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2014 Team Report: Cleveland Browns
QuarterbacksStarter: Brian Hoyer
Backup(s): Johnny Manziel [R] ,Tyler Thigpen, Connor Shaw [R] Starting QB: While Johnny Manziel may have to earn the starting job over Brian Hoyer, Cleveland didn’t draft him with the intention to play him of playing him right away - at least if we take them at their word. Hoyer is left over from a previous coaching regime and front office, while Manziel was drafted by the current group in charge. Manziel’s playmaking ability may eventually make it too hard for the coaching staff to keep him off the field. With the suspension of Josh Gordon for the entire season, Cleveland is going to need all of the playmakers they have on the field. If he’s intelligent enough to avoid big hits and preserve his body, Manziel has the potential to rush for 700+ yards in a full season, but for now it looks like it will be Hoyer's show. Hoyer was surprisingly good last year, but without Gordon, he'll be a fantasy afterthought. He did riff with Jordan Cameron, so that bodes well for the tight end entering a contract year. Backup QB: Manziel will be in waiting as the Browns are making noise about him earning everything he gets on the depth chart. He rose quickly in a similar situation at Texas A&M, so don't be surprised if he arrives sooner than even the coaches expect - but for now he's not just the backup, he's taking third-string snaps. Connor Shaw was a very good player in college and brings mobility to his game much like Manziel. Tyler Thigpen has shown flashes of being a successful player in the NFL, but he is many years removed from that. He could make the roster, but his path to playing time is very much road-blocked.
Running BacksStarter: Ben Tate
Backup(s): Terrance West, Isaiah Crowell [R], Chris Ogbannaya, Dion Lewis
Fullback(s): Chris Pressley Starting RB: Ben Tate was signed from Houston during the free agency period. He didn’t fetch a big contract due to concerns over his durability, but he has shown that he’s talented enough to be a productive runner. Tate could be a focal point in an offense that will be without star receiver Josh Gordon due to a suspension for the entire season. His talent has never been in question since being a second-round draft pick in 2010, but his injury troubles and being stuck behind Arian Foster in Houston have left him still needing to prove that he can be effective as a lead back. Backup RBs: Cleveland’s running back corps may have been the weakest in the NFL last season. To address that, they not only got Ben Tate in free agency to be the starter, but the also acquired two rookies. Terrance West was drafted in the third round out of Towson. Despite the small school, he’s a player who has the size and tools to be a productive NFL runner. His 225 pound frame and light feet make him capable of carrying a big load if the need arises. Isaiah Crowell was signed by Cleveland as an undrafted free agent. Crowell is a player whose talent far exceeds his situation of going undrafted. Due to legal troubles, Crowell left Georgia and was “red-flagged” heading into the draft. The backup in Cleveland could be a player thrust into extensive duty due to Tate’s injury history, and the rookies seem to be the leaders in the race to be number two on the depth chart. Chris Ogbannaya showed his versatility last season, catching 48 passes and scoring two receiving touchdowns. His ability to pass protect and catch the ball out of the backfield has him as the frontrunner to be the team’s third down back. Dion Lewis is a talented player whose injury history has prevented him from getting extended playing time. With the acquisition of Tate and the two rookies, Lewis may be the odd man out in this backfield. Fullback: Chris Pressley was formerly with division rival Cincinnati. He missed the entirety of the 2013 season with a knee injury. He should be utilized in Kyle Shanahan’s zone-blocking system, but as is the case with most fullbacks in today’s NFL, he won’t touch the ball often and will largely see his contributions come outside of the box score.
