Cleveland Browns Roster: Realistic Expectations for the 2011 Season
With the NFL lockout and the Ohio State debacle, I've been largely disenchanted with sports in general for the past several months and decided to put my energies into something that seemed more worthwhile, such as Magic the Gathering.
But since I failed to qualify for the Pro Tour (again), and football is back, I figured it's time to stop pouting and get back to my first love by doing a team evaluation before heading into the new season.
Not much has happened since I last offered my musings for your consumption, but let's do a brief recap.
Owners whined, players complained, people were sued and an agreement was reached.
Free agency came and went without the Browns doing anything significant, much to the chagrin of many fans.
So has the front office's approach thus far been the correct one? Well let's do a position by position breakdown and see where we've improved and where we still need work.
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Let's start with the most important position: Quarterback.
Last year's third-round pick Colt McCoy is obviously going to be the starter heading into the year.
McCoy had mixed but somewhat impressive results last season after both Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace fell to injuries.
McCoy has all the intangibles and leadership qualities you look for in a quarterback. He's athletic, confident and commands respect both as a person and a teammate.
The only real question about McCoy is does he have just enough arm strength to stretch the field in the NFL?
He doesn't have to consistently drop bombs, but if he's going to be anything more than marginally successful in the NFL, he's going to have to consistently complete passes 20 yards down the field.
Behind McCoy, the Browns retained the services of career back-up Seneca Wallace, which may have been their best move of the entire offseason.
Wallace is a very good back-up and also has a similar skill-set to Colt McCoy, which would allow a somewhat seamless transition should McCoy suffer an injury.
After that, there's a competition between former West Virginia player Jarret Brown and newly signed Troy Weatherhead from the AFL for third string.
I find Weatherhead to be a very interesting prospect and will be watching this competition closely.
Overall, I think the Browns are set at quarterback for this season, but Colt McCoy is going to have to show the coaching staff what he's got this year or else quarterback might be at the top of the list of offseason priorities.
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Running back is easily the area with the least amount of questions heading into the season, but there are still some minor issues to address, mainly concerning health.
Peyton Hillis broke out in a major way last season, becoming the most popular player to don the orange and brown since Bernie Kosar.
He did start to wear down toward the end of the season though as teams became wise and stacked the box against him.
Can he have a repeat of last year's success? Will he suffer the "Madden Curse"? (kidding)
I think the key will be the return of Montario Hardesty. Hardesty showed a great deal of promise before succumbing to injury last preseason.
If Hardesty can stay healthy, and that's a big if, he can share the load with Hillis which would allow both of them to stay fresh for the season.
The Browns also brought in Brandon Jackson from the Green Bay Packers. Jackson was a good, if underwhelming pick-up for the Browns.
He has the ability to make plays but falls slightly short of being feature back material. Should Hardesty get hurt again, Jackson will make a capable back-up.
We also can't overlook the change at full back. Gone is standout lead blocker Lawrence Vickers, being replaced by rookie Owen Marecic.
This move is indicative of the direction this coaching staff is taking this offense.
Marecic is tough and versatile. He's much more than just a blocker, though he may be a notch below Vickers in this category.
While I questioned this pick because of the presence of Vickers, I certainly can't complain about having a guy like this on the team. He's a football player's football player.
Wide Receiver and Tight End
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While the running back position seems to have the least questions, the wide receiver position appears to have the most questions heading into the season.
I must admit that I get a chuckle when I read articles and comments full of optimism towards Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie.
Newsflash: They are both busts. Neither of them will ever be a viable starter in this league and the sooner you and the front office get used to this truth, the sooner we can move on and have a chance at winning some games.
On the bright side, second round pick Greg Little has shown a lot of promise in camp thus far.
I believe that Little is the future of the position for the Browns. His skill-set reminds me a lot of a young Terrell Owens.
It will be interesting to see how Joshua Cribbs functions in the new west coast offense. It could end up being a perfect fit.
