NFL Whirlwind Previews: Cleveland Browns

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NFL Whirlwind Previews: Cleveland Browns
(Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Cheer up, Cleveland! Things could be worse...

Oh, who am I kidding? You guys up by the lake have had it rough; rougher than any other city in the States.

But you know what? There really is reason to feel good about your Browns. No, there's no real chance for the postseason this coming campaign, and no, you guys won't be a dominant offensive or defensive team.

But ownership does finally have it's head on straight, and recent drafts and roster decisions have you lookin' not so bad at all to more than a few analysts.

You're sick of hearing this, but give it some time, and you'll be pleased.

 

Offense: Alright Already

It took long enough, but the Browns seem to finally have determined their direction on O. It all started with head coach Eric Mangini making it clear early in spring that he favors Brady Quinn in the battle for starting quarterback.

It's not that Quinn's been that impressive when he has gotten snaps, but moving forward with the signal-caller position is paramount. Brady deserves a chance after being drafted so high a couple years ago, and if that chance happens to come now, that's just fine. Derek Anderson is still here just in case, though now that he's a backup, he's ridiculously overpaid.

Brady certainly won't be able to fault his protection if he fails; the O-line is a definite strength of this club, and I'm not just referring to cornerstone LT Joe Thomas (what a brilliant pick that's turned out to be, huh?).

LG Eric Steinbach deserves all the credit he gets, and the two right spots will be well-manned by a combo of any of the following (in order of probable depth listing): Floyd Womack, Ryan Tucker, John St. Clair, and Rex Hadnot. All of these guys are flexible enough to go between both tackle and guard, as are both center candidates, the first-year favorite Alex Mack and incumbent Hank Fraley.

Also easing the former Irish's (true) introduction will be his talented corps of targets. Even if worst comes to worst in the Stallworth situation, Braylon Edwards will be complemented by someone competent: Word is Brian Robiskie currently holds the slight edge for the No. 2 role, but David Patten is definitely capable.

Too bad that optimism can't be stretched to the ground game. Jamal Lewis had a bit of a career revival in 2007 after arriving from Baltimore, but he regressed last season to the tune of about 400 yards fewer than the previous year. All indications are that it isn't a physical matter at all; seems Lewis must build up his self-belief and trust in teammates to take the next step.

The good news is that apparently Jerome Harrison has been running with the first unit in OTAs, and rookie James Davis appears to be a serviceable worker. I doubt either was meant to be a feature back in the League, but they may well get an opportunity to carry a lot.

The tight end position is doing just fine, despite the departure of Kellen Winslow. The starter will be one of two experienced and well-rounded guys: either Robert Royal (the more likely) or Steve Heiden (an "on-field coach" type). Expect to see both, though, sometimes on the field together.

The talent is there, at least in the arena of the air, but with Quinn taking so much on his shoulders at once, consistent production is not a promise.

 

Defense: Generic Brand's Just As Good

I bet you know Shaun Rogers, former Lions nose tackle, who came over to Cleveland last season and did just fine in his new home (don't listen to all the haters; he was an anchor and posted a four sacks despite chaos around him).

At the same time, I'd also wager that you don't know a whole lot of other Brown defenders. That's OK; their names aren't all that well-known, but they are creeping into the spotlight. This D ranked a respectable 17th last year, but you'll recognize a couple more of these guys soon enough.

On either side of Rogers could be any number of starting-caliber ends. Everybody's got 'em ranked differently right now (makes sense considering how early it is), but I'll give you my stab at the rotation: Look for Kenyon Coleman and Corey Williams to be your Week One starters, backed up by Shaun Smith and C.J. Mosley (and maybe even Robaire Smith, depending on how he does up until then).

No matter who's out there, though, the unit will be improved over last season simply because Rogers will be more comfortable and the increased competition will push each individual. But on to the 'backing corps, which is less of a circus, more set-in-stone, and might just have even more potential than the corral of linemen.

First off, you got D'Qwell Jackson, a star in waiting. He led the team in solo tackles in '08 (95!) and has quickly matured into a leader. He'll be even better this year for having former Jet Eric Barton next to him on the inside, and behind them both is promising Beau Bell.

Outside there's David Bowens (also a former Meadowlands denizen) and a name you know for the wrong reasons to this point, Kamerion Wimbley. The hope is that Mangini can milk the best out of the already-proclaimed bust, but Alex Hall is fresh and energetic behind him should he falter for the last time. I've personally got some confidence in Wimbley, though; 52 solos and four sacks last season showed more promise than any of his previous numbers.

So all that's left is the secondary, and I can sum up up their penchant for performance pretty easily. How's about three of the team's top six tacklers came from that unit, and it was a down year for two of them?

CBs Brandon McDonald and Eric Wright along with strong safety Brodney Pool were all pretty productive in '08 and made pass defense the only category in which Cleveland ranked in the top half of the league. The two former were supposedly having their "sophomore slumps," yet still pulled off 64 and 61 solo tackles, respectively, and McDonald had five picks.

The starting free safety spot will almost surely go to Abram Elam (yet another acquisition from the Jets, and perhaps the most important), though Mike Adams will get burn too.

In summary, the faces on this defense are not all that familiar, but just watch the progress they make under defensive coordinator Rob Ryan (a former Pats LB coach).

 

Overall Outlook: I Will Promise You Something

The Browns won't be nearly as painful to watch this year as they were in '08 (or '06, or '05...).

Ha, not quite the playoff guarantee you were looking for, right? Well, what about record?

The .500 mark would be so doable if it weren't for some teams named "Steelers" and "Ravens" appearing twice apiece on the schedule. But there's always the Bungals (who are headed in the opposite direction of this Cleveland franchise) to beat up on, and there are other winnables out there (the Chiefs, Raiders, and Bills all appear).

Keep the candle burning, Cleveland. I for one will refrain from using the phrase "Mistake by the Lake" as long as guys are developing and the brass seem interested in improvement.

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