Wide ReceiversStarters: Miles Austin, Andrew Hawkins
Backups: Nate Burleson, Charles Johnson, Earl Bennett, Travis Benjamin Starting WRs: Josh Gordon took the NFL by storm last season, leading the league in receiving yards despite being suspended for two games. However, on August 27, Gordon's suspension was upheld. He will miss the entire 2014-15 season. As for the players who will attempt to fill the massive shoes of Gordon, the team addressed the receiver position when it signed Miles Austin on May 15. Austin has been far from the model of health the past few years, making this a “band-aid” situation at best. When healthy, though, Austin is the best receiver on the team – although that speaks to a dearth of talent at the position instead of a surplus of it in Austin. The diminutive Andrew Hawkins, a player best suited for a slot role, is the next-best option for Cleveland. A lot of this passing offense will go through Jordan Cameron. Backup WRs: Nate Burleson was brought in to provide a veteran presence. With Gordon now suspended for the whole 2014-15 season, Burleson is going to have to assume a larger role. He’ll be 33 when the season begins, so his ability to do that is certainly in question. This team badly lacks a perimeter weapon. Enter Charles Johnson, who was drafted in the seventh round in 2013 by Green Bay. Johnson ran in the 4.3’s entering the draft and has a 39.5 inch vertical leap. At 6’2” with those skills, he could get a chance on the perimeter. However, he is very raw and didn't make his way up the depth chart in training camp. Travis Benjamin is a speedster who can get behind defenses, but he lacks size and overall skill to be a complete receiver. He should contribute on special teams and on the occasional situational deep play or reverse.
Tight EndsStarters: Jordan Cameron
Backups: Gary Barnidge, Jim Dray, MarQueis Gray Jordan Cameron emerged in a big way in his first full season as a starter, with 80 catches for 917 yards and seven touchdowns. His basketball-playing background translated very well to the NFL, where Cameron excels at out-jumping defenders and keeping them on his back so they can’t access the ball to keep it away from his grasp. With Josh Gordon’s suspended for the whole 2014-15 season, Cameron is the heavy favorite to lead this team in targets in 2014. His 2013 season looks like it’s much closer to his floor than his ceiling. Gary Barnidge and Jim Dray are blocking specialists only, and MarQueis Gray had just eight touches in 12 games last year after being converted from being a wildcat quarterback in college.
Place KickerBilly Cundiff: All three specialists from last year are back for the Browns, including Christian Yount at long snapper and Spencer Lanning at punter/holder. At kicker, Billy Cundiff was re-signed in March. Last year he made 21 of 26 (80.8%) field goals and added 32 extra points. His two field goals of 50+ yards were the first time he hit multiple long ones in a season since 2003. The Browns have ranked in the bottom third in kicker scoring opportunities for six straight years, including 29th last year.
Kick and Punt ReturnersKick Returners: Marlon Moore, Travis Benjamin, Shaun Draughn, Taylor Gabriel, Justin Gilbert Cleveland's return game was unsettled at best last season with below average performances across the board, and turnovers in abundance. Little was done to address the situation in the offseason so the same cast of characters are likely to be involved in 2015. Travis Benjamin was outperformed by Marlon Moore on kick returns, with the latter having a pedestrian but team best 24.8 yards per return on his 13 kickoff returns. Shaun Draughn and Taylor Gabriel may also see opportunities as they did last season, though Moore and Benjamin likely head the group. Punt Returners: Travis Benjamin, Jordan Poyer, Justin Gilbert As bad as the kick returns were, the punt return game was even worse for the Browns. Cleveland had so many ball security issues that even turning to Jim Leonhard as a designated punt catcher resulted in a miscue. Lacking other options, the Browns will likely look at Jordan Poyer and Travis Benjamin again. Justin Gilbert could be another option for the team in a pinch now that Leonhard is gone.
Offensive LineProjected Starters: LT Joe Thomas, LG John Greco, C Alex Mack, RG Jason Pinkston, RT Mitchell Schwartz
Key Backups: G/T Joel Bitonio [R], T Reid Fragel, G/C Garrett Gilkey, G/T Paul McQuistan Returning all five starters at all of the same positions, with two of those starters considered current All-Pro’s, the perpetually underrated Browns are one of the top ranked offensive lines this preseason. Left tackle Joe Thomas continues to be the best left tackle in football; with his seven pro bowls (so far), he is constructing a Hall of Fame caliber career. While not quite as dominant as Thomas, center Alex Mack is a key part of the offensive line and the franchise dodged a bullet when they matched his offer from Jacksonville. Mack would have been very hard to replace. Left guard John Greco turns in very solid performances week to week, but he plays between two of the best in the game, and that has to make his job easier. On the other side, the closest thing to a weak spot is the right guard position, where oft-injured Jason Pinkston is currently penciled in to start. Pinkston will likely face immediate competition, both from free agent veteran Paul McQuistan, and from second round rookie Joel Bitonio. Bitonio is a versatile athlete who can challenge both Pinkston and current right tackle Mitchell Schwartz for playing time. By selecting this player, the Browns have reloaded from the loss of Shawn Lauvao to free agency. In other depth, tackle Reid Fragel is actually a decent player (converted tight end) and could factor in as a swing tackle (or more) due to his athletic gifts. Garrett Gilkey was effective in spot start duty last season, and even more interestingly, seems to be the NFL’s version of Ron Swanson. Overall, the Browns line is often overlooked, but their elite talent, depth and consistency make them the current top dogs going into the preseason.
