Breaking Down All the New Faces on the 2014 Cleveland Browns
As we inch our way closer to the start of the 2014 season, it's important that we understand each component of the Cleveland Browns roster.
The change that management implemented this past offseason to bring in new faces and mesh them together with familiar ones was a strategic decision.
If the Browns want to compete in the AFC North right away, it's going to be crucial for these new guys to step in and make their presence felt on a weekly basis.
It's now time to check out all of the bodies that have been affixed to this roster.
Breaking down their schematic fits, chances of playing and overall expectations, here's a look at the new faces who have joined the Cleveland Browns in 2014.
CB Justin Gilbert
The Browns used their first draft pick on Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert.
To the surprise of many—a lot of mock drafts had the team going quarterback or wide receiver early on—Farmer and head coach Mike Pettine went down a completely different path.
Adding Gilbert, though surprising, was a fantastic move. He may not be the most polished cornerback in the 2014 draft, but his playmaking ability and upside are second to none.
WalterFootball.com's Charlie Campbell talked about why Gilbert was being regarded as such a high draft pick:
For the NFL, Gilbert projects to being a No. 1 cornerback. He can line up in man coverage and take on the other team's best receiver. Gilbert has the size to match up on big receivers and the speed to run with deep threats downfield. He is very good in bump-and-run and also excels in off-man coverage. Gilbert is very fast with the athleticism to turn and run with receivers to not allow separation. His loose hips allow him to flip around to stay with them in and out of their breaks to maintain coverage.
Assuming that projection holds true, it's easy to picture him as the team's No. 2 cornerback coming out of training camp.
Outside of Joe Haden, he's the most polished and dangerous defensive back on the roster.
For all of the things he does right on the field, the beauty of Gilbert comes off the field. He's a humble personality who always focuses on the task ahead.
"I'm a person that doesn't really like to be in the spotlight a lot," Gilbert told Lindsay H. Jones of USA Today.
With Haden and his $67.5 million contract out there and Johnny Manziel on the roster, that media spotlight is going to be far away from Gilbert. Thankfully, that seems to be the way he likes it.
QB Johnny Manziel
All of us understood that when the Browns took Johnny Manziel late in the first round that heads were going to roll.
He has been a media magnet for three years now. Like it or not, he commands the attention of each and every media outlet that has its nose in sports.
Already, Johnny Football has been plastered all over the Internet doing Johnny Football things.
For all the Russell Wilson types we have in this world, there are plenty of 21-year-old guys who like to party. In the end, all that matters is how Manziel performs on the field.
He's a young guy doing what young guys do, and he's enjoying life. He's had some opportunities to do some pretty cool things -- sitting courtside at games and whatnot -- but he can't control the people taking pictures of him. He can't control the people wanting to be around him. He can control where he's at, and I'm sure he learned a little more about some of the reaction he's going to get when he does go to Vegas or whatnot.
The battle in camp between Manziel and incumbent starter Brian Hoyer will be the most talked-about quarterback duel this summer.
Coach Pettine may be saying that Hoyer is "securely ahead" of Manziel right now, per Lindsay H. Jones of USA Today, but that doesn't mean he's a lock to start in September.
Manziel will compete this summer and push Hoyer to the brink. The rookie is the future of this franchise. Whether he winds up starting on Day 1 or not, it is just delaying the inevitable.
OL Joel Bitonio
Say what you want about the level of dysfunction within the Browns front office, but Ray Farmer had one heck of a draft on paper earlier this year.
After landing Justin Gilbert and Johnny Manziel in Round 1, the Cleveland general manager added Nevada offensive lineman Joel Bitonio to help shore up an already impactful line.
The offensive line has anchors on it. Left tackle Joe Thomas could be the top tackle in the NFL today, while center Alex Mack is one of the game's most dominant centers.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) ranked the team as the NFL's fifth-best when it came to pass protection last season.
The one area this team must find a way to improve is in creating lanes for running backs.
Looking at PFF's totals, outside of Thomas and Mack, all of the other offensive linemen finished with negative run-blocking grades in 2013.
He may have played tackle in college, but NFL.com's Nolan Nawrocki wrote that he "projects best to the inside in the pros."
The Browns could use some help on the inside to create space for running backs Ben Tate and Terrance West. Bitonio has the strength, nastiness and power to help further that cause.
From all the news we've heard to date, it seems like the Browns want to play Bitonio at left guard. Former Browns GM and now Executive Director of Reese's Senior Bowl Phil Savage tweeted that piece of information.
That's a great spot for this 302-pound rookie to go out and make a name for himself.
RB Terrance West
Now that Trent Richardson is gone, the running back corps is looking a whole lot better heading into the upcoming season.
After signing free-agent halfback Ben Tate this offseason and drafting Terrance West in the third round, the Browns have a versatility duo that will complement each other and keep opposing defenses on their toes.
Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's zone-blocking scheme will give both Tate and West a ton of opportunities to build their stats and rip off huge runs.
Last season the Browns' ground game was putrid, finishing 2013 as the 27th-ranked rushing attack. There were no signs of life on that front.
Shanahan's new system alone should provide a spark in the backfield.
