Thursday Roundup: Cleveland Browns' Potential and Breakouts Edition

Jabber HeadSenior Analyst IJuly 10, 2009

As the long weeks leading up to training camp slowly begin to dissipate, and much like the legitimacy of a Phil Dawson holdout, prognosticators are beginning to unsheathe their sharp knives, readying for the possible realities that lie ahead.

Or, in other words, the suspense is killing me. What is this team going to look like in 2009?

On the surface, the Browns are entering another regime change and have questions at almost every position among the roster. Although the arrival of Eric Mangini signals that this often directionless franchise headquartered in Berea finally has some much-needed order and stability, it is impossible to predict what kind of success the team will experience in 2009.

The most ideal scenario for the Browns would parallel Mangini’s initial success with the Jets in 2006, when the littlest version of Bill Parcells led his team to a surprise playoff appearance. Mangini brought a change in culture to New York, replacing the more cuddly Herman Edwards and installing more accountability to the Jet franchise.

Let’s hope that Mangini can have similar success in Cleveland, as he replaces the loveable Uncle Romeo and puts his own unique and pesky stamp on the Browns.

As is often the case in sports and life, success will ultimately be determined by the level of talent on the field. For the Browns in 2009, there is a strange pot brewing, as the untested will be lumped into a framework of battle-tested veterans, along with a diminishing base of core players.

The on-field result is impossible to predict, especially during the second week of July. But in the meantime, one lingering question will remain heading into training camp and beyond: Who will emerge in 2009 as a key player as we dive into yet anoter new chapter of rebirth?

AFC North’s Breakout Players

In a division filled with quality defenses, it was only fitting that a young, up-and-coming linebacker caught the most attention of his AFC North peers.

In the closest vote of the entire player survey, Cincinnati Bengals second-year linebacker Keith Rivers edged linebacker Lawrence Timmons of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns quarterback Brady Quinn by one vote to become the 2009 pick for breakout player.

Not to belittle Quinn, but obviously, if he wins the starting quarterback job in Cleveland, he is destined for a breakout year merely based on the volume of playing time he will receive. Production aside, Quinn’s 2009 season could be evaluated more in terms of survival and avoiding disaster, rather than by completion percentage or yardage.

As I have stated before, Quinn is essentially auditioning to be the quarterback not just in 2009, but for the remainder of Eric Mangini’s tenure in Cleveland. Unfortunately for Quinn, the talent surrounding him on offense will make this extended interview a difficult environment to succeed in.

AFC North Breakout Player

As voted by 32 anonymous players in the division:
Player Pos. Team Votes

1. Keith Rivers LB Bengals 6
(Tie) 2. Lawrence Timmons LB Steelers 5
Brady Quinn QB Browns 5
4. Brian Robiskie WR Browns 3
(Tie) 5. D’Qwell Jackson LB Browns 2
Chris Henry WR Bengals 2
Joe Flacco QB Ravens 2
(tie) 8. Cedric Benson RB Bengals 1
Limas Sweed WR Steelers 1
Eric Wright CB Browns 1
Rey Maualuga LB Bengals 1
Carey Davis FB Steelers 1
Santonio Holmes WR Steelers 1
Syndric Steptoe WR Browns 1
* Note: Players surveyed could not vote for themselves or teammates.

I think the same case could be made for rookie wideout Brian Robiskie. Although historically, rookie wide receivers not named Randy Moss tend to struggle in their introduction to the NFL, Robiskie will benefit from the alarmingly thin depth at the position in Cleveland.

Much like Quinn will benefit from merely getting snaps, it is not a stretch to suggest that Robiskie could contribute 30-40 catches to the offense in 2009.

Said one future opponent of the rookie Robiskie: “He’s a polished receiver and his dad [Terry] being a coach will help his learning process.”

Again, it’s a stretch to suggest that a rookie receiver is already “polished.” Robiskie still has a steep learning curve, although the popular sentiment is that his pedigree should help him succeed. Let’s hope so.

If not Robiskie, then who?

Oh right, Syndric Steptoe. Really? Syndric? An “anonymous” player voted for Syndric? I’m guessing Syndric ran under the Libertarian party. Or perhaps Bruce Gradkowski was polled before he signed on with Oakland? Either way, one of the wonderful freedoms we have in this great democracy is the right to waste your vote.

Getting back to the traditional two-party system, the names of Eric Wright and D’Quell Jackson as breakout players are encouraging signs for a defense that will likely have to carry the team in 2009. Although I view both players as complementary to the defense, meaning that they will blossom only when better talent surrounds them, I am still encouraged that both could progress under new defensive leadership.