Team DefenseThe Browns have made plenty of changes to the defense heading into this year and have competitions ate several spots. Their defensive line should be set with three behemoths up front taking up blockers and clogging up holes. Karlos Dansby replaces D'Qwell Jackson at inside linebacker and if he can stave off decline due to age he should be an upgrade. Barkevious Mingo and Jabaal Sheard will attempt to provide pressure from the outside, but the two only combined to 10.5 sacks last year. The secondary could be the most improved unit with Pro Bowler Joe Haden, rookie Justin Gilbert, and big hitter Donte Whitner. They have to replace T.J. Ward but Gilbert should be a big enough upgrade outside to make up for it.
Defensive LineStarters: NT Phil Taylor, DE/NT Ahtyba Rubin, DE Desmond Bryant
Backups: NT Ishmaa'ily Kitchen, DE Billy Winn, DE Armonty Bryant, DE John Hughes Starting DL: The success of a 3-4 scheme relies on the front three to hold ground and eat up blockers so that the linebackers can make plays. In Phil Taylor, Ahtyba Rubin and Desmond Bryant the Browns have a trio of linemen who are all in excess of 310 pounds and are an excellent fit in their 3-4 front. The 335 pound Taylor lines up at nose tackle and is the anchor of the run defense. He has the size and strength to hold his ground and forces offenses to commit two blockers on most running plays. The 2011 first round pick has 7 sacks on his NFL resume. Taylor's biggest contribution as a pass rusher however, lies in his ability to push the pocket and flush the quarterback to teammates. The 330 pound Rubin has a very similar skill set to that of Taylor, with a bit more quickness and athleticism. Rubin will see some snaps at nose tackle as well, but will work mostly at end. He demands a lot of attention when offenses want to move him. Bryant is the most athletic of the trio. At 6'6" and 310 pounds, his height and wingspan make Bryant the biggest pass rush threat of the group. He has 14.5 sacks over the past four years including 3.5 in twelve games last season despite battling nagging injuries. In fact, all three of these players were banged up at times in 2013. If they can all stay healthy in 2014, the Browns will be tough to run on. Backup DL: With all three starters banged up at times, Cleveland's defensive line depth was put to the test in 2013. All four of these players saw action last season with John Hughes and Billy Winn playing a significant role even when the starters were healthy. While the backup options are a small step down in talent, the Brown's organization has done a good job of assembling players that can be plugged in without altering the defensive play calling.
