Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order or our initial 2014 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the preseason begins with the Hall of Fame Game in Canton.
It has been a long, long time since the Cleveland Browns were among the must-watch teams in the NFL. Thanks to a rookie quarterback, they will be this season.
Johnny Manziel mania hit Cleveland in full force. This preview will not contain any debates about his off-field activities, and (thankfully) no photos of Justin Bieber. But we'll talk about him as a football player, because one way or another he's going to be one of the memorable picks in Browns history.
But right now Manziel doesn't even have a starting job. That's Brian Hoyer's to lose. And, let's be honest, odds are he will at some point. Johnny Football will be the biggest story on this team all season, but not the only one.
The defense should be very good, especially at cornerback. The offensive line is still among the best in the NFL, especially if right tackle Mitchell Schwartz breaks through and second-round pick Joel Bitonio is an impact player right away. The running game has been upgraded significantly. There's still some concern on offense since the Browns' top playmaker, receiver Josh Gordon, is facing a year suspension for yet another failed drug test.
There's some question about the stability of the franchise – it really became a running joke this offseason, with coach Rob Chudzinski being fired after a year and the team having a hard time finding anyone to take the job before Mike Pettine finally did, and completely overhauling the front office in a surprising twist – but there are some reasons to believe that the football team is heading in the right direction.
Yes, one of the reasons is Johnny Manziel.
2013 review in less than 25 words: A win over Buffalo had Cleveland dreaming big at 3-2, but quarterback injuries took a toll and the team finished 4-12.
Is the roster better, worse or about the same?: Probably worse. There were some good additions but losing safety T.J. Ward in free agency and Gordon to a suspension are two key blows. Gordon is the only 2013 first-team AP All-Pro player who won't be with his 2013 team at all this season (assuming Gordon's suspension holds up, San Francisco's NaVorro Bowman returns from injury and Indianapolis' Robert Mathis comes back after a four-game suspension). That's a massive loss, and a hole the Browns didn't really fill. So the additions of draft picks Justin Gilbert and Manziel, and free-agent signings of Andrew Hawkins, Donte Whitner, Karlos Dansby and Ben Tate are great, those are two enormous pieces to lose (not to mention the loss of linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, who was cut).
Best offseason acquisition: The NFL is obviously a passing league, and you can't go wrong loading up at cornerback. The Browns already had one of the best in the NFL in Joe Haden, and now have a potentially devastating duo with Gilbert coming aboard. The eighth overall pick, Gilbert has a great skill set that should make him one of the better corners in football. That also allows Buster Skrine and 2013 rookie Leon McFadden to develop as third and fourth corners, giving Cleveland great depth. There's nothing wrong with making your strengths stronger, which is what Cleveland did with the GIlbert pick.
Achilles heel: Cleveland is racing Carolina in an epic battle to see who can have the worst receiving corps in the NFL. The Browns say they knew about Gordon's year-long suspension before the draft, but added no receivers in the draft. It's fair to praise them for sticking with their board and not reaching to fill a need, but the lack of playmakers at receiver is mighty scary. If Nate Burleson and Miles Austin can stay healthy they'll help, but that's an if that would cover Lake Erie. Hawkins, signed away from Cincinnati as a restricted free agent, should have a big year, but even that's no sure thing. Tight end Jordan Cameron might see an eye-popping number of targets.
Position in flux: Running back shouldn't be in flux, because the Browns gave former Texan Ben Tate a contract to be the starter. But Tate has a lot of durability concerns, so it's worth pondering who is next in line. Cleveland drafted Terrance West, a 225-pounder out of Towson, in the third round. Then came the interesting addition of undrafted free agent Isaiah Crowell, a spectaculary talented back at Alabama State who likely would have been a high pick if not for some off-field issues in college that led to his departure from Georgia. Given Tate's history with injuries it's unlikely he'll be a 300-carry workhorse, and playing all 16 games is far from a sure thing. And given the Browns' questions in the passing game, there will be plenty of rushing attempts. One or both rookies could have a nice impact.
Opportunity and talent are meeting in a big way for Hawkins in Cleveland. The 5-7, 180-pound receiver never had a huge season in Cincinnati, with 86 catches for 995 yards over three seasons. But there's a reason the Browns gave him $13.6 million over four years on the restricted free agent market, with more than $10 million in the first two years to make sure the Bengals couldn't match. Hawkins was never a featured player in Cincinnati, but he sure will be in Cleveland. Hawkins will get a ton of targets just because the Browns don't have much else at receiver. Hawkins has a chance to out-perform his three-year total with Cincinnati in 2014 alone. Ready to break out:
Stat fact: Brian Hoyer has 192 career attempts, or less than Peyton Manning had in December last season. But Hoyer's 2013 makes him difficult to evaluate. His career got a big "Tom Brady backup" hype boost (you could put a scarecrow behind Brady now and many NFL analysts would say the Patriots could get a second-round pick for the scarecrow), but looked like a prototypical journeyman before getting a shot last year. The Browns won all three Hoyer starts last year and he played fairly well, with an 82.6 rating. That's not enough of a sample size to trust him as the quarterback of the future, which is why Manziel was picked. But it was intriguing enough to give him a second look. If Hoyer plays well and keeps Manziel on the bench this season, that's not the worst problem to have.
Schedule degree of difficulty: Being the "other" AFC North team is tough, because every division battle is a grind. But the Browns are tied for the 26th hardest schedule, based on 2013 winning percentages, so it's not too bad. Having four of the last six on the road, including the last two at Carolina and Baltimore, isn't comforting though.
This team’s best-case scenario for the 2014 season: The defense could really keep this team in a number of games, and then who knows? Cleveland was third in the league in passing yards per attempt allowed and seventh in rushing yards per attempt allowed, so that crew was already at a high level, and maybe the additions (Whitner for Ward, Dansby for Jackson, Gilbert in at cornerback) are upgrades. Can the offense muster enough points to win some close games? Well, they have this rookie quarterback who's supposed to be a pretty special playmaker ...
And here’s the nightmare scenario: There's a chance the offense doesn't do enough to keep this team in games. The receiving corps is not good, and not very durable either. The Gordon suspension just wrecked that side of the ball. And after all the quarterback heartache in Cleveland since 1999, the real bummer for fans would be if Manziel really can't play out of the pocket and his size is a hindrance, and he looks like a future bust. The franchise can't afford to start over again at quarterback.
The crystal ball says: I think this team ends up better than our preseason ranking, or at least will be one that has a lot to be excited about for 2015. That's because I believe in Manziel. I think he's the answer to the Browns' eye-popping quarterback woes for more than a decade. I can't say he'll be incredible this year, because almost no quarterback would be with these receivers, but he'll take the starting job over fairly quickly (the Browns have a bye in Week 4 ... keep that in mind) and will show all the special things he did at Texas A&M. I think, with the skill-position weapons on hand, Cleveland's ceiling is six or maybe seven wins. But by this time next year, I think we'll all be fairly impressed with Manziel and the Browns' future.
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