Ever since a nine-win playoff campaign in 2002, the Cleveland Browns have been stuck in a rut.
They can’t catch a break with injuries, they can’t catch a break at the quarterback position, and they can’t catch a break in their divisional games.
No wonder this team has had double-digit losses the past four seasons.
In 2007, not much will be different. Injuries have already reared their ugly heads, and Charlie Frye and Derek Anderson are still the leading quarterback candidates. Worse, the Browns still play in a division with the Ravens, Bengals, and Steelers.
That said, all hope is not lost.
No matter what the win column says, these Browns are headed in the right direction. They're just going really slow.
The past two drafts have garnered some good young prospects, and their development will be key to Cleveland's success.
Brady Quinn, Cleveland’s second first-round pick, has the most responsibility on his shoulders. The Notre Dame star dropped like a stone on Draft Day, and many believe it's because he was incredibly overrated.
Quinn had several things going against him: He never won big games, he was the product of Charlie Weis’ system, and he might have already reached his peak as a quarterback. Beyond that, he had a prolonged holdout which may have cost him the chance to start anytime soon.
Still, Cleveland fans couldn’t be more excited. Quinn is polished, has a strong arm, and was incredibly accurate in college. While Charlie Frye and Derek Anderson battle for the starting job, there's no doubt that Quinn is the quarterback of the future.
The Browns have already had bad luck with top QB picks (Exhibit A: Tim Couch), so they have a lot riding on Quinn’s success.
A more sure bet is T Joe Thomas. The Wisconsin grad was rated as the best lineman prospect in the draft, and should turn out to be a solid pro. Should he turn out to be a franchise tackle in the mold of Jonathan Ogden or Tony Boselli, the Browns’ offensive line will be in good hands for years to come.
On defense, one Cleveland draft pick is already fulfilling and exceeding expectations: LB Kamerion Wimbley had a breakout season last year. His speed and power off the edge were top notch—and he got better as the year went on, finishing with a team rookie-record 11 sacks.
Recent drafts have given the Browns some good players, too. TE Kellen Winslow is becoming one of the better tight ends in the AFC. WR Braylon Edwards has the ability to be a Pro Bowl receiver, and should benefit from better quarterback play down the road.
In the secondary, CB Leigh Bodden—when healthy—is a great lockdown corner, and S Brodney Pool will get his first starting shot this year.
Free agency has also been a building tool. This season’s haul includes one of the best offensive linemen available, G Eric Steinbach.
The former Cincinnati Bengal can play virtually all the line positions, and he should form a strong left side with the rookie Thomas.
The Browns also signed RB Jamal Lewis. Though he's an upgrade at the position, the 28-year-old Lewis has seen better days, and won't be a long-term answer for Cleveland.
In the meantime, Browns fans can look forward to three yards per carry week-in and week-out. At least they’ll have consistency.
Some of the pieces are in place, but whether coach Romeo Crennel will be with the team when the puzzle comes together remains to be seen.
Crennel came to Cleveland with a lot of hype, having led the defenses of the Super Bowl New England teams. His tenure has been lackluster so far, and his assistants took the fall this offseason.
With a new gang in tow, Crennel could be in a make-or-break year.
With enough young talent on the roster to make things interesting, Cleveland could be better than it's been in a while. The quarterback position could blossom once Quinn takes the field. The Browns might even topple one of their AFC North foes.
As far as reaching .500 or better?
Not this year.
The future of the Cleveland Browns may be in good hands, but the future is most certainly not now.
Projected finish: 3-13, 4th AFC North
Keep your eyes on: P Dave Zastudil—Practice makes perfect, which explains why he’s flawless.
Take your eyes off: RB Jamal Lewis—Being bad in Baltimore does not translate to being good in Cleveland.
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