Hopes are high for the 2011 Browns. For a fan base that has had little more than a shred of success in the last 20 years, the current team is perceived by many as the first one with a real chance to do great things in what seems like an eternity.
No one doubts the potential of this squad, but can it be actualized this season? There's no way to know for sure, but many of us have an eye on a few players who we believe to be poised for a breakout year in 2011.
Following are six such players. We've focused on the newly drafted rookies in a lot of our discussions lately, so for this list I'll refrain from including them and instead look to players who have been on the roster since 2010.
Obviously with a squad of young and talented players, the Browns have many more potential breakout stars in their midst who didn't make it onto this list. Your opinions are valued greatly, so please feel free to add additional nominees for such a distinction in the comments below.
Undoubtedly the least surprising player on this list, Colt McCoy is surely headed for a breakout season.
With the excellent show McCoy put on last year in his rookie campaign, there is certainly an argument that 2010 was actually his breakout year. But to me, what McCoy showed in the eight games he played in 2010 was only a fraction of what he's capable of.
Predictions for McCoy's stats this season are all over the map, but most of us can probably agree that we'll see bigger numbers from him this season. Some of that obviously will be the result of the fact that McCoy will likely play a full 16 games this season, but some of it surely results from the fact that McCoy is clearly poised for a breakout year.
With more experience, better coaching and a better team around him, we can expect McCoy's yardage totals to go up and for his TD to INT ratio to move further toward the positive end of the spectrum.
But of course, this is about more than just stats. McCoy already showed signs of being a great team leader last season. Unusual for someone who is just 23 and in their first year in the league. With just a year of experience under his belt, McCoy has been running offseason workouts with his receivers and other offensive players with the authority and confidence of a season quarterback.
That means McCoy's breakout season in 2011 will be about more than just an increase in numbers; it will also be a breakout season for him as the leader of this team.
Last season, Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie were expected to be the team's go-to receivers. Unfortunately, neither one got the job done, and the bulk of the Browns' receiving yardage was amassed by TE Ben Watson and RB Peyton Hillis. Not exactly something that inspires confidence in the team's supposed top two receivers going forward.
But luckily for the Browns, it doesn't appear to be time to give up on Massaquoi or Robiskie just yet. While we can expect (or at least hope) both receivers will improve, I'm loathe to call this a potential breakout year for Massaquoi, since last year really should have been his breakout season. In his case, I'd call 2011 more of a "fish or cut bait scenario."
The breakout player moniker for 2011 could however potentially apply to Robiskie.
Obviously, we've all been pretty disappointed by what we've seen from him to date. But I don't think we've heard the last of Robiskie, and it's possible that this could be the season in which we'll actually hear a lot more from him.
On a team that is pretty young across the board, it's easy to forget that Robiskie is still just 23 years old and has only two years' experience in the league. He's also about to be a part of an revamped offensive system in the West Coast style that is pretty well suited to his skill set.
Because Robiskie struggled so much last season and failed to make much progress from his rookie year, it's understandable that there may be some skepticism about whether he'll turn in a breakout performance in 2011...or ever.
Still, we've seen some flashes of great things in Robiskie, and he's worked hard this offseason to improve, so it's entirely possible that a breakout year is in the cards for him in 2011.
Entering last season, Shawn Lauvao was a well-regarded rookie out of Arizona State who was expected to help improve the Browns' troubled offensive line. He appeared to have the talent to do it, but unfortunately, his health didn't cooperate, and injuries prevented him from making an impact his rookie season.
A third-round pick in 2010, Lauvao is listed currently as an offensive tackle but likely is best suited to the RG position. That he has the talent to improve the terribly troubled right side of the Browns offensive line seems pretty clear, but whether he can remain healthy enough to put that talent to good use is another story.
While past precedent should caution us to be wary about Lauvao's health going forward, at the moment, he is supposedly in good enough shape to project as a possible starter for 2011. If Lauvao can stay on the field for all of 2011 (or even the majority of it), he has great potential to wind up being a breakout performer for the Browns.
A healthy Lauvao would bolster the right side of the line, greatly improving Colt McCoy's protection which will, of course, ultimately improve the success of the offense as a whole.
The bottom line is, Lauvao is one of the players who the Browns need a breakout season from the most, and if healthy, Lauvao should be able to deliver.
In his rookie campaign in 2010, we barely saw Carlton Mitchell on the field at all. We all have our opinions on why that happened, but whether this was because he truly wasn't ready for the job or just the unfortunate result of Eric Mangini's absurd hesitance to start rookies no matter their capabilities is something we may never know for sure.
What we probably will find out in 2011, however, is what Mitchell is capable of doing in the WR spot going forward. There are a lot of receivers in the mix for the Browns right now, but none of them have permanently locked down a starting job at this point. Greg Little and Massaquoi are the closest bets to sure things we have, and Robiskie is probably next in line.
But none of those players have proven themselves enough to set that in stone. Enter wild card Carlton Mitchell, a guy who definitely has the speed and the agility and may just have the hands for the job as well.
We haven't seen enough of Mitchell on the field to truly have any idea how he'll pan out in game action, but we do know that he is a tremendous athlete, a very hard worker, and an intelligent player. If those things end up really translating into productivity on the field, then Mitchell could snag one of the starting WR spots and wind up having a big, big breakout year in 2011.
On a team where the linebacking corps are a huge area of concern and with no word from the league on when (or if) we can expect free agency to open up, a breakout player among the current players at this position is in high demand.
Enter Marcus Benard, the 25-year-old linebacker who in 2010, just his second year in the league, caught a lot of people's attention with his standout play.
Obviously, Benard hasn't yet established himself as a consistently productive LB for the Browns, but he's just entering his third year in the NFL in 2011. Though he was clearly still learning, Benard definitely caught our attention last season, and we have to expect he'll get even better this year.
With a deficit at his position on the roster as it currently stands, Benard has the chance to step up and become a huge impact player for the team if he has a breakout season this year.
Based on what we've seen from him so far and the opportunities he should likely get to prove himself, Benard is an excellent candidate to be dubbed a true breakout player in 2011.
After watching his stunning highlight reels from the University of Tennessee, many of us had very high hopes for RB Montario Hardesty when he was drafted by the Browns in 2010. Unfortunately, he tore his ACL in the team's first preseason match against the Bears in September and spent the season on the IR, failing to appear in a single regular season game during his rookie season.
The injury was a letdown for the team and its fans, but the good news is that Hardesty is reportedly healthy and ready to play in 2011.
In terms of his potential to be a breakout player for the Browns this season, his case is very similar to Lauvao's. He too is a player who clearly has the talent to possibly have a breakout year, but remains plagued by serious injury concerns. Because his injury kept him out for all of his rookie season, we have no actual game play (or even much from workouts or practice for that matter) to go on.
Obviously, the fact that he's still a candidate to be a breakout player in spite of that speaks to his tremendous potential, but it also means that whether he has the chance to achieve that is dependent on something no one can control.
If Hardesty can't stay healthy, he'll wont get the chance to attempt to be a breakout player this year or any one after that. But if he turns out to be more durable than he has been so far, there's every reason his talent and potential will result in a breakout season at RB in 2011.