Cleveland Browns: Predicting the Two-Deep Depth Chart

Barbara Bruno@allprofootballContributor IIJune 15, 2012

Cleveland Browns: Predicting the Two-Deep Depth Chart

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    It may be June and the NFL is still just a hope on the horizon, but that doesn’t stop true fans from predicting the Cleveland Browns 2012 starters. All of them. And their backups.

    Brandon Weeden is slingin’ it; Eric Hagg is trackin’ it through the secondary. Do we even need to note that Phil Dawson is nailin’ it through the uprights?

    But what about catchin’ it, runnin’ it and stuffin’ it? That’s where profound pigskin prognostication comes in.

    The hottest debates may always center on the skill positions, but nobody is going anywhere near an end zone without the big guys. So, beginning (as all teams should) with the offensive line…

Mitchell Schwartz, Welcome to the Young Guns Up Front

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    The former California Bear has found a new home at right tackle for the Cleveland Browns.  Certainly projected to compete for a spot, Schwartz has staked a claim on what used to be a glaring team weakness:  the right side of the offensive line. His success in summer work has no doubt led to sighs of relief as the “brass” turn their attention to the remaining glaring offensive weaknesses.

    Barring injury or a bizarre turn of events, the Browns now have one of the better young lines in the league—and when was the last time you heard someone say that? Every starter is under the age of 28.


    Offensive Line Starters

    Center—Alex Mack turns 27 in November. This All-Pro isn’t going anywhere for the foreseeable future.

    Left Tackle—Joe Thomas, at 27, is one of the NFL’s best and will be visiting Hawaii as long as there is a Pro Bowl.

    Left Guard—Jason Pinkston will be 25 years old in September and should continue on the upswing.

    Right Guard—Shawn Lauvao, at 25 years old, is the least heralded of the group and will hopefully rise to the level of his compadres.

    Right Tackle—Mr. Schwartz celebrated his 23rd birthday last week. That NFL contract looked nice with a bow on it, huh?

    Rookie Trivia: In 2011, Schwartz made first-team All-Pac-12 for both football and academics. He majored in American studies, “with an emphasis on human development and identity.” Sounds like excellent psychological training for your average intellectual blocker.

    Reserve Offensive Linemen

    Veteran John Greco will back up Mack and both guard slots. Oniel Cousins will be behind Schwartz in case the rookie falters—which looks increasingly unlikely based on intense non-contact competition in shorts. Fifth-round rookie Ryan Miller is still in the mix to backup both Lauvao and Schwartz.

    Rookies Matt Cleveland and J.B. Shugharts were still on the roster as of June 14, 2012. However, their future with the franchise will depend upon whether Pat Shurmur decides to keep more than three backup linemen and whether he thinks that Oniel Cousins can back up both tackle slots.

    The final disposition of starting fullback may have an impact on that decision.

Brad Smelley Versus Owen Marecic

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    While realizing that a position battle at fullback doesn’t really rock most people’s world, this one has a direct effect on both the form and the success of the much-desired Cleveland Browns rushing attack.

    Owen Marecic has thus far been unable to replace Lawrence Vickers in the hearts and minds of the Dawg Pound. His multiple concussions have not helped him in this quest. Judgments in the city have been rather harsh even though No. 48 played without half of an O-line, an offseason, a passing attack—or a consistent rusher.

    On the other hand, there is something about Brad Smelley that has instantly inspired the paying customers to cheer for him. Although he played well with Trent Richardson at Alabama, many considered him too small to make it at this level.

    Smelley may owe his spot in camp to his collegiate teammate’s support (although everyone denies it), but his best chance of sticking in the Rust Belt is his receiving ability. People who marvel at Smelley’s soft hands forget that he was recruited out of high school as a wide receiver. By the time he was a sophomore, he had grown into being an H-back. As a senior, the young man averaged 10.5 yards per catch and found the end zone four times in ten games.

    That’s great, but Owen Marecic was the first young man to win the Paul Hornung Award, given to the nation’s most versatile player. Hmmm.

    Since fans don’t really get a vote (despite that whole paying-for-your-seats thing), the starting job will go to whichever player fits best into the Browns 2012 offense. Management and coaches can mouth “west coast offense” all they want, but if nobody can catch a football, it’s going to have an impact on the system.

