5 Things to Watch as the Cleveland Browns Kick off Their 2013 Preseason Schedule
After a disappointing 5-11 season in 2012, the Cleveland Browns made significant changes this offseason when they hired new head coach Rob Chudzinski, brought in Norv Turner to be offensive coordinator and switched to a 3-4 formation under defensive coordinator Ray Horton. The team also changed up its front office by adding CEO Joe Banner and GM Mike Lombardi.
The changes in the front office and to the coaching staff sound great on paper, but how will they affect the on-field product? Will Brandon Weeden step up his game or will he feel the pressure from veteran Jason Campbell? How will Trent Richardson handle an increased workload? Will the change to a 3-4 formation boost a defense that gave up more than 360 yards per game last year?
Though we won't get all the answers, Cleveland's four preseason games should give fans a good indication of where the team stands. The final scores are meaningless, but the preseason will provide meaningful moments if you know what to look for.
Here are the five things that Cleveland, and NFL fans alike, should keep they eyes on.
The most glaring weakness on the Browns last year was the man behind center. Brandon Weeden will enter his second season as Cleveland's signal caller, but the 29-year-old will need to show significant improvement or he could be watching on the sidelines as 31-year-old Jason Campbell runs the offense.
Coach Chudzinski told NFL.com's Kevin Patra before training camp that Weeden's position is not a given. Chudzinski said:
I expect both of these guys to compete. I don't know any other way. Anybody that's on a team is competing from my standpoint. We want to put these guys in a situation, give them every chance to succeed and we'll see how that all plays out. I'm hoping that the best man wins the job and that he gives us a chance to win.
While Jason Campbell isn't going to ratchet up the fans' excitement for 2013, he is a proven NFL quarterback who has been consistent throughout his career. He has has 76 career touchdown passes to 52 interceptions with a 2.4% interception percentage, according to pro-football-refence.com.
That's markedly better than what fans saw from Brandon Weeden, who threw 17 picks to just 14 TD's a season ago.
One way Weeden can improve is by checking down more and looking for receivers underneath. Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that Weeden talked at length recently about working on his short passing as he tries to raise his completion percentage from a disappointing 57% last year.
Keep an eye on Weeden's decision making to see if he is still trying to force the ball downfield or if he can find his tight ends and running backs for short completions.
If he is able to make the adjustments early in the preseason, Weeden could show marked improvement in his sophomore campaign. If not, Campbell could start taking snaps with the first team offense.
In the same ESPN piece, Coach Chudzinski said, "It's the preseason, we have a plan of working him and making sure that he gets reps as needed out here in practice and we build him to be ready for the beginning of the season."
This season will see an increased workload for Richardson as Turner expects Richardson to carry the ball 300 times this year, as reported by Josh Alper of NBC Sports' Pro Football Talk.
That would only be an extra 33 carries over last season for the second-year back, but that might be enough for Turner to keep his star player out for the entire preseason.
Instead, fans will see a lot of Dion Lewis. The former Eagles backup has the potential to do big things for the Browns this year, with Turner comparing him to Darren Sproles in an interview with ESPN Cleveland's Tony Grossi.
Using Lewis as a change of pace to Richardson adds a new dynamic, one that could help Richardson reach that 300 carry mark while also giving Brandon Weeden an explosive threat out of the backfield in the passing game.
Watch for Lewis to get a lot of touches, both in the running game and through the air, as Turner carves out the running back's role in this offense.
Norv Turner's New Offense
Even with Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson coming back, the Cleveland offense will have a completely new look in 2013.
With former Chargers head coach Norv Turner taking over the offensive play-calling, at least one Hall of Fame player is expecting big things for the Browns this year. Marshall Faulk recently sang Turner's praises to the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Mary Kay Cabot. Faulk said:
Unfortunately for you guys, he’s going to come in with these young guys and somebody else is going to give him another look as a head coach because he’s going to put up numbers, and he’s going to put up numbers against the Baltimore Ravens, he’s going to put up numbers against the Pittsburgh Steelers, against the Cincinnati Bengals. This is just what he does. If you give him one side of the ball and one thing to worry about, the man is great at it. He’s not a good offensive coordinator—he's a great offensive coordinator.
Browns fans will be hoping for those big numbers out of the new offensive system, and the preseason gives us a chance to at least catch a small glimpse of it.
Obviously the team is not going to pull out the full playbook until week 1, but Turner is going to have to utilize pieces of it if he is going to get a true sense for which direction the offense is heading.
How the first team offense is able to execute the playbook, at least in the first three preseason games, will give an indication of what to expect the rest of the year.
The Browns spent the sixth overall pick this year on outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo, but according to ESPN's Jamison Hensley, Mingo won't be an every-down player this year. Instead, Mingo will be used as a situational pass-rusher behind Paul Kruger and Jabaal Sheard.
With a limited workload, Mingo could provide a spark to a Browns defense that ranked 25th against the pass in 2012, according to pro-football-reference.com.
Can Mingo play his way into the starting lineup or has defensive coordinator Ray Horton already made up his mind?
As you can see in the video above, Mingo has all the phsyical tools to make a big impact, but it remains to be seen how his size and speed translate to the NFL.
With Mingo listed as a backup player entering the first preseason game, fans can expect to see a lot of him in the four exhibition games.
The way the Browns use their newest pass-rusher during the preseason could go a long way to telling whether this year's top pick can earn a spot in the starting lineup or if he will be strictly a situational threat in his rookie campaign.
Pressuring Opposing QBs
Ray Horton has a lot of new toys to play with this season. Rookie Barkevious Mingo will be joined by a slew of free-agent signings, including linebacker Paul Kruger and defensive end Desmond Bryant.
Kruger has the potential to make the biggest impact. After picking up nine sacks, one interception and one fumble last year for Batlimore, according to pro-football-reference.com, the Browns shelled out $40 million for a five-year contract.
The contract secures Kruger a spot in the starting lineup for the season opener, but fans will be watching closely to see what kind of player the team is getting. Greg Rosenthal of NFL.com noted at the time of the signing that Kruger was not effective when he didn't have Terrell Suggs on the field with him.
If the Browns' defense is going to improve, Kruger will have to show that he can be an every-down player.
Desmond Bryant is another player who will step into a starting role right away. Dan Hanzus of NFL.com noted that Bryant performed well in the pass rush last year, getting 35 pressures on the quarterback according to Pro Football Focus, fourth-best among defensive lineman.
Add Barkevious Mingo to the mix on passing downs, and the Browns pass rush looks a lot better than the one that gave up 3400 yards through the air last season.
Keep an eye on the team's pass rush during the preseason to see if the personnel changes lead to a better pass rush, and a better pass defense overall.