Training camp doesn’t start for more than two weeks, so it’s the perfect time to make largely uninformed predictions about what this season will hold for the Browns. But let’s not be blindly optimistic with these forecasts. Instead, I’ll offer both a best and worst case scenario in a variety of different areas relating to the Browns season.
Best Case: If not a franchise quarterback, Brandon Weeden proves that he is at least a rock-solid NFL starter. Davone Bess is just the third down target he needs. Josh Gordon’s suspension makes a deep impact on the young wideout and he gets his act together to have a stellar sophomore campaign. Greg Little continues his improved play from the end of last season and limits his drops. Jordan Cameron finally taps into his immense athleticism and proves he is a legitimate starting tight end. Gary Barnidge provides a few important catches at key times. Trent Richardson repeats and improves on his pass catching performance from last year, and the various other running backs haul in a few clutch passes on third downs. Owen Marecic doesn’t drop every pass thrown his way. Call it a pipe dream, but he has been working hard to improve.
Fine, that last part probably won’t happen, but if everything else goes according to plan Weeden shouldn’t have to throw very many balls to Marecic. Honestly, I’d be happy with even one catch from him.
Worst Case: In spite of Norv Turner and Rob Chudzinski’s new system that emphasizes downfield throws, Weeden still struggles with reads, interceptions, and balls batted down at the line of scrimmage. Gordon doesn’t learn from his past mistakes and makes a number of boneheaded decisions off the field that end up affecting his play. Little suffers a relapse in his fight against the dropsies. Cameron can’t realize his potential and he is let go at the season’s conclusion as the new regime won’t wait any longer for him to develop. Owen Marecic makes the team, but his hands are still as useful for catching footballs as two chunks of marble.
Best Case: Joe Greco makes the second starting guard job his own. The line stays healthy, with Joe Thomas and Alex Mack repeating their Pro Bowl performances and Mitchell Schwartz moving closer to their level. Shaun Lauvao is solid, and Jason Pinkston provides depth at the guard position. Richardson proves to everyone he is not at all injury-prone. Some variation of Montario Hardesty, Dion Lewis, and Brandon Jackson combine to spell Richardson and provide a solid option on third downs. Either Owen Marecic makes the team and becomes a punishing lead blocker, or he is cut, giving an opportunity for Kellen Davis, Brad Smelley, or Chris Ogbonnaya to convert to fullback and make the roster. Richardson goes for 1,300 yards and 12 touchdowns, makes the Pro Bowl, and throws his name into the discussion of the league’s elite runners.
Worst Case: The guard situation remains unresolved with Lauvao, Greco, and Pinkston acting as a rotation of suck. Thomas begins to show some signs of decline and only plays like the second best left tackle in the NFL. Richardson fights injuries and can’t match his production from last season.
Really, Richardson is the lynchpin. If he is injured, nothing else matters. He will be the “bell cow” for the Browns offense. The success of the running game rests largely on his broad shoulders and thick legs. As I’ve written previously, I don’t think Cleveland fans should be worried.
Best Case: This defense is built on pressuring the quarterback, and Ray Horton trains them to perfection. The three-man front of Phil Taylor, Ahtyba Rubin, and Desmond Bryant eats up blocks and frees up the linebacking corps to abuse one-on-one matchups. First-round pick Barkevious Mingo haunts the dreams of opposing quarterbacks and tackles in his rookie season. Paul Kruger proves he was worth the five-year, $40 million contract he signed in the offseason. The Browns have a surplus of pass rushing linebackers as Kruger, Mingo, Jabaal Sheard, and Quentin Groves all find themselves frequently dancing over fallen quarterbacks in the opponent’s backfield.
The secondary is probably the position group with the most questions on this Browns squad. Aided by the aggressive pass rush, they quickly alleviate fans’ concerns. Joe Haden makes the Pro Bowl after not being eligible last season due to his suspension. T.J. Ward shows casual fans why some websites list him among the NFL’s top players. Johnson Bademosi wins the starting free safety spot from Tashaun Gipson and makes Ray Horton and staff look like geniuses for converting him from cornerback. In a surprise, Leon McFadden pleases impatient fans by winning the starting cornerback job opposite Haden. Buster Skrine and Chris Owens perform admirably in backup and nickelback roles.
Worst Case: The transition to Horton’s 3-4 system is ugly. The defensive line can’t free up the pass rushers from the second level. Mingo’s lack of size (he currently weighs in at 237 lbs.) is a huge detriment and he gets tossed around by NFL linemen. Kruger becomes exhibit A, B, and C for how playing on a great defense like Baltimore’s can artificially inflate a player’s stats and value. Sheard can’t master the various responsibilities of his new position and becomes a nonfactor.
On the back end, everything that can go wrong does. Opposing offenses continue to throw away from Haden, instead choosing to pick on the other side, where none of McFadden, Skrine, or Owens emerges as a true starter. Ward establishes himself as Roger Goodell’s newest target and he racks up flags and fines for his violent hits. It very quickly becomes clear that neither Bademosi nor Gipson are starting NFL safeties.
Best Case: Taylor, Rubin, and Bryant manhandle opposing offensive lines, make enough tackles, and free up the linebackers to clean up any plays they can’t get to. John Hughes and Billy Winn provide essential depth. D’Qwell Jackson is still the backbone of the defense and helps in the continued development of Craig Robertson as a solid NFL starter. Mingo, Sheard, and the other outside backers are able to balance their pass rushing instincts with solid run support. Ward delivers brutal and legal hits to opposing runners on a weekly basis. The rest of the secondary tackles serviceably when called upon.
Worst Case: The defensive line struggles to adjust to their changed roles in the new system, as does Jackson. Robertson’s rookie season was a fluke and he shows why he went undrafted. Mingo and Sheard routinely get too far upfield and find themselves frequently turning tail to chase down running backs. The secondary can’t wrap up. The Browns endzone becomes a scene of many celebrations by opposing runners. Fans shake their heads, groan, and utter too many profanities to count.
Best Case: Rob Chudzinski is just the man this franchise has been looking for since 1999. He is a stellar in-game coach, adeptly managing the clock and his challenges. He and Norv Turner put their offense in favorable situations and take advantage of their developing talent. Ray Horton installs his system but isn’t afraid to adapt when things aren’t working. Chris Tabor’s special teams weather the losses of Phil Dawson and Reggie Hodges while also developing a dangerous return crew centered on Travis Benjamin and Dion Lewis.
Worst Case: Chudzinski is Pat Shurmur 2.0. He wastes timeouts and gets little value out of his challenges. In his hands, the two-point conversion chart becomes as confusing as if it was written in Chinese characters. Turner and Chudzinski can’t settle on who will handle the playcalling duties and the offense is anemic because of it. Horton’s 3-4 conversion is a disaster as players can’t adapt to their new responsibilities. The Browns lose games due to the kicking game. A lack of depth limits the talent on Tabor’s return units, rendering Benjamin’s blazing speed impotent.
At this point, I think the outcomes in these various areas will be a mixed bag. The running game should be solid to very good, but it is probably overly optimistic to think that every piece will fall into place for the passing game. I would expect moderate improvements in that area, however.
On defense, the pass rush should be a strength after the team’s offseason investments. In my opinion, the secondary has too many question marks and will give up some big plays. The rush defense will be more interesting. That unit’s success will truly depend on how players adjust to the new system.
Until proven otherwise, I am putting my faith in Chudzinski and the rest of