LinebackersStarters: ILB Karlos Dansby, ILB Craig Robertson, OLB Jabaal Sheard, OLB Paul Kruger, OLB Barkevious Mingo
Backups: ILB Tank Carder, ILB Christian Kirksey, OLB Quentin Groves, OLB Eric Martin, OLB Brandon Magee Starting LBs: The success of any 3-4 scheme lies with the ability of its linebackers to make game changing plays. That is an element the Browns need to improve on if they are to turn the corner this year. At inside linebacker the team replaced free agent defector D'Qwell Jackson with free agent addition Karlos Dansby. This move should provide an upgrade in that Dansby is a proven veteran presence with a long track record of both sound fundamentals and big play production. In the Cardinals 3-4 last season he produced 6 sacks and four interceptions, returning two of those for scores. His 19 pass breakups in 2013 is a number almost unheard of for a linebacker. Craig Robertson joins Dansby at the ILB position. His numbers as a starter over the past two seasons are unimpressive but Robertson seems to have won over the coaching staff with dependable tackling and strong coverage skills. He may eventually be challenged for the starting job by rookie Christian Kirksey, but will be an adequate starting option in the meantime. Despite making no significant additions, it is at outside linebacker where the Browns hope to see the most improvement. In this scheme it is the outside linebackers who are called upon to be a disruptive force, particularly when it comes to putting pressure on the quarterback. The most successful 3-4 teams expect 20+ sacks from their starters at this position over the course of a season. In 2013 Cleveland's top three outside backers produced 15 between them. Last year's free agent prize Paul Kruger proved to be no more than adequate with 4.5 sacks and a couple of forced fumbles. Holdover Jabaal Sheard managed to lead the club with 5.5 sacks as he made the transition from 4-3 end to 3-4 linebacker, and first round pick Barkevious Mingo contributed a solid if unspectacular 5 sacks. The organization is counting on improvement from all three as they enter their second year in the scheme. Backup LBs: With the addition of third round pick Christian Kirksey, the Browns have solidified their depth and linebacker. He was a highly productive team captain at Iowa in 2013, contributing a number of big plays along with triple digit tackle numbers. The team expects Kirksey to push for playing time and possibly make a play for the starting job as a rookie. He could eventually be the centerpiece of the unit as Dansby will 33 in November. Cleveland basically has three starters on the outside, with veteran Quentin Groves making them four players deep at the position before it would get ugly. Depth at the second levelshould not be a big issue.
Defensive BacksStarters: SS Donte Whitner, FS Tashaun Gipson, CB Joe Haden, CB Buster Skrine, CB Justin Gilbert
Backups: FS Johnson Bademosi, S Janoris Slaughter, CB Leon McFadden, CB Pierre Desir, CB Isaiah Trufant Starting DBs: The Cleveland secondary took a lot of flack for last year's struggles. Thus it comes as no surprise that we will see a lot of new faces lining up there in 2014. T.J. Ward left via free agency so the Browns signed Donte Whitner to replace him. Like Ward, Whitner is a dependable tackler who packs a punch, but is not much of a big play threat. Statistically Whitner has been below average for most of his career. That however, has a great deal to do with his opportunity and the schemes that he has played in. his skill set is that of an in the box strong safety and an enforcer over the middle against the pass.In the one season that he was used that way, Whitner racked up 95 solo tackles for the Bills. At best he could be a great/productive fit for the Browns. At worst he should provide the same type of play and production as Ward has in recent years. Tashaun Gipson emerged as the starter opposite Ward in 2013. The former undrafted free agent quietly played well, finishing the season with 5 interceptions and 11 passes defended. He is entering his third season as a pro and second as the team's undisputed starter. The Browns feel that they may have a long term answer at the position. Joe Haden has established himself as one of the leagues outstanding cover corners and a big play threat. Despite opponents often throwing away from him, Haden managed 4 picks and 20 pass breakups in 2013. The addition of eight overall pick Justin Gilbert means that Cleveland now has no weak link to target. Gilbert was seen my many scouts as the top corner in this year's draft class. He has good size, great speed, and the 7 interceptions (2 for scores) he posted at Oklahoma State last year suggests that he is the playmakers Cleveland has been searching for. Buster Skrine has started for the Browns over the past two seasons and may open 2014 in that role. It is only a matter of time however, before he is bumped into the nickel role. Backup DBs: The Browns are short on veteran depth in the secondary and are particularly vulnerable at safety where third year man Johnson Bademosi and second year pro Janoris Slaughter are all that is behind the starter. Both players are former late round draft choices who have all of 27 tackles between them at the pro level, all of those belonging to Bademosi who finished last season with 11. The team is very young at corner as well, with last year's third round pick Leon McFadden, this year's fourth round selection Peirre Desire and former Jets backup Isaiah Trufant rounding out the depth chart. Injuries in the secondary could potentially derail the Browns hops of a turnaround in 2014. Last modified: 2015-05-03 20:35:46