West's role in this offense should be significant. He can catch passes as well as power through and find holes.
The duel for who will be listed as the top back will be intense this summer. West will push Tate, even though the veteran says the battle for the starting job is "really not anything" to Mary Kay Cabot of The Plain Dealer.
Whether he starts or not, expect West to get plenty of touches as the Browns work to establish their running game.
LB Christian Kirksey
Coach Pettine's defense praises versatile players. Iowa linebacker Christian Kirksey is as versatile as they come.
He is a natural athlete who can move around the field and make plays. Derek Stephens of NFLDraftScout.com (h/t CBSSports.com) talked about how that ability makes him dangerous:
As perhaps the most athletic member of one of the nation's top linebacker trios (James Morris and Anthony Hitchens) in 2013, Kirksey showed significant improvement against the run over what we had seen in previous years, and demonstrated the versatility to play up on the line or in the slot with effectiveness.
Right now the Browns have a strong group of linebackers they can rely on. Veteran Karlos Dansby leads a pack of players that includes Barkevious Mingo, Jabaal Sheard and Paul Kruger.
Kirksey and his diverse skill set fit well into that group—so much so that Fox Sports Ohio writer Fred Greetham said that Coach Pettine decided to release veteran linebacker Quentin Groves because of how well Kirksey was coming along.
Even though he won't be listed as a starter, there's a good chance the former Iowa standout will be involved right away—especially in nickel packages.
CB Pierre Desir
The continued and unwavering effort to rebuild the Browns secondary didn't stop with Justin Gilbert. Fellow rookie Pierre Desir was nabbed in the fourth round of the draft to be a factor as well.
Desir isn't Gilbert.
He didn't go to a prestigious program like Oklahoma State. He doesn't have Mario Kart-like speed—though he did post a 4.59-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine.
But what he does have is a unique combination of length and explosiveness.
At 6'1", 198 pounds, he's fluid with his movements and can disrupt wide receivers at the line of scrimmage.
His skill set may make him a better fit in a zone-coverage scheme, but that didn't deter the Browns from making a play for him during the draft.
Coach Pettine is a sophisticated defensive mind who understands how to move talent around in order for his defense to be effective. That factor alone should alleviate the fear of how Desir's game will translate to the Browns scheme.
The good news is that Desir has a much more imposing skill set than, say, cornerback Buster Skrine, and once he puts a good coat of polish on his game, he should be able to see the field often.
RB Ben Tate
Tate comes to Cleveland with aspirations to be the lead back. Without former first-round pick Trent Richardson consuming carries, the former Texan should be the favorite to take command over the position.
I spoke earlier about Tate facing competition this summer from rookie running back Terrance West. Tate is unfazed by the idea that there even is the threat of competition.
Browns running back coach Wilbert Montgomery talked about why he believes Tate needs to be the leader of this running backs group, per Kevin Jones of ClevelandBrowns.com: "It’s time for him to put the jacket on and the cap on and say, 'Hey I’m the leader of this room.'"
Tate is going to have to put forth a valiant effort if he wants to hold down the starting job long term. His fellow stablemate West is a prolific runner in his own right who will warrant carries as the season wears on.
Based on what we saw in Houston over the last couple of seasons, Tate should do well in Shanahan's zone-blocking scheme.
Coming from a system where Texans former head coach Gary Kubiak preached a similar philosophy, Tate won't have a steep learning curve moving forward.
QB Tyler Thigpen
Veteran quarterback Tyler Thigpen is going to be in for a fight if he wants to be the Browns No. 3 quarterback by the time the regular season starts.
He is a seven-year player who once started 14 games for the Kansas City Chiefs during the 2008 season.
He isn't a mobile quarterback by definition, but he's an underrated athlete who has the tools needed to evade pressure when the pocket starts to fold.
The 30-year-old QB won't make any sort of push for the starting job this season. Instead, his wealth of experience gives him a shot to be the third-string option.
In order to hold down that spot, he'll have to outwork undrafted free agent Connor Shaw in the coming weeks.
WR Miles Austin
The biggest area of need for the Browns is still at the wide receiver position.
The impending suspension of pass-catcher Josh Gordon has really hurt the outlook of this offensive attack through the air.
Looking for ways to clog up that leak, the Browns started their hunt for experienced wide receivers during free agency.
Just a few seasons ago Miles Austin was one of the league's most productive players at his position. Piecing together back-to-back 1,000-yard efforts in 2009 and 2010, he came out of nowhere and took the league by storm.
Since that awesome run, his only other good season came in 2012. Playing in all 16 games, he finished with 943 yards receiving and seven touchdowns on 66 receptions.
Injuries are the real concern with the 29-year-old at this time.
The 2013 season put an end to his career with the Dallas Cowboys after he limped his way to 24-catch season for just 244 yards in 11 games.
It's unrealistic to expect him to be a top-flight wide receiver anymore. The best-case scenario is that he remains healthy and plays more than 12 games in 2014.
If that's the case—and it's a big if—it's not ludicrous to project him finding a way to reach 700 receiving yards and a couple of touchdowns.
