What's New for the Cleveland Browns in 2013-14?
What's new for the Cleveland Browns entering this 2013 season?
It's a question that—since the franchise's return to the NFL in 1999—is usually marred around coaching and or regime upheaval. This year is no different.
However, an unusual feeling surrounds this new Browns brain trust. Young talent combined with the addition of upper echelon-calibre coordinators and a homegrown head coach has led to excited optimism.
Do plenty of question marks still remain on this club? No doubt. The third preseason game against Indianapolis highlighted that, but the pieces look to be falling into place.
Let's dive into the fresh strategies and schemes that the Dawg Pound can look forward to come opening day on September 8.
Head Coach Rob Chudzinski
Rob Chudzinski is the sixth full-time head coach for the Browns since the team returned to Cleveland as an expansion franchise in 1999.
Only Butch Davis and Romeo Crennel made it past two seasons.
A life-long Browns fan, Chudzinski brought a new type of energy and engagement to training camp. From barking with spectators to allowing players time off if fans made a field goal during a drill, there is an undeniable buzz in the air.
That's all well and good, but what does Coach Chud mean to the actual football product?
When the Chip Kelly negotiations collapsed, Chudzinski stood out because of who he could bring along with him. The 45-year old rookie head coach promised and delivered in bringing the legendary quarterback developer, Norv Turner, to Northeast Ohio as offensive coordinator.
The Toledo, Ohio native's success came as a creative offensive coordinator most recently as a member of the Carolina Panthers (2011-12) and prior to that on the Browns' sideline (2007-08).
Chudzinski helped to develop two very different quarterbacks in the super athletic Cam Newton for Carolina and the gunslinger Derek Anderson for Cleveland.
Newton flourished under Chudzinski's customized playbook in his 2011 rookie campaign by tossing for 21 touchdowns and rushing for 14 more.
Anderson benefited from a downfield attack complemented by a power running game in 2007. It was the 6'6", 240-pound signal-caller's only double-digit touchdown season (29) and the last time Cleveland reached 10 victories.
Current Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden is far closer to an Anderson type than a Newton, but now Chud can lean on the expertise of Turner.
Unlike his predecessor, Pat Shurmur, Chudzinski is delegating play-calling duties and direct QB coaching. As we all saw from Shurmur, taking on too much as a first-year sideline general can lead to terrible game-day decisions.
Adding highly respected defensive coordinator Ray Horton to his staff also gives the Miami Hurricane alum confidence that both sides of the football are in good hands.
"In Norv We Trust." That is what should be tattooed on quarterback Brandon Weeden.
New offensive coordinator Norv Turner was the most important offseason signing by the Browns and Weeden's only shot at staying a starter in the NFL.
It was as a coordinator and quarterback guru where the 61-year-old flourished throughout his illustrious career.
Weeden must pray that Turner works his magic as he did for Hall of Fame legend Troy Aikman as offensive coordinator of the Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys. The technical improvements he made while in San Francisco with Alex Smith and for Philip Rivers in San Diego were also substantial.
The phrase "vertical downfield offense" has been batted around since the beginning of 2013. It is music to the Cleveland faithful who suffered through two seasons under Pat Shurmur's bland, horizontal throwing playbook that was as predictable as the sun rising each morning.
Turner's big chunk gain strategy relies on a canon-armed quarterback, large athletic outside receivers and reliable hands in the slot.
On paper, he possesses all of that in Weeden, Josh Gordon, Greg Little and Davone Bess.
A power running game is the other integral portion of the former college QB.
Emmitt Smith, Ladainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles were all elite rushers under Turner and a key component to opposing defenses respecting the play action. This of course opened up deep ball opportunities.
Browns second-year running back Trent Richardson may very well be the most vital part of the North Carolina native's attack plan.
If Richardson becomes injured or does not pound the rock for over 1,000 yards, then defenses can lay back and take away Weeden's weapons. We would then see constant short-gain checkdowns similar to the preseason loss in Indianapolis.
With some luck and Turner's guidance, the Browns could be looking at their most successful offensive season since Chudzinski's crew in 2007 that threw for 29 touchdowns.
"Big guys that can run, little guys that can hit." That was what new defensive coordinator Ray Horton emphasized during his introductory press conference in January, via NFL.com's Kareem Copeland.
CEO Joe Banner gave him just that through free-agent signings and via the draft. The Browns' front seven 3-4 scheme base defense is filled with toys for Horton.
Changing from Dick Jauron's more reactive 4-3 strategy to Horton's pass rush-focused multifront attack has brought in new faces and given old ones different assignments.
Paul Kruger was the hot outside linebacker signing fresh off his Super Bowl victory with division rival Baltimore.
A defensive end in 2012, Jabaal Sheard is converting to a stand-up quarterback attacker opposite Kruger.
Throw in the incredibly athletic lineman Desmond Bryant as well as carryovers Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin, and there does not appear to be a weak spot in that front seven.
The secondary is where we'll see what Horton is made of.
Besides the phenomenal Joe Haden at cornerback and the hard-hitting, but often injured, strong safety T.J. Ward, the rest of Cleveland's defensive backfield is riddled with question marks.
Horton honed his craft under Pittsburgh's legendary Dick LeBeau. He then let loose his creativity as the defensive coordinator in Arizona where the cardinals ranked fifth for fewest passing yards allowed at 200.8 in 2012.
The key for this former NFL cornerback's game plan to succeed is that the passer must be hurried. Shortening the decision-making process for the signal-caller via a variety of formations, fakes and substitutions are all a part of it.
However, what happens when a quarterback does get the ball out into the secondary?
Buster Skrine is the leading candidate to be the other outside corner across from Haden. He's demonstrated improvement during training camp but did look overwhelmed in the same role last season and took a large amount of penalties.
Chris Owens was a free agent brought in for a one-year deal to battle for that job coming from Atlanta. When healthy, he has appeared solid, but injuries have kept him in and out of the lineup.
Leon McFadden worked through some training camp ailments as well, which makes it tough for a rookie to wrestle a position away from veterans like Skrine and Owens.
The free safety spot has new unproven faces in starter Tashaun Gipson, backup Johnson Bademosi and 2013 sixth-round selection Jamoris Slaughter. Plenty of potential, but there are sure to be growing pains.
Horton is relying on the athleticism of his defensive backs to hang tight in man-to-man coverage and pounce on turnover opportunities created by that potentially potent pass rush.
Offseason Acquisition: Davone Bess
What has been missing on the Cleveland Browns offense since the departure of Joe Jurevicius after 2007? A slot receiver who could convert third downs.
Enter Davone Bess.
The five-year pro was acquired via trade from the Miami Dolphins for a pair of picks in this past draft.
Cleveland is most interested in Bess' 2012 stats of 38 first downs and average of 12.8 yards per reception.
No. 15 is also known as a good locker room presence and can hopefully help guide the sometimes reckless young receivers Josh Gordon and Greg Little.
At 27, Bess is far from being just a role player. He's caught over 50 passes each season and will be a vital tool in the arsenal of offensive coordinator Norv Turner and quarterback Brandon Weeden.
The high-profile player additions all went to the defense, but Bess can easily carve himself out as the most reliable threat that this inexperienced offense has at its disposal.
Top Free-Agent Signing: Paul Kruger
Call him the $40.485 million man. That's what it took to make Paul Kruger a Cleveland Brown for the next five seasons.
Coming off of a career year with the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, the pressure is on for Kruger to become the leading pass-rusher on Horton's 3-4 defense.
The 27-year-old busted out for 9.0 sacks, 42 combined tackles, one interception and a forced fumble in 2012. He really stepped up during Baltimore's playoff run by contributing an additional 4.5 sacks and 14 tackles.
Over the past several months, a variety of critics have commented that Kruger's numbers fell off when Terrell Suggs was out due to injury in 2012.
Browns fans should not be concerned about that because Kruger is not going to be alone.
The 6'4" Idaho native will have Sheard, Quentin Groves and Barkevious Mingo (if healthy) as outside linebackers to help him out.
The former Utah Ute emphasized during his introductory press conference that he wants to be counted on in every type of situation in Cleveland, via Mary Kay Cabot of The Plain Dealer:
That's the biggest thing I want to change, is just being somebody you can rely on during the whole game. I think that I was deemed as a pass-rusher only and it's something I think I'll be able to show people, I can be effective on every snap.
Horton's multifront schemes should create havoc and pressure that will benefit a quarterback-gobbling monster like Kruger.
Other Important Free-Agent Signings
Cleveland's front office delivered several other calculated free-agent signings. Below are the three most important, and their contract figures are provided courtesy of Spotrac.com.
Desmond Bryant (5 years/$34 million)
Legal trouble and amusing mugshot aside, Desmond Bryant was brought in as an upgrade to an already strong defensive line.
Nine sacks and 71 total tackles over the past two seasons is in large part due to his super athletic 6'6", 310-pound frame.
Adding Bryant to the group of Phil Taylor, Ahtyba Rubin, Billy Winn and John Hughes gives the Browns incredible versatility. It also allows for defensive coordinator Horton to mix and match in his multiple-look schemes.
The fifth-year pro has suffered through nagging back spasms during training camp but should be ready to go for opening day.
Quentin Groves (2 years/$2.28 million)
This is the most understated signing of the offseason.
Quentin Groves' immediate value comes in that he played for Horton in Arizona last season and can be plugged into his system here in Cleveland.
Groves can guide the other outside linebackers as to what Horton expects and what his creative schemes are all about. He also carved out his best NFL season under the defensive coordinator.
Groves provides value as a hard-nosed special teams contributor as well as a suitable starter in the front seven in a pinch.
Jason Campbell (2 years/$3.75 million)
Whether anyone really believed that Jason Campbell was acquired to compete for the starting quarterback job with Weeden is the topic for another article. He was, however, brought in as an insurance policy.
The big-armed 6'5" gunslinger would be a suitable band-aid if Weeden falls flat or gets injured.
With Weeden officially named the team's starter before the third preseason game, Campbell gets ready to take on more of a mentor role.
Campbell's 72 career starts and a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 76-52 provides the experience to be, at the very least, a suitable substitution.
Andy McNamara is an international sports broadcaster and journalist.
Follow Andy on Twitter @AndyMc81.