For the Cleveland Browns, Saturday's preseason game against Green Bay, along with the other three upcoming preseason games, may prove to be very important.
Sure a preseason game doesn't count for anything in the standings, but it gives the team, along with their fans, an idea of what to expect out of the upcoming season.
The key is not to focus on how many wins and losses the team ends with but on the key issues of both the team and individual players that will affect success during the regular season.
Here are just a few issues that the Browns and their fans should keep an eye on.
Has T.J. Ward improved in coverage?
Last season, second-round rookie T.J. Ward came blazing onto the scene racking up big hits and being seemingly all over the field. He broke out during the preseason vs. Green Bay and and carried that over into the regular season.
However, at times he struggled in coverage. If the Browns are going to improve on 2010, they are going to need him to improve in that area.
Early camp reports indicate he is doing well, but the true test will come during the games
Can Usama Young establish himself as a starter?
On a related note, the Browns let Abe Elam walk and signed Saints backup safety Usama Young in part because he is better in coverage than Elam.
They are hoping he can help Ward in that area, to compliment Ward's strength disrupting the run and bringing the hits in the short passing game.
The team would like Young to win his starting spot over Mike Adams, who is the more versatile of the two and can also help at the cornerback position.
Can rookie Buster Skrine establish himself as the nickel cornerback?
After losing Eric Wright in free agency the Browns were left with very little depth in the defensive backfield.
Skrine is a small (5'10", 185 lbs.), fifth-round pick out of a small school (Tennesee-Chattanooga), but both he and the Browns believe he can earn significant playing time as the team's third cornerback.
If not, they may be forced to play Mike Adams exclusively at the position or give former sixth-round pick Coye Francies a shot.
Has Peyton Hillis fixed his fumbling issues?
While Peyton Hillis and his bruising style quickly made him a fan favorite in 2010 and landed him on the cover of the next Madden game, Browns fans know that he had a few too many fumbles for comfort.
This offseason he worked on fixing the problem by carrying a ball around and offering money to those who could knock it loose.
Whether or not this unique practice worked is yet to be seen, but any preseason fumbles from Hillis will cause Browns fans to cringe.
Who will Colt McCoy be throwing to?
The Browns seem to have a logjam at the wide receiver position, in part because no one has been consistent to solidify a job.
Last year's starting receivers were ineffective for most of the year, and neither Brian Robiskie or Mohammed Massaquoi are guaranteed a spot on the team.
While Robiskie has supposedly been doing well in camp, we have heard that before. Massaquoi on the other hand has been injured and not practicing with the team. This leaves second-round rookie Greg Little with a chance to establish himself, but he has struggled at times with multiple drops.
All this would be extremely concerning if tight end Evan Moore was not busy making play, after play, after play. He has by all accounts had an amazing camp and has always played as more of a receiver than a tight end. If he can stay healthy he just may be McCoy's No. 1 target in 2011.
Can any surprising starters emerge?
Every year, teams bring guys in that aren't expected to be anything more than extra bodies for camp, but occasionally these guys outperform expectations and even compete for a spot on the field.
This year a few names have been mentioned in this group. Offensive lineman Brandon Braxton was with the team in 2010, but has really come on strong this year and is even said to be pushing Tony Pashos for first-team reps at right tackle.
Wide receivers Jordan Norwood and Johnathon Haggerty have also been performing consistently and may even be competing with each other for that last receiver spot.
While any of these guys making a contribution would be nice, the Browns need a couple linebackers and defensive linemen to step up, as they are thin at the positions.
How will each unit gel under a new scheme?
With the Browns running both a new offense and new defense, one of the most important aspects this preseason will be getting everyone on the same page.
While both the West Coast offense and 4-3 defense are supposed to play to players' strengths, they will still take time to learn. With the extended lockout, the team had less time to learn these schemes, and the preseason will be their best opportunity to practice.
There is of course plenty more to keep an eye on during the preseason, but these are the key factors that will determine the Browns chances of success in 2011.
Thank you for reading and I appreciate any feedback, positive or negative.
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