I personally see Greg Little and Joshua Cribbs being the starters on week one of the regular season. I also think that either Massaquoi or Robiskie will be cut before the start of the regular season.
So who else does that leave us with? I am very interested to see the return of Jonathon Haggerty to camp this year, and then there is Jordan Norwood!
Let's move on to a happier topic, the tight end position.
Benjamin Watson showed us just how good he is last year by leading the team in receptions.
Evan Moore had a somewhat disappointing campaign last season, spending much of the season injured.
The Browns drafted Jordan Cameron out of USC in a move that honestly surprised me. I thought we were fairly set at tight end, but so far this move appears to have been a wise one.
Cameron has been impressive so far in camp while Watson has been hurt. He's tall and athletic and apparently has some pretty decent hands.
He should be a player to watch this year.
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I've heard a lot of concerns about the offensive line, but I'm honestly not really worried. Are there still some questions on the right side? Sure there are, but overall I see the direction the team is making there.
Joe Thomas, Eric Steinbach and Alex Mack are a given, and form a very solid core for the left side of the line.
Last seasons injuries largely decimated the right side of the line leading to inconsistent play and eventually stifling offensive production.
I believe that second year player Shaun Lauvao and veteran Billy Yates make the Browns very solid at right guard. The only question on the line to me is right tackle.
The Browns brought in veteran Tony Pashos last season to shore up this spot, but he spent almost all of the season injured. It remains to be seen whether he can stay healthy and if he does, if he can make an impact.
The Browns also brought in John Greco this offseason, though he has mostly played guard. At the very least, he provides some solid depth on the right side of the line.
The Browns also drafted Jason Pinkston from Pittsburgh. He was a very solid tackle in college, but there were also questions about his work ethic and desire, especially in the weight room.
There are also a group of first and second year players I've never heard of that are fighting for a roster spot.
I expect to see Lauvao and Pashos starting on the right side of the line. If Pashos goes down, I would expect Greco to step in with Pinkston perhaps getting some work, especially later in the season.
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This might be the area of the team that I'm most excited about. I absolutely love the direction the Browns are taking up front.
I wasn't crazy about the Phillip Taylor pick at first, but the combination of him and Ahtyba Rubin in the middle should make it very tough sledding for teams trying to run between the tackles.
While I loved the Jabaal Sheard pick, there were a couple other guys I might have liked as well. I feel like the Browns should have at least dedicated one more pick to the position later in the draft.
I think Sheard will end up being a very solid player at defensive end, but I'm not sure that he's gonna be an all out stud.
At left defensive end, Jayme Mitchell has been brought back. He has the prototypical size for the position, but in six seasons he has hardly seen the field.
This will be his big chance to show that he can play. I think he will do an adequate job.
The problem with the defensive line is depth.
I'm sorry, but I don't really believe that Marcus Benard is a viable option at defensive end. He'll get pushed all over the field on any running play.
After that, there's pretty much Derrick Robinson, who isn't really suited to a 4-3 defense.
At tackle, we have Brian Schaefering and Ko Quaye. I like having Schaefering, but he might not really be big enough to clog the middle in a 4-3.
Quaye is nothing to really get excited about.
While I like the overall direction the Browns are headed here, they're one injury away from this being a major weakness for this season.
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There is an overall theme of lack of depth at pretty much every defensive position, and the linebacker core is no exception.
Scott Fujita, D'Qwell Jackson and Chris Gocong are the obvious starters, but who is there beyond them?
There are some UFA's and underwhelming second year players trying to earn a roster spot, but that is probably not going to be good enough when two of your starting three linebackers are injury prone.
The one exception I see might be Titus Brown. I noticed him last year during the preseason. He made some plays.
I'm not saying that he's gonna be a stud, but he might be someone to keep an eye on.
Overall, this is another position that is one injury from being a major problem for the Browns. I would expect this to be a high priority after this season, either through the draft or free agency.
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This should be the strength of the defense. While there isn't a ton of depth in the defensive backfield, there are several playmakers and several young players who could make an impact.