Although Eric Barton is merely a one-year fix at inside linebacker, he is probably an upgrade over Andra Davis. This move alone could help Jackson to improve on his already impressive tackle totals of the past two seasons.

Much like other smaller and athletic linebackers, Jackson needs a bullish inside linebacker partner who can take on blocks and allow him to roam the field. Hopefully, Barton can provide these services in 2009, before better quality help is added in the coming seasons.

As for Wright, he does not have much help around him. As it stands now, Wright is the most talented of the Browns’ defensive backs and will be counted on to guard the opposing team’s best receiver. As much as I love Wright’s instincts and determination, I do not see him becoming a true No. 1 corner. Much like Jackson, the best hope for Wright developing into a premier player lies in the addition of a worthy partner at cornerback.

And in speaking of the defense, most of the initial reports regarding the arrival of new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan have been complimentary. There seems to be a wealth of excitement being generated regarding the potential of the Browns' defense, which could be generously characterized as “long suffering.”

But then again, we are still dwelling in July potential and idealism. The OBR’s Rich Passan offers a more realistic slant.

Rich Passan’s Take on the Browns Defense

News: New Browns defensive coordinator Rob Ryan promises the Browns will stop the run this season. “My whole life I’ve stopped the run and you can look that up,” he told the media. “We’ll get it done here.”

Views: Well, we looked it up and we didn’t like what we saw. At least during the last five seasons.

In those five seasons with Oakland (2004-2008), the Raiders’ defense ranked 22nd, 25th, 25th, 31st and 31st, respectively, against the run in the 32-team National Football League. The Browns, meanwhile, ranked 32nd, 25th, 25th, 27th and 28th. The Raiders permitted 138.7 yards a game in that span. The Browns yielded 141.6 a contest.

If that’s stopping the run, let’s redefine the term.

Well, that’s depressing. Even for a realist like myself.

Certainly, Ryan seems to be an upgrade over Todd Grantham and Mel Tucker. While Grantham brought some good energy to the position and Tucker worked wonders with the secondary before 2008, Ryan has more NFL experience and offers a familiarity with different schemes that should benefit the defense in 2009.

Although much like the offense, Ryan doesn’t have a whole lot to work with.

However, the presence of Shaun Rogers is a good starting point. While the defense beyond Rogers is not exactly inspiring, the defensive line rotation could be surprisingly deep, with the arrivals of Kenyon Coleman and C.J. Mosley, along with the return of Robaire Smith.

Eric Barton could help out in the run defense, as his primary role could be take on second level blockers, freeing up the likes of Jackson to make tackles.

The Wild Card in terms of stuffing the run could be the play of Abe Elam at safety. While Elam is not a great pass defender, he is an upgrade in terms of run support over the departed Sean Jones. Playing Elam closer to the line on running downs could bring a slight upgrade to a run defense that has proven to cause immense frustration for Browns fans.

While a dramatic improvement in the run defense is still a lofty goal for the Browns, it is very possible that Ryan will slightly upgrade the team’s biggest weakness in 2009. The first challenge is changing the defenders’ mentality regarding defense. For any improvement to happen, the Browns’ identity on defense has to change towards a more aggressive style and mindset, which Ryan seems eager to help deliver.

Again, much like several other areas on the roster, it’s a work in progress.

2005 Draft Contracts

The agents for Merriman, Edwards and White are among several who have expressed interest in doing long-term contracts, but have gotten little response from teams.

Everyone in Cleveland knows the story of Braylon Edwards. He's tremendously talented, physically gifted, the son of a former NFL athlete, emotionally insecure, and a possible accomplice.

Basically, the organization and fans have no earthly idea what they’re going to get out of Braylon, other than intrigue.

And considering recent information regarding Edwards, his financial future could be another mystery. So, Browns fans have yet another mystery to unravel in trying to figure out everyone’s favorite Lakefront enigma.

However, despite some of these qualities, the Browns could have done a lot worse in the 2005 draft. Considering their position at the top of the draft, Phil Savage could have missed badly. Looking at the names surrounding Edwards, it turns out (as it often does) that 2005 was not the year to draft a running back, which is always a possibility in Cleveland.

Hindsight being what it is, the Browns could have grabbed either Shawne Merriman or DeMarcus Ware much later in the round, or taken the safer pick with Logan Mankins. And of course, potential being what it is, would you rather have Braylon or one of the true 3-4 pass rushing outside linebackers on the roster now?

Unlike most of the other questions being asked now, this one may have a more definitive answer.

Cleveland Reboot is a Sports Jabber Contributing Author. Read more of his work at Cleveland Reboot.

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