If you were to simply look at the Cleveland Browns record last season, you wouldn't see a team on the cusp of a playoff berth. The Browns lost a series of close games, and unfortunately teams aren't awarded wins for effort. I don't think anyone expects the Cleveland Browns to take home a championship, and very few would even predict a playoff berth, but with contributions from some impressive young players, the Browns should be much improved from their 5-11 record last season. Here are five big time predictions about the season to be.
After Peyton Hillis made his way to Cleveland from Denver, the Arkansas native skyrocketed up the depth chart and became the Browns featured back. Many have suggested that Hillis' minutes will take a severe hit due to an expected breakout season from Montario Hardesty and the addition of Brandon Jackson. Both Jackson and Hardesty will get some playing time (as long as Hardesty's recovery is complete), but if Hillis does lose out on some reps, he won't lose out on many. Giving up a few downs to Jackson and Hardesty will keep Hillis rested for later in games and the second half of the season, which should improve his numbers (he started off the season stronger than he finished it).
With Colt McCoy under center for only his second season, Pat Shurmur with rely heavily on a power running game. McCoy should develop well under Shurmur, but Shurmur knows not to put too much on the young quarterback's shoulders or take many risks with an inexperienced receiving core. Shurmur's offense isn't overly conservative, he just has his quarterbacks throw underneath quite a bit. Shurmur didn't push Sam Bradford to make many big plays, and Bradford is the more physically talented of the two quarterbacks.
Hillis' production shouldn't decrease on the ground much, if any, and he will remain the safety valve of the offense. He managed to grab 61 receptions last season and was a favorite target of McCoy. Along with his solid hands, Hillis' brutal running style and expertise in the red-zone will make him one of the top fantasy backs in the 2011-2012 season.
Joshua Cribbs is one of the most exciting players to watch, not only on the Browns, but in the whole NFL. There is just one problem; no one can get Cribbs the ball. It is not for a complete lack of effort. Cribbs has improved his skills as a wide receiver in order to catch more passes, he has played in the wildcat formation and of course, he is one of the deadliest returners in the game.
Now with new head coach Pat Shurmur at the helm, Cribbs will be the focus of the offense in other ways. According to Tony Grossi of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, "Shurmur views Cribbs as a wide receiver. There are no apparent plans to reset Cribbs as a third-down back, but he will visit the backfield on occasion in this new offense."
The wildcat is out the window, but look for Cribbs to have a Percy Harvin type role in the backfield as a change of pace back with a reception or two in the flat. Shumur will be more inventive with Cribbs' routes in order to get him the ball in space as well. With Shurmur actively trying to work in the Brown's most dynamic offensive player, Cribbs should see a huge increase in his yardage this season.
One of the bright spots last season was the play of rookie cornerback Joe Haden. After the injury to Eric Wright, Haden took over Wright's starting role and hit the ground running. Expect Haden to pick up where he left off and improve upon his team-high six interceptions.
The University of Florida standout won't have to start the season at nickel as he did last year. With the departure of Eric Wright ( to the delight of many fans), Haden will have every opportunity to make big plays under new defensive coordinator, Dick Jauron. If Haden stays healthy, he should have 10+ interceptions this season, not an easy task. Last season, Haden had a four game stretch (Jets, Jaguars, Panthers, Dolphins) where he picked off a pass, the first player to do so for the Browns in over 40 years.
Apart from his play, Haden is endearing himself to the Cleveland faithful. A story by Tom Withers of the AP highlights how Haden picked up the tab at a sushi restaurant for over 100 of his twitter followers that showed up after he announced he would be there to pay for fans. I wonder how many people will be following him after another spectacular season? I hope he doesn't mind paying for a few thousand if he decides to treat the fans again.
Greg Little, the talented wide receiver from the University of North Carolina, has a great chance to come out on the top of the depth chart for the Cleveland Browns.The Browns' roster at receiver is extremely thin, and a bone injury to the leg of Mohamed Massaquoi just made it even thinner.
Little is tall, fast and has good hands, which makes him a weapon worth utilizing in his first year, but Little won't be handed the job. Little won't have to worry about beating out Joshua Cribbs, Cribbs will be seeing the field in a multitude of ways, but he will be battling a group of young guys for playing time, including third-year player Brian Robiskie. In his two seasons already played, Robiskie has only caught 36 passes. With a shortened offseason, Robiskie has the edge, but Little's talent will be too much to pass up. If Little doesn't start the season ahead of Robiskie, he will certainty end the season as a top threat for the Browns.
When those who follow the Browns read that I think 8-10 wins are a possibility, they shouldn't be surprised, although most NFL fans will be. Even with all the switches at quarterback, the Browns easily could have pulled off 10 wins last season. They lost seven games by six points or less (Buccaneers, Chiefs, Ravens, Jets, Jaguars, Bills, Bengals), and two more games by 10 (Ravens, Falcons).
Pat Shurmur should inject some passion into the offense, and Colt McCoy, already a high percentage passer, will be more comfortable going into his second year. Hopefully Mohamed Massaquoi will return to the field soon, but Joshua Cribbs will have his best year as a receiver, and Greg Little will emerge as a potent offensive threat.
The Browns will also be able to pound the ball with a group of hard-nosed running backs and offensive linemen, led by Peyton Hillis and Joe Thomas. Expect a less conservative offense, but with a coach who knows exactly when to take shots. Dick Jaron's experience will keep the Browns consistent on defense too, a quality they lacked last year with their up and down performances. If one looks at the Browns' schedule, they have 10 very winnable games, and that is not counting a surprise or two like the wins last year at New Orleans and versus the Patriots. With a great coaching performance and a little luck, the Browns could hit double-digit wins this season.