    Whether Shurmur will go with outstanding blocker Marecic or the FB/TE hybrid pass catcher Smelley may not be determined until September. But unless Greg Little and Mohamed Massaquoi suddenly get a case of organic stick ‘em, the Browns may well need another pair of hands—even if those hands are attached to a too-small player who can’t seem to be defined by one position.

    Starter—Brad Smelley (more info) 

    Backup—Owen Marecic

    Not to weasel out of a stand here, but it’s entirely possible that these two players will simply shuttle in and out of the lineup on a play-by-play basis.

Reserve Running Backs: the Battle for No. 2

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    Does anyone really need to hear that Trent Richardson will be the Cleveland Browns starting running back? Next.

    Well, next is going to be either Brandon Jackson or Montario Hardesty. My money is on Jackson. Actually, the Browns’ money is on Jackson. The former Packer’s strong 2010 season parlayed into a $2.25 million contract for this season. Hardesty is $1.4 million. See how that works? 

    Jackson’s 2010 was actually more about receiving ability (43 catches for 8.8 yards each) and potential than it was about him supplanting Dorsey Levens in Cheesehead memories. Mike Holmgren and Pat Shurmur probably envision him as a shifty, pass-catching type of runner.

    Hardesty should be on track to be 100% recovered from his injury, but can you really count on that? No. Particularly since (and this is blatant rumor and not at all to be taken as actual journalism) some folks think he’s still limping. Wow.  

    Starter—You Know Who.

    Backup—Brandon Jackson

    The only mystery here will be whether the Browns hold onto Hardesty for changeup duty since they did sink a bunch of cash in his rookie contract.

Can Benjamin Watson Have One More Good Year?

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    Two seasons ago Ben Watson had 68 receptions. One season ago he had 37. Now, he missed three games due to injury. Still…it’s not as if the man can’t haul in a TD pass.

    Neurologists have cleared Watson and he has stated multiple times that he is ready to rock. Cleveland fans hope so. At 32, he’s not the same 32nd overall pick he once was, but it’s reasonable to assume that the man who could chase down Champ Bailey over 105 yards on an angle, could probably afford to lose a step. The more red zone threats the better.

    Of course, one reason for the drop in Watson’s targets was the emergence of Evan Moore, who caught 34 balls himself. Jordon Cameron will make the team (two TEs are the new hot thing in the league remember?), but will start off third on the depth chart.

    If Watson shows any lingering concussion problems or Cameron makes that big expected leap, this could change. But for September:

    Starter—Benjamin Watson

    Backup—Evan Moore

    One hopes that the coaching staff is busily doing three things with their TE corps:

    1) evaluating how much is left in Watson’s talented tank

    2) downloading lots and lots of two TE sets

    3) figuring out how to turn the TE corps into the WR corps

My Kingdom for a Wide Receiver

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    This may be prejudicial, unfair and/or unwarranted, but it is never a positive sign when your star wideout talks about keeping his weight down. Excuse me? Perhaps someone needs to show Greg Little some Jerry Rice footage. You have way too many hands issues to be worrying about weight, too. Danger, Will Robinson!

    Sadly for the Browns, he could have love handles and he’ll still be starting on the outside. Opposite Mohamed Massaquoi. Unless the wide receiving fairy sprinkles fairy dust on a ball boy, those are your first and second receivers. If you can get excited about this, you have lost touch with football reality.

    His president said: "The wild card to me is Mo. Mohamed has to come in and ... I believe in that young man. I really do."

    Gee, don’t strain yourself, Mike. Fortunately, Massaquoi appears to have accepted this as praise and wants to emerge as the legit professional WR we all thought he might become two years ago. He’s healthy. That’s a good start.

    Joshua Cribbs will be given the third spot on paper to keep him happy. 2011 wasn’t his best season, but he played better than fans remember: his four TDs were clutch, he averaged 12.6 yards per catch and he made 27 first downs. He wasn’t reeling off special teams scores as in 2009 and 2010, but he did have over 1,300 return yards. So, yeah, he’ll be the third WR.

    Travis Benjamin is fast. He runs the 40 between 4.26 and 4.36. Jaw-dropping as he jets by, but he has had some issues with drops. Is it something in the water?

