Cleveland Browns: Six Browns Facing Make-or-Break Seasons in 2011
If we all get our wish and there is football this year after all, it will be a make-or-break season for the Browns.
The long and arduous rebuilding process is not slated to be finished this year, culminating in a Super Bowl victory or even a playoff berth, but the franchise, if it is to be successful under its current trajectory, has to turn the corner this season. 2011 will likely be the year when we all find out if Holmgren and Heckert's master plan is indeed the one that will turn the Browns back into the winning franchise they haven't been for a long time.
As with the team as a whole it is a make-or-break year for many of its players as well. From the injury-riddled to the unproven to the aging, the Browns have their share of players whose careers will reach a breaking point this season.
Following are six such players for whom 2011 will be a critical year in deciding whether or not they have what it takes to succeed in the NFL. While the reasons the pressure is on each varies from one player to the next, they are all in the same boat in that this year may be the one which decides how the rest of their future in football plays out.
1. RB Montario Hardesty
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2010 draft pick Montario Hardesty's NFL career at running back began with great promise but was quickly derailed when he suffered what would turn out to be a season-ending injury early in the 2010 preseason.
Hardesty was plagued by injury throughout his college career, leading many to question why the Browns traded up to get him in 2010. The counter-argument was that when healthy, Hardesty was a force to be reckoned with, tearing through opposing defenses with his explosive rushing ability.
So the Browns took their chances, and unfortunately it didn't pay off in his rookie season, which was, in terms of his actually contributing on the field, nonexistent.
According to the team, Hardesty is at the moment, perfectly healthy and fully recovered from last season's injury. Whether he will stay that way throughout 2011 will determine whether this make-or-break season for him has a happy ending for him and for his team.
This is the season in which Hardesty must prove he can stay healthy enough to contribute the requisite amount of offense to continue occupying a roster spot. There is little doubt with regard to his talent, so if Hardesty can avoid injury, he can likely establish himself as a premier part of the Browns' running game going forward. If not, his career will be in limbo and those who suggested the Browns were foolish to burn a draft pick on him could very well be proven correct.
2. WR Mohamed Massaquoi
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University of Georgia alum Mohamed Massaquoi was a second-round pick in the 2009 draft and expected to perform as such for the Browns at wide receiver. So far, that hasn't happened.
Any struggles he encountered in his rookie season in 2009 were largely discounted and chalked up to a lack of experience, but when he failed to make progress in his sophomore effort (and even, as some suggest, may have actually regressed), the alarms started to go off.
It seems a bit unfair to tag a player entering just his third professional season as being at the breaking point for his career, but the attitude toward Massaquoi by the Browns and their fans suggest that is indeed the point his career is at.
Labeled the de facto No. 1 receiver for the Browns last year, Massaquoi failed miserably in living up to that designation, logging a paltry 483 yards and two touchdowns. He thus enters 2011 not only stripped of that top-receiver-for-the-the-team designation, but with not even a guarantee of a starting job.
Massaquoi still has his supporters to that end, but Brian Robiskie and rookie Greg Little are widely believed to be the front-runners for the top two starting receiver jobs this season. Even position multi-tasker Josh Cribbs gets more mentions as a possible good quality starting receiver than Massaquoi does these days.
While the outlook seems grim for MoMass and this season is widely considered to be a make-or-break one for him, he still has a chance to come out on the right end of it, given that he has worked hard this offseason to improve and that the new West Coast offensive scheme the Browns will run next season should be more favorable for his skill set.
Robiskie, Little and Cribbs will be tough competition though, and if Massaquoi doesn't step it up, he may find himself the odd man out among the receiving corps.
3. TE Evan Moore
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Having to include TE Evan Moore on this list is a bit saddening, considering that he may be one of the most talented players on the Browns' current roster. Unfortunately he's also one of the most injury-prone, which is what has landed him here with the rest of the players for whom 2011 is make-or-break.
Moore was plagued by injury throughout his college career and went undrafted as a result. He was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Packers in 2008, but the risk didn't pay off as his tendency toward injury sidelined him almost immediately in Green Bay.
Problems persisted after he was picked up by the Browns in 2009 as well; he played five games in 2009 and 12 in 2010, both seasons shortened yet again by injuries. After playing the last five games of 2009 and the first 12 of 2010 and appearing to have perhaps kicked the injury bug, he unfortunately was hurt again and missed the last four games of the season.