The departure of Eric Wright leaves Joe Haden and Sheldon Brown as the starters at corner.
Haden had a very good rookie campaign and is in my opinion the best player on this defense, but Brown has become somewhat suspect mostly due to age.
Brown has definitely lost a step or two, but he is still a crafty veteran player and should be able to hold up for another year. I do think this is his last year with the Browns though.
At safety the Browns let go of Abe Elam but added Saints back-up Usama Young. He will most likely be paired with second year stand-out T.J. Ward as the starting safeties.
I've never had the opportunity to see Young play, but from what I've read he sounds like a very good guy in the locker room and very active in the community.
The depth in the backfield seems suspect, but I think there's more here than most people think.
Mike Adams is a pretty solid player that can play both corner and safety if called upon. Rookie Eric Hagg seems like he might have a lot of potential at safety as well. Ray Ventrone is also still with the team at this point.
At corner, there is rookie speedster Buster Skrine, which is hardly a comforting thought, but there is more here as well.
The Browns brought in Dmitri Patterson from the Eagles and don't forget about Coye Francies.
I'm not saying that this is an ideal depth chart, but I think there is much more potential here than many naysayers are predicting.
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Overall I expect the Browns offense to be much improved this season. There will probably be some growing pains with the new system, but I think that system will be much more complimentary to the personnel we have.
There are still some questions at wide receiver and right tackle, but the success of this unit will be determined by Colt McCoy's performance.
I have no doubts that McCoy can move the ball with short passes, but just throwing the short passes isn't good enough in the NFL.
Eventually opposing defenses will catch on to the fact that the Browns offense only operates in a 10 to 15 yard window and will start jumping routes and stacking the box.
If McCoy and the receivers can push the ball downfield just enough to keep defenses honest, then I think this unit can be very successful.
This is McCoy's time to shine. If he can't at least show significant progress, the Browns could look to go another direction after this season is over.
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I'm just gonna go ahead and say that the defense is probably gonna be bad this year.
There is hardly any depth at any level and there are some questionable and injury prone starters.
A good defense needs at least one playmaker on all three levels of the defense. The Browns have two play-makers and both are in the defensive backfield.
Of course I'm referring to T.J. Ward and Joe Haden and neither of those players are completely proven play-makers at that.
On the defensive line, we can hope that Jabal Sheard will become a playmaker, but he looks more to me like just a solid player.
The linebackers are old and injury prone.
I haven't even mentioned that this whole unit is implementing an entirely new system.
It probably isn't going to be pretty this year, but I feel like it's moving in the right direction.
I think the Browns are about three players short of a very good defense and they're willing to take their time and do it the right way, by developing young players.
Rob Ryan may have improved the defense while he was here, but it was mostly through gimmicks. I personally like the change in scheme.
Whatever happened to just lining up better players and winning your match-ups?
This unit might be bad this year, but I love where I see it heading in the future.
Expectations for the 2011 Season
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For everyone complaining about the Browns lack of activity in the free agent market: Just shut up!
The Browns are rebuilding this season. They are implementing a new coaching staff with new systems and developing young players.
Once they are two or three key players away from contention, then it will make sense to spend some money to make a finished product.
If they spend all their money now just to make a team capable of going .500, then they won't have the money to spend once they've figured out which holes need filled.
To all the people saying that the Browns should go .500 and with a little luck could even compete for the playoffs: Just shut up!
That is not going to happen. This defense is full of holes and we aren't even sure about the quarterback position yet.
Be realistic, this is a 5-11 or 6-10 team.
Sure, we just had two of the better drafts in team history, but we have yet another new coaching staff and completely different systems to implement on both sides of the ball.
To make matters worse, the NFL lockout meant no offseason program to help ease the transition.
For this team, the first six games of the regular season are gonna be like preseason for any normal season. We probably won't know what kind of progress this team is making until the season is almost over.
I'm alright with that. I like the direction the team is heading and I love the way this front office has drafted.
So let's keep the expectations realistic and the pessimistic hyperbole down and just enjoy watching this team being built, alright?