season and now held out until training camp, it has to be a concern. There is some depth at the position if he misses one or two games, but any more than that and the offense feels the consequences.
Mingo is the future, but Sheard can still be a good contributor
Jabaal Sheard was an effective defensive end, but no one really knows how smooth the transition will be as he moves to outside linebacker. Sheard will most likely be the starter opposite Paul Kruger and get the majority of the snaps at his position.
While the position is new to Sheard, he has enough athletic ability to make a smooth transition, and was even pursued by 3-4 teams coming out of the draft.
His play is important for three big reasons. If he struggles, Kruger will see a lot more double teams. It won't allow Barkevious Mingo to be brought along slowly, and there needs to be a solid four-man rotation at outside linebacker to keep them fresh.
He is at No. 7 because while the Browns will need his production, there is some depth at the position. Sheard isn't nearly as big of a question mark as the secondary or even Barkevious Mingo because he has shown the quickness and ability to get to the quarterback.
When you are a sixth overall pick like Barkevious Mingo, you are expected to be an immediate playmaker. Mingo will be surely be counted on to be a menace on the edge, especially on third downs. He likely will be brought along slowly like Aldon Smith of the San Francisco 49ers, but Smith also racked up 14 sacks.
Mingo doesn't need those type of numbers for his rookie campaign to be successful, but he surely needs to give fans plenty of reasons to see he has the potential to be a stud in his second year.
There are concerns that Mingo is too skinny. He has the frame to pack on pounds, but he doesn't need to drastically change it as he played just fine in the SEC at his weight and has a similar build to the great Jason Taylor.
He is ranked No. 6 because as a rookie picked sixth overall, there is no need to be patient and wait for him to make plays. He won't have too heavy of a burden this year as they have depth at the position, but he needs to jump off the screen when he is on the field.
Can Tashaun Gipson at least hold his own?
Tashaun Gipson has the heads up over rookie Jamoris Slaughter to be the starter opposite T.J. Ward. He was decent in his brief time at the position last year, but this team has severely lacked a safety that can play centerfield and read the quarterback's eyes to create turnovers. T.J. Ward is great at being an enforcer in the secondary, but he has shown cover skills are his weakness.
The free safety position will ultimately need to be permanently addressed in next year's draft, but the play of Tashaun Gipson and/or Jamoris Slaughter will be key in how the Browns' secondary performs when playing strong-armed quarterbacks who consistently try to make plays deep.
The free safety position is at No. 5 because there is very little experience or depth at a very important position in the secondary. At the same time, if the defense gets after the quarterback like they want to, it could mask some of the deficiencies.
Greco will stabilize one of the guard positions
The Browns' offensive line was strong against the pass rush last year, but at times really struggled creating running lanes. The majority of that responsibility falls on the guards, as they were manhandled at the line of scrimmage way too often, and struggled pulling to the outside because they aren't quick enough.
According to Profootballfocus.com, Shaun Lauvao had a -7.3 rating last year while John Greco graded out as a second-tier guard with a 8.9 rating.
Norv Turner's offense will require quite a bit of pulling to the outside by the guards just like in 2007 where Eric Steinbach was so valuable.
Shaun Lauvao and Jason Pinkston will compete for one guard spot and John Greco has pretty much nailed down the other spot with his performance last season. How Pinkston performs after coming back from a life-threatening blood clot issue will also be a huge factor.
I'm not an expert on guard play, but it was obvious they were the weak links of the unit last year. Greco supposedly did play very well, but needs to sustain that level of performance.
They are ranked fourth because there is little depth and no proven starters. The guard play will be critical in the power running game and if they play well, it will be a special unit.
The tight end position is critical in the new vertical offense. Browns head coach Rob Chudzinski got great production out of Kellen Winslow in 2007 as offensive coordinator in Cleveland, as did new offensive coordinator Norv Turner with Antonio Gates in San Diego.
Jordan Cameron had the opportunity to show something last year, but failed to stand out. He had only 20 receptions and one touchdown. He has perfect size (6'5", 245 lbs) that Chudzinski and Turner want in their tight ends, and has shown good hands. He isn't a great blocker, but neither are any of the elite pass-catching tight ends. They brought in veteran Kellen Davis to be the main blocking tight end.
Every quarterback loves a big tight end they can rely on in the middle of the field, and this is the year for Cameron to see whether or not he is the future at his position. A player of Cameron's athletic ability and stature could also be a very weapon in the red zone.
He is ranked third because Cameron hasn't done anything to earn a starting job yet, and will be given the job based on his potential at a heavily utilized position under Chudzinski. There is no depth at pass-catching tight end if Cameron falters.
Haden can't afford to miss any games
Joe Haden is elite, but the team ignored the position in free agency, and now the other cornerbacks will be filled by no one taller than 5'9". Third-round pick Leon McFadden will get every opportunity to start (he started all four years at San Diego St.), but at 5'9", he better be physical and have great mirror skills.
The other corners who will see significant playing time are both 5'9'' corners in Buster Skrine and Chris Owens. It will be a great challenge for this secondary to cover receivers who keep getting taller, faster and stronger.
Joe Haden is the most valuable person on the defense, because if he gets hurt, it will be a very long season once again if there isn't an elite pass rush.
The No. 2 and slot corner positions lack any proven veterans, and they are relying on a rookie third-round pick to start opposite Haden. If McFadden shows slow progress, then Buster Skrine will likely be the guy. Good luck with that.
Will Weeden prove he can play with the other quarterbacks in his draft class?
There is no question that how this season turns out will be in direct correlation with the play of Brandon Weeden. He has no more excuses this year, and he is on a one-year trial with this coaching staff. He has a good enough supporting cast and a system that fits his strengths perfectly. It will be very easy to tell if the Browns have to look for another quarterback in the next draft or not.
He had a couple of very nice games a season ago, but was extremely inconsistent overall. He struggled finding the open receiver, and threw interceptions at the most inopportune times.
There is no close second to any of the other issues with the Browns. Weeden plays the most important position in sports, and how the quarterback plays is by far the most important key to NFL success. Until the Browns find a franchise quarterback, they will go nowhere.