Like Hardesty, Moore is a player with both tremendous talent and tremendous injury problems that coupled together have led up to 2011 being a make-or-break season for him. Moore has a bit of an edge over Hardesty in that he has been healthy and productive for at least some period of time in the NFL. Still, health issues have resulted in his never playing a full season professionally, and making it through just one in which he stayed healthy for 75 percent of the season.
After two years with the Browns and nearly 50 percent of his time on the roster spent unable to play due to injury, it's do-or-die time for Moore in 2011. If healthy he will be a valuable asset to the offense; if not, the Browns will have to make a decision on whether he's worth the roster spot he's occupying if he's relegated to the sidelines more often than not.
4. KR/WR Josh Cribbs
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The reason for Josh Cribbs' inclusion on this list is rather different from that of the other players here in that it wasn't the result of his lack of ability to prove he can produce for the team.
There is little doubt of Cribbs skill set and talent, to say nothing of his work ethic and dedication to the team. This isn't a make-or-break year for Cribbs in terms of proving his abilities; he's already done that many times over.
Rather, it is make-or-break for the team in terms of what exactly they decide to do with him in terms of positioning.
For his salary and talents, employing Cribbs purely as a kick returner was clearly a serious case of under-use. Now that the kickoff rules have changed, it isn't even a possibility. That leaves the Browns pondering how best to use him.
Last season, they dabbled with Cribbs in a traditional receiver's role as well as in the role of a part of Wildcat packages. Those experiments left them with little to show. All they established was that while Cribbs was as versatile as they'd hoped, they still really had no idea how best to use him.
Thus 2011 will be a make-or-break year for the Browns and Cribbs in terms of how they decide to position him for maximum payoff. Clearly the role of pure kick returner is no longer an option, so the Browns will have to mull over the possibilities of using Cribbs as a receiver, as a running back or as some sort of hybrid. How much he's able to bring to the team will be determined by whether the Browns make the correct choice in the matter.
5. CB Eric Wright
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CB Eric Wright's struggles in 2010 sent his play into such a severe downward spiral that he reportedly received death threats from Browns fans. Obviously, no player should be subjected to such treatment no matter how poorly they play, but the fact that it happened at all indicates just how severely Wright's failures negatively impacted the team.
Wright's mistakes were widely believed to be caused by mental errors, adding to the frustration. Wright looked, at various points in the season, largely somewhere between slightly lost and utterly dumbfounded by what was going on around him on the field. Sometimes he looked as though laziness had caused him to mentally check out of games. Other times he just looked as though he was addled and fooled by whatever opposing offenses threw at him.
Either way, the Browns and their fans were not happy with what they saw from Wright in 2010, making this season a make-or-break campaign for him. Wright will either need to step up and prove he can keep his head in the game and properly execute on defense, or he will likely be relieved of his duties in the secondary.
It appears at this point that Wright will get another chance at a starting job in the Browns' backfield in 2011. Whether he hangs onto the job will depend on whether he can prove that his struggles in 2010 were just the result of a bad phase for him rather than an indication of his inability to get the job done going forward.
6. S Abe Elam
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For free agent Safety Abram Elam, the first part of the 2011 make-or-break designation will depend on whether the Browns even choose to re-sign him.
Lockout-related free agency issues notwithstanding, whether the Browns will re-sign Elam is, at this point, an unknown. While their current situation at safety and Elam's oft-declared desire to stay in Cleveland suggests that Elam is more likely to be brought back by the Browns this season than other ex-roster members entering free agency, there has been no indication that they absolutely intend to make that happen.
If, however, we assume that they do choose to give Elam another shot in 2011, it will be a make-or-break season for him on the field as well. Elam has struggled significantly in the past, prompting many to doubt his abilities over the long haul.
Still, Elam showed a marked improvement at the close of the 2010 season, appearing to have found his stride at last. Alas, it was not enough to prove absolutely that he was the player the Browns need him to be in order to commit to him as a starting member of their secondary.
Elam is an easy guy to root for and one most of us hope is not only re-signed by the Browns, but able to achieve success for himself and for the team. He has overcome one terrible hardship after another throughout his life, is one of the hardest workers on the team and has over and over declared his love for and loyalty to Cleveland, its fans and the franchise.
In a perfect world, that would be enough, but of course in the NFL, it really comes down to winning. 2011 will be a make-or-break season for Elam (should be be re-signed by the Browns) in terms of whether he's able to contribute to that, and thus whether he'll be invited to stay on with the organization in the future.