Projecting the Cleveland Browns' Starting Lineup Before the 2014 Draft

Will Burge@WillBurgeContributor IApril 30, 2014

Projecting the Cleveland Browns' Starting Lineup Before the 2014 Draft

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    As we approach the NFL draft, there is a ton of talk about needs for each team. For the Cleveland Browns, there are perceived needs all over the field. Those needs become much clearer when you map out the current depth chart.

    Any free-agent acquisition of substance has already been made, and the only meaningful additions left will happen through the draft.

    It is always interesting to see the depth chart before the draft. Could the Browns compete for the playoffs with the roster as is? No, they probably could not, but they also do not seem that far away.

    The biggest question mark remains at the quarterback position. If Brian Hoyer can take steps toward becoming a legitimate starter, the Browns could be in good shape. Or perhaps, if they hit a home run with the quarterback they draft, they could be even better.

    Either way, a good foundation has been built. Let’s check out the Browns' projected starters before the May 8-10 draft.

Quarterback: Brian Hoyer

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    The Browns' starting quarterback for now is obviously Brian Hoyer. He is one of two quarterbacks currently on the roster and the only one with NFL starts under his belt.

    “Until someone tells me otherwise, I think I’m the starter for this team,” Hoyer said to Mary Kay Cabot of The Cleveland Plain Dealer.

    That is exactly how he should feel, at least until the draft. If the Browns select a quarterback with the fourth overall pick, it will be hard to keep him on the bench.

    #browns Pettine said he hopes to avoid starting a rookie qB right away, even if he takes one at no. 4.

    — Mary Kay Cabot (@MaryKayCabot) April 29, 2014

    It is easy for head coach Mike Pettine to say he wants to sit a rookie quarterback now before he is on the roster. If the Browns select one with the fourth overall pick, especially if his name is Johnny Manziel, it will be much tougher.

Running Back: Ben Tate

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    Unless Ben Tate sustains an injury in training camp or the preseason, he has no competition for the starting running back position. The Browns gave Tate a two-year, $6.2 million deal to come in and be their offensive workhorse.

    Tate told Tom Reed of on Tuesday:

    I feel like things are going to turn around here and just give me an opportunity to really show my real worth. That's why my deal is short because I want to show (general manager) Ray Farmer and whoever else and (owner) Mr. Haslam that I am this guy. After I do show that then I'll be here for a long time.

    Behind Tate is where the position really opens up. The Browns still have Edwin Baker, Fozzy Whittaker, Dion Lewis and Jamaine Cook on the roster. They will all compete with whomever else the Browns draft for the third-down running back spot.

    Lewis was impressive last year through camp, but he never made it to the season. The early favorite to nab that spot would have to be Baker, who outperformed the rest of this bunch last season. In three games, he had 171 yards and two touchdowns.

Wide Receivers: Josh Gordon, Greg Little and Andrew Hawkins

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    I know that people just threw things at their computer screen because they read that Greg Little is the current second receiver on the depth chart. I’m sorry, but he is.

    The Browns signed Nate Burleson this offseason, and he could very well end up as the second receiver. For now, however, he is a 32-year-old trying to return from a season-ending injury after starting just 13 games the last two years combined.

    I will believe he is the second receiver when I see him stay healthy.

    He probably will not get the chance, though. The Browns will draft a receiver in May, and that guy will likely be groomed for the second spot.

    When it comes time to play in Pittsburgh in Week 1, I doubt Little will be on the roster, and whoever starts opposite Josh Gordon will be a rookie. Burleson will end up as wide receiver depth more than anything.

Tight End: Jordan Cameron

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    Jordan Cameron had a breakout year in 2013. He caught 80 passes for 917 yards and eight touchdowns and made the Pro Bowl. He is the undisputed starter entering next season and deserves a contract extension.

    He is set to make just $1.5 million in the final year of his deal, and there have been reports that he may want out.

    Tony Grossi of reported this week that Cameron has already rejected two contract offers. He also says that it has less to do with the money and more to do with wanting to play on the West Coast, where his son lives.

    “That’s business stuff,” Cameron said to the media on Tuesday. “I can’t think about that. I’ve got the season to play and my business people handle that. I can’t really say anything about it. I’ve got to play hard and really focus on this right now.”

    Either way, the Browns have him for another full season. Let’s just hope any lingering contract issues do not stunt his growth on the field.