S Donte Whitner
Losing safety T.J. Ward to the aggressive Denver Broncos wasn't great for the Browns secondary. Luckily, they were able to go out and sign veteran Donte Whitner to take his place.
From Pro Football Focus' angle, Whitner's production wasn't too far off Ward's in 2013.
Ward graded out as the league's third-best safety, while Whitner finished as the NFL's fifth-best option.
Surprisingly, the cumulative formula that grades how well a player does in pass defense actually gave the edge to Whitner. For a guy who's been labeled a big-time hitter, that piece of information may take you off guard.
Whitner's best and brightest asset as a player isn't the fact that he's still playing football at an incredibly high level. It's that he's a fearless leader who is coming off a tenure with the San Francisco 49ers—one of the NFL's best teams.
"There’s not a lot of these players anymore: he is a follow-me-or-else, leader," Browns defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil said to Kevin Jones of ClevelandBrowns.com.
LB Karlos Dansby
The lifeblood for the Browns this season is going to be their defense. In order for that defense to thrive, you need an anchor.
Karlos Dansby has the best shot of all the Browns' recent free-agent additions to be that guy.
He is coming off an impressive season of helping turn the Arizona Cardinals into one of the league's top defensive units. As a group, the Cardinals finished the 2013 season as the NFL's top-ranked run defense, surrendering just 84.4 yards per game.
Pro Football Focus took a detailed look at just how good Dansby was for the Cardinals. Finishing up the year with a positive 12.3 grade, he was balanced and efficient in all areas of the field.
The Browns need a steady presence in the middle of their 3-4 alignment now that D'Qwell Jackson is gone. Dansby may be two years older than Jackson, but his statistical output has always been on point.
Coach Pettine and this coaching staff got a great addition to help guide, mold and influence this young defense.
WR Andrew Hawkins
The renovation process of the wide receiving corps found another asset when the team snagged the speedy Andrew Hawkins in free agency.
He isn't a big, tall, physical wide receiver by any stretch of the imagination. What he does best on the field is use his quickness and route-running prowess to find space in the secondary and make plays.
The Browns seem to be thrilled already with what they've seen out of the 28-year-old wide receiver. Quarterback Brian Hoyer told Mary Kay Cabot of The Plain Dealer:
The guy runs his routes so hard. It reminds me a lot of my time in New England with Welker, where the guy runs every route to win. He's going full blast. You see him out there and you can tell when he walks back to the huddle, he gave his all on every play. He's just a competitor, and I think the more guys you get like that, the better your team becomes.
The praise didn't stop there. "I'd rather guard (Josh) Gordon than him. He's so little and quick. Those guys are hard to get a handle on. He's out there making plays every day," cornerback Justin Gilbert mentioned to Cabot.
Preferring to guard a dominant threat like Gordon instead of Hawkins may be a bit of a reach. Still, it shows that Hawkins will be a critical part of the Browns' aerial attack.
Working primarily out of the slot, he is the early favorite to lead the Browns in receptions at the end of the season.
WR Nate Burleson
The more wide receivers, the merrier. That seems to be the mindset of the Browns regime right now.
Veteran Nate Burleson at this stage in his career is a move-the-chains, possession type of wide receiver who can produce in spurts.
Signing him was a great decision.
Despite not being a downfield threat, he still has enough in the tank to help this offense move the football.
In 2011 he was fantastic for the Detroit Lions, picking up 73 receptions for 757 yards and three touchdowns. That level of production is in the past, but being a possession wide receiver with good hands makes him a "safe" target.
Like some of the other veterans who have joined the Browns, Burleson has a way of being effective in the locker room.
"Burleson was not a captain in Detroit, but he was among the team's most visible and vocal leaders," Kyle Meinke of MLive.com wrote.
The Browns need as much leadership as they can get their hands on as they head into training camp.
Burleson's voice will be a welcome addition inside of that organization.
RB Isaiah Crowell
When you talk about players with a lot of talent, running back Isaiah Crowell is one name you can't overlook.
If you don't know his story by now, he was a 5-star recruit who played at the University of Georgia.
After bursting onto the scene and taking home SEC Freshman of the Year honors in 2011, he was removed from the program because of off-the-field issues.
He landed with Alabama State after that and continued to play well on the field. He chugged along to the tune of 1,943 yards and 30 touchdowns in two seasons.
After he went undrafted, the Browns scooped him up and brought him in to compete for a roster spot.
It's doubtful he will outplay Terrance West and assume backup duties, but he does have more than enough upside to wind up as the No. 3 running back when training camp and the preseason reach their conclusion.
QB Connor Shaw
Former South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw was another undrafted free agent whom the Browns were able to bring in after the 2014 NFL draft concluded.
He played four seasons as the starter for the Gamecocks.
He isn't a strong-armed quarterback who can drive the ball all over the gridiron. Instead, what Shaw does best is use his mobility to create space in the pocket, which allows him to see the field and put the football on the money, thanks to his outstanding touch.
Right now, he is set to battle Tyler Thigpen as the third-string option this summer. Because of his youth and football IQ, there's a good chance that he will have no issues unseating the veteran.