    Like the late Al Davis, Cleveland seems determined to have one of those down-the-field speedsters no matter what and brought in free agents Bert Reed and Jermaine Saffold. Just in case one of Benjamin’s scrawny legs gets dinged? Or to lurk on special teams while developing? Both of the above.

    Cleveland went into 2011 with six wide receivers. So that leaves Jordan Norwood, Carlton Mitchell and Joshua Cooper to compete for two jobs. Who would have thought that “nobody” Cooper would be the favorite to land in the slot in June? Of course it could be a training camp mirage. But it could be the beginning of Cleveland’s own Manning/Stokely connection. Why not?

    WR 1—Greg Little

    WR 2—Mohamed Massaquoi

    WR 3—Joshua Cribbs

    WR 4—Travis Benjamin

    WR 5—Jordan Norwood

    WR 6—Joshua Cooper or Carlton Mitchell The edge goes to Mr. Weeden’s BFF (139 receptions in two years at Oklahoma State). Maybe the team can get something in trade for Mitchell’s potential. 

Welcome to the NFL, Brandon

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    You’d better want this job. Because Cleveland needs to see your 70% completion percentage in action. They need consistent passing yards. Oh  yeah—they need more than 13 points per game.

    "He's as prepared to come in and start as any rookie I've seen in a long time. He is gifted. There is a maturity level because of his age. He is a different rookie because of that."  —Mike Holmgren

    But no pressure.

    Starter—Brandon Weeden

    Like the running back position, the interest here is who will be holding the clipboard. Too many analysts to count have written sheets and sheets (okay—screens and screens) about how Colt McCoy should stay in Cleveland and be the backup.

    1)  He’s not as good as some other former starters who are now backups. Probably, but he’s also never started a full season with anything approaching a real team in place.

    2)  He’s cheaper than Wallace. But see, that’s why Cleveland won’t keep him.

    3)  He can relax, really learn the system and up his value for next year. This is actually the best argument.

    It’s not out of the question for the team to keep all three quarterbacks into the preseason. If McCoy plays well, he could remind the league of those fourth-quarter comebacks from last season. Then he might find a home where the team could give him a chance—at least as a backup. A new start would be ideal.

    Seneca Wallace has a huge contract that no other team is going to pick up. He is Mike Holmgren’s man lock, stock and barrel. He isn’t going anywhere.

    Backup—Seneca Wallace

The “New Look” D-Line

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    It’s a bit more “new look” than was planned now that Phil Taylor is hurt. Frostee Rucker was brought on board to rotate with Juqua Parker at defensive end, but he may well slide over and work at DT in place of Taylor until either John Hughes or Billy Winn can join the starting lineup.   

    That is, unless Scott Paxson can maintain his slim hold on the left DT slot. It’s hard to imagine that Holmgren and Tom Heckert would draft Winn or even Hughes to start immediately, so Paxson makes sense. He’s been a perennial backup, so his tenure in the starting lineup will depend entirely on whether or not John Hughes becomes the next Warren Sapp or the next Albert Haynesworth. Unfortunately for Browns fans’ blood pressure—either is possible.

    “Starting” is a somewhat relative term since the Giants reminded everyone that you win Super Bowls by making the “other poor {quarterback] die for his country.” (With apologies to General Patton.)

    Just like with the two TE sets on offense, suddenly one must have seven almost equally talented D-linemen. Dick Jauron is quietly assembling a very respectable group.

    Right Defensive End

    Starter—Frostee Rucker (running downs), Juqua Parker (passing downs)

    Backup—Marcus Benard, who is extremely happy that the Browns didn’t sever all ties after his knuckleheaded motorcycle accident.

    Left Defensive End

    Starter—Jabaal Sheard, who should continue to grow.

    Backup—Marcus Benard/Brian Schaefering (Schaefering’s hernia surgery could cost him his job)

    Left Defensive Tackle

    Starter—Scott Paxson (for now)

    Backup—John Hughes is thus far answering critics of his third-round pick status by turning in a very strong May/June performance.

    Right Defensive Tackle

    Starter—Ahtyba Rubin (rinse, repeat and don’t mess with a good thing)

    Backup—Billy Winn is so far showing that H&H’s seventh-round sneak could well be the steal they hoped he would be. 

    According to ESPN’s Jamison Hensley, Holmgren will not rule out either Hughes or Winn moving up to the starting DT spot. More to come. 

