With another rebuilding project for the Cleveland Browns underway, the team is understandably heading into training camp under a lot of pressure to finally get it right this time.
For once, though, the mood is decidedly more optimistic.
The Browns now have an impressive coaching staff and a roster that's almost equally as impressive. However, concerns remain, especially during this time of transition. There's a lot of work to be done at the Browns' training camp this year and just as many questions that work will need to answer.
Here are the three biggest.
What Will It All Look Like?
The Browns began their offseason by changing out their coaching staff, bringing on Rob Chudzinski as head coach, Norv Turner as offensive coordinator and Ray Horton as defensive coordinator.
While there are things we know about these coaches—Turner is a fan of downfield passing as well as big-play receivers and is sharp at developing running backs, Chudzinski subscribes to the same offensive philosophy as Turner and has a way with tight ends, and Horton will be switching the team to an attack-style 3-4 defense in the vein of the Pittsburgh Steelers—we don't know how that will translate to Cleveland's personnel.
The three coaches have certainly had their hands in the way the roster has been shaped in these intervening months and hints on how they'll use these players have been given in the form of minicamp practices and OTAs.
However, there are limits on what can be reported about these sessions. The true meat of how Cleveland's offense and defense will look won't be on display until training camp begins.
We know that in practices in May, the first-team offensive line consisted of Joe Thomas at left tackle, John Greco at left guard, Alex Mack at center, Shawn Lauvao at right guard and Mitchell Schwartz at right tackle, though Greco was also moved to right guard with the first team to accommodate the return of Jason Pinkston at left guard.
Both tight ends Kellen Davis and Gary Barnidge have worked with the offensive first team along with presumed starter Jordan Cameron.
The defense has thus far been comprised of a front seven featuring Ahtyba Rubin at left defensive end, Phil Taylor at nose tackle and Desmond Bryant at right defensive end, along with Paul Kruger at left outside linebacker, James-Michael Johnson and Craig Robertson on the inside and Jabaal Sheard at right outside linebacker.
In the secondary, Joe Haden and Buster Skrine have worked as starting cornerbacks, though free-agent addition Chris Owens also played alongside Haden while T.J. Ward and Tashaun Gipson worked as starting strong and free safeties, respectively.
Though many of these players' spots on the depth chart are secure, there will likely be a bit of shuffling of personnel throughout camp as the Browns try to find players that are the best fit at certain positions—offensive guard, cornerback and safety among them.
The bigger mystery, however, is what exactly these players will be doing.
Training camp is less guarded than the practices teams participated in earlier in the offseason and it's when the meat of both the offensive and defensive playbooks will be worked over.
It's our first and best chance to see what these new coaches have in mind for the Browns this year
What Are the Browns' Plans at Running Back?
The Browns selected running back Trent Richardson with the third overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft.
Though Richardson has had a number of injury issues in his year in the league—a knee procedure last offseason, playing through broken ribs for much of the regular season and a leg strain this year that held him out of OTAs—there's no reason to believe that he'll be anything but the team's starting back for 2013.
However, behind Richardson are a number of running backs of varied experience levels and styles that could either spell the starter or provide a change of pace.
Right now, that competition is wide open, with any of the five behind Richardson possessing the potential to get a chunk of playing time this year.
The Browns' options include Montario Hardesty, who was useful in a limited role last year and managed to remain healthy, Chris Ogbonnaya, who operated mainly on third downs in 2012, Brandon Jackson, Miguel Maysonet and Dion Lewis.
With Turner adept at spotting running back talent, any and all of these players could very well make an impact on the field behind Richardson this season.
What would suit the Browns best is someone speedy, small and elusive to match Richardson's power game. Though Richardson is certainly shifty in his own right, having a counterpoint to his style would give the Browns offense another level of unpredictability.
The key will be to identify who can run effectively, catch passes and block—the more complete a back is, the harder it is for opposing defenses to key in on what the Browns plan to do with a given play.
Even if they can identify a pair or trio of backs who each possess one or two of these traits, that still gives the Browns options.
It's clear that the Browns have retained so many of their backs from last year and added new ones for more reasons than simply injury insurance. What they have in mind will make itself known once the pads are on during training camp.
Who Becomes the Starting Cornerback Alongside Joe Haden?
In practices this spring, both Buster Skrine and free-agent signing Chris Owens have spent time with the first-team defense, joining starting cornerback Joe Haden in the secondary.
The question of who would take the job has been left mostly unanswered since the departures of Sheldon Brown and Dimitri Patterson.
This will be a major training camp battle for the Browns this year.
Skrine spent 2012 primarily as the Browns' slot cornerback, playing 745 snaps according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). He was pretty shaky, even in the limited role, allowing 68 receptions on 93 targets, giving up 751 yards and 255 yards after the catch along with five touchdowns to zero interceptions.
Opposing quarterbacks had a 114.6 rating when throwing his way. All of these numbers are concerning and make him a major downgrade from Brown.
Owens wasn't a major contributor for the Atlanta Falcons last year, playing only 177 snaps. However, he allowed receptions on just 15 of the 28 passes thrown his way for a total of 149 yards, 62 yards after the catch and zero touchdowns.
He had no interceptions, either, but defensed five passes. Skrine defensed 10 and played around four times as many snaps.
It's clear to see why these two cornerbacks, in particular, are poised to battle it out for the starting job. Both come from a slot/nickel corner background and Owens hasn't seen much playing time, but his raw numbers from last year indicate the potential to outperform Skrine when given more work.
Skrine's advantage is simply the familiarity with his teammates—his incumbent status does a lot for him now that Brown and Patterson are both gone—but he's going to need to improve his coverage skills to win the job full-time.
Ray Horton, Cleveland's new defensive coordinator, is a former cornerback himself and his coaching background is primarily in the secondary.
Therefore, there is a distinct possibility that Horton's coaching can result in improvements out of Skrine, putting Owens in the slot for 2013. The reverse is also possible, with Owens beating out Skrine, who will reprise his job as slot corner.
If Cleveland's pass rush is as effective as the team hopes, then the pressure will be a bit lower on the secondary as a result.
Still, the Browns cannot afford for Skrine to win the starting job and play as he did last season, nor can they afford Owens stumbling with a dramatic increase in playing time. We'll truly see how these two fare in Horton's system once camp begins.
Hopefully, the Browns can find an effective complement to Haden.