Offensive Line: Thomas, McQuistan, Mack, Pinkston and Schwartz

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    When the Browns signed Paul McQuistan this offseason, they instantly upgraded their offensive line. This is not because he is a lock as a starter, but because he will create some heavy competition in training camp.

    He started 30 of 32 games for the Seattle Seahawks over the past two seasons.

    Since Shawn Lauvao signed with Washington, the other guard spot is up for grabs between John Greco and Jason Pinkston. If Pinkston finally enters a season healthy, I think he wins the job no problem.

    Of course, all of this is before the draft. I expect the Browns to add a guard in the early rounds who will push for a starting job.

    At right tackle, many thought the Browns could pursue a different option and try to move Mitchell Schwartz to the inside. Pettine quickly dispelled those rumors on Tuesday. 

    #browns Pettine: "I don't really see (offensive) tackle as a position of need."

    — Mary Kay Cabot (@MaryKayCabot) April 29, 2014

Defensive Line: Desmond Bryant, Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    This is one of the deepest points of the Browns roster. Last season they signed Desmond Bryant, and he was having a very productive season before he was placed on the injured reserve with an irregular heartbeat.

    Bryant has since been cleared by doctors and is back at voluntary minicamp.

    #browns DE Desmond Bryant at minicamp today after missing tues for a personal reason, not the heart ablation.

    — Mary Kay Cabot (@MaryKayCabot) April 30, 2014

    His return firmly cements him into a starting role. Phil Taylor will receiver the bulk of the snaps at the nose tackle position. He has played at a very high level the past two seasons.

    The other starting spot, which is currently occupied by Ahtyba Rubin, could change hands. For one, John Hughes made the most of his limited opportunities last season. If he or Billy Winn can prove they are starter-worthy, then Rubin could be shown the door.

    He is slated to make $6.6 million this season, and if the roster needs to lose a lineman, Rubin could be the guy.

Linebackers: Barkevious Mingo, Karlos Dansby, Craig Robertson and Paul Kruger

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The Browns' linebacker unit did not perform up to what the team had hoped last season. The plan was for Barkevious Mingo to learn the ropes behind Jabaal Sheard and for Paul Kruger to be the steady veteran.

    Unfortunately, Sheard spent most of the year injured, forcing Mingo into extended snaps, and Kruger had very little impact. They all need to step up this year.

    As for the inside linebackers, it will be a completely different group of starters when the team reaches Week 1. Right now the newly signed Karlos Dansby will be starting next to Craig Robertson, but that will not last.

    Robertson was one of the weakest links on the field last season, and the Browns will likely draft his replacement soon. If they are forced to enter the season with Robertson, then they will need to strategically hide his coverage weaknesses.

Cornerbacks: Joe Haden and Buster Skrine

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    There is a reason that most of the mock drafts you see have the Browns selecting a cornerback in the first two rounds of the upcoming draft. They need someone to start opposite Pro Bowler Joe Haden.

    Sure, Buster Skrine played well last season. He had 55 tackles, 18 passes defensed, one sack and one interception. More importantly, he was not getting beat deep for touchdowns every other week. That is a very solid year.

    In Pettine’s defense, however, solid is not good enough for the starting cornerbacks. If the Browns can draft someone to step into the second cornerback spot and move Skrine back inside to the nickel, they would be better served.

    In today’s NFL, most teams use three-wide receiver packages for their base offense, so essentially Skrine would still be a starter. The Browns just need some more depth and someone who can handle the opponent’s secondary receiver on a weekly basis.

Safeties: Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    He may not be legally changing his last name to Hitner anymore, but the Browns are still hoping that personality will be part of Donte Whitner’s game.

    He was brought in for $28 million over four years, and the Browns need him to play at least to the level T.J. Ward did last season. He has been healthy for the past four seasons, starting all but one game.

    He is also coming off one of his most productive seasons. He had 63 tackles, two forced fumbles and two interceptions. If he can duplicate that year, then the Browns will be OK.

    Tashaun Gipson is the starter at the free safety position and rightly so. He was a huge question mark at the start of the 2013 season but became one of the most reliable positions on the defense by the end. He finished the year with 12 passes defensed and five interceptions.

    The Browns do need some depth at this position, though. They are one injury away from a special teams player starting. Drafting a safety in the middle rounds to work behind Whitner and Gipson will probably be the plan of attack in the draft.