Linebackers: More Holes to Fill

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    Scott Fujita did not finish 2011 and he won’t be starting 2012. Most think that Chris Gocong (starting WLB) will once again play on the strong side in lieu of Fujita.

    That would put Kaluka Maiava back into the starting lineup at the “Will” spot. Barring the unthinkable, Comeback Player of the Year D’Qwell Jackson will be manning the middle in a manly way.

    But as time goes on, James-Michael Johnson’s future in Cleveland is somewhat in his own hands. Drafted as the heir apparent to Fujita, Johnson’s showing in OTAs has seen him playing second-team middle linebacker, but it will be worth watching whether he slides right into the “keeping Scott’s seat warm” spot.

    Emmanuel Acho was considered a special teamer at most coming into his professional career. But he has proven himself equal to this level of play and is being strongly considered a future starter.

    Strong-Side Linebacker

    Starter (first three games)—Going out on a limb with the kid here and predicting James-Michael Johnson

    Backup—Emmanuel Acho

    Middle Linebacker

    Starter—D’Qwell Jackson

    Backup—Ben Jacobs, who played at this position in OTAs. Way to sneak into the mix there, Ben.

    Weak-Side Linebacker

    Starter—Chris Gocong should play here; it is his natural position and if Johnson can handle the strong side, Jauron will leave Gocong here.

    Backup—Kaluka Maiava

    The team will probably hang onto Craig Robertson as a general backup, roster spots permitting.

Secondary Shakeup: Eric Hagg Snags Safety Spot

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    What started as a surprising OTA development has become fact:  Eric Hagg is currently starting at free safety. Hagg made the most of his rookie chances and has moved right on in.

    Not bad for a kid of whom said: “If he cracks the team, will provide depth for the Browns initially and maybe in time he can become something more significant.” I guess so.

    Usama Young shouldn’t feel too badly; since the much-rumored move of Sheldon Brown to safety hasn’t materialized, Young will also see the field.

    Now we just have to see whether or not Buster Skrine can move up from dime to nickel…to starter?

    Left Cornerback

    Starter—unless the North American continent sinks this will be Joe Haden

    Backup—Buster Skrine

    Right Cornerback

    Starter—Dimitri Patterson

    Backup—Sheldon Brown

    Free Safety

    Starter—Eric Hagg

    Backup—Usama Young

    Strong Safety

    Starter—T.J. Ward (“if it ain’t broke…”)

    Backup—Ray Ventrone

Special Teams, Strengths and Weaknesses

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    Special Teams:

    Phil Dawson, Reggie Hodges, Christian Yount, Joshua Cribbs and whichever of the speedier wide receivers comes in last in the starting derby. Next.

    The kick coverage part of special teams is the area that needs help. Enter every single one of those backup linebackers. Acho, Jacobs and Johnson (if he doesn’t end up starting). They may end up helping the team more between possessions.

    Strengths:  Running backs, offensive line (and that is shocking in a good way), tight ends, kicking game, defensive line (on the whole), secondary.

    Weaknesses: Those linebackers again (stopping the run), wide receiver.

    Biggest question mark: For the Browns and every team not named Green Bay, New England, Denver, Pittsburgh, San Diego or New Orleans (well, maybe)—quarterback.

    Biggest concern:  Mike Holmgren’s intensity can be admirable. But he has deliberately assembled an extremely experienced roster of assistant coaches. He needs to let them do their thing.

    "So I go to the coaching staff and I said, 'Hey,' and they said, 'Well, we're working on these routes.' I said 'I don't care, you have got to figure out a way in your scripting, he's got to get some touches otherwise no wonder they get ticked off, no wonder they lose interest, no wonder they drift for a little bit.'"

    Yikes with a capital “Y.”

    From your mouth…

    "They have a quarterback now, they have a running back—in [Trent] Richardson and [they have Brandon] Weeden—this is what you need to jump-start your franchise," Warren Sapp said on June 13th’s episode of NFL Network's NFL Total Access.

    He of the pogo-stick TD dance and the big smile went on to predict that, of teams who have never won a Super Bowl—“It's the Cleveland Browns. They'll be next ." Hold that thought. 

    Expressing yourself as a fan:

    When is booing a bad thing?

    When is booing a good thing?