The NFL preseason is about learning. Teams learn new schemes, coaches learn about their players and fans learn whether or not to be optimistic.
Even through the ups and downs there are always lessons to be learned, however. Here are the 10 things we learned about the Browns this preseason.
It was pure speculation coming into the preseason whether or not Brandon Weeden could thrive under Rob Chudzinski and Norv Turner. Sure, both are offensive innovators and Turner has a track record of making mediocre talent play above their head, but would it actually work with Weeden?
The system that Turner runs is tailor-made for Weeden. Deep passes that stretch the top of the defense, tight end routes up the seam, wide open slot receivers and being in the shotgun a majority of the time should be Brandon Weeden’s strength. He showed this preseason that he may be able to execute at a high level.
Through the first two games he was 18-of-25 for 229 yards and four touchdowns. The third game against the Colts he came crashing back to earth throwing just 12-of-25 for 105 yards.
So which is the real Brandon Weeden? Most likely both, but either way he showed this preseason that he could be better in this system.
Much like Joe Haden’s suspension last season when the Browns went 0-4, they will once again lose their most talented player on one side of the ball.
This time it is Gordon for two games. You can debate that Trent Richardson is more important to the Browns offense, but certainly no player is more unique to their position than Gordon.
At 6’3” 225 pounds, Gordon has the physical tools to be a top five receiver in the league and dominated this preseason. He caught nine balls for 200 yards. No other receiver on the team even broke the 100-yard barrier.
His replacement for the first two weeks, Travis Benjamin, caught just three passes for 31 yards. While I am very high on Benjamin and his improved route running, the difference in the two players' talent levels is staggering.
Despite the fact that I just said there is a tremendous talent drop-off between Josh Gordon and Travis Benjamin, it doesn’t change the fact that he is a weapon.
When he was first drafted, Benjamin was thought of as pure speed. Experts said he was too small to truly impact a game. In just one short year he looks like one of the most dangerous young punt returners in the game and has improved his route running dramatically.
Benjamin already had great hands but showed this training camp and preseason, despite not having the stats, that he can be a weapon at the wide receiver position.
He is not an every-down wideout but will be great as a select package guy who teams will have to account for once the ball is snapped.
While the Browns defense looked very good and graded out well in the advanced analytics, it is also clear they will take quite a few chances.
Ray Horton loves to dial up zone blitzes that disrupt quarterbacks' timing and create turnovers. The only problem with blitzing is that when the players cannot get to the quarterback someone will be open or have a mismatch.
The defense allowed four yards per carry and three runs of 20 or more yards. Can the undersized duo of D’Qwell Jackson and Craig Robertson make plays on the inside? Can the unproven run defense duo of Paul Kruger and Jabaal Sheard shed blocks on the outside? Can a very thin safety unit prove they can play around the line of scrimmage? Until those questions are answered it may be tough to live via the blitz.
In the 3-4 defense, the strong safety plays a unique position. He is trusted to move all around the formation. He must help the pass defense by blitzing to force turnovers and roaming to find errant passes.
Ward, who is playing for his next contract, has the talent to turn this season into a huge payday. Players such as Troy Polamalu have made legendary careers out of their defensive freedom. The problem is he has not been healthy for an entire season since his rookie campaign.
While he started 14 games last season, he was hampered by injuries throughout the year limiting his effectiveness. If the defense loses Ward again, it is a scary scenario.
As great of a story as Josh Aubrey is, he is also an undrafted rookie. Jamoris Slaughter is on the practice squad and far from ready to contribute. Mix in the Tashaun Gipson and Johnson Bademosi combo at free safety and the position is very thin.
One of the great surprises on the defensive side of the football has been Craig Roberston. He snagged the starting inside linebacker job next to D’Qwell Jackson and wouldn’t relinquish it.
He actually played fairly well too. Often thought of as undersized, he and Jackson will be leaned upon heavily in the run game to stay off blockers and make tackles inside four yards.
While that part of his game is still somewhat a mystery, he showed this preseason he has some coverage skills. There were multiple times where Robertson was over 10 yards downfield covering a tight end or running back like a blanket.
If he can make plays in the running game, the Browns may have found a solid starter.
They say the true grade of an NFL draft happens two to three years down the road. If that is the case, Tom Heckert is failing with his late-round picks.
Guys like Brandon Weeden, Mitchell Schwartz, John Hughes, Josh Gordon, Travis Benjamin and Billy Winn are all contributing. Unfortunately, fifth-round pick James-Michael Johnson, sixth-round picks Ryan Miller and Emmanuel Acho, and seventh-round picks Trevin Wade and Brad Smelley have all been released or traded.
Every new regime brings in their own people, but the Browns have struggled with roster turnover and lack of continuity for far too long. Let’s hope this is the last roster upheaval for some time.
I felt as though Schwartz entered the top tier of right tackles in his rookie year. I think he may be approaching elite status now.
Schwartz is the perfect complement to Joe Thomas and could probably start at left tackle on most teams in the NFL. Not only is he a smart player who studies his opponents’ moves tirelessly, he also has the brute strength and athletic ability to stop them.
Long gone are the days of one good tackle on the offensive line. Most teams have two and even three elite pass-rushers, and you must be prepared. The Browns are and will be for quite some time.
While things could certainly change in the future, for the time being Haslam has not been a distraction to his team whatsoever. The scandal he is dealing with at Pilot Flying J is rarely if ever brought up around Browns practice.
His lieutenant, Joe Banner, has done a masterful job of keeping the focus on the football field, and his team of business experts have created a new excitement around the in-game experience.
Sure, the fact that the Browns’ offense looked like it has moved into the 21st century, and the defense being aggressive helped the cause. For the most part though, Haslam has kept his business problems away from his new business venture, and that’s a good sign for the team.
The roster has nine undrafted rookies and no kicker just six days before the season opener. The front office has an abundance of cap space, won’t give the starting quarterback any kind of endorsement and has already tried to temper expectations on multiple occasions.
It is not a sin to be realistic in the NFL. Jimmy Haslam, Joe Banner and Michael Lombardi know that the playoffs are in no way realistic without everything breaking their way.
They would need down seasons from Pittsburgh and Baltimore, Weeden to excel beyond their expectations and three to four more wins than expected. It doesn’t mean it can’t happen; it just means that it probably won’t.
The best-case scenario is that Weeden shows he can be serviceable for a year or two while this regime drafts and develops “their guy.” At that point the Browns can sign the players they need to take the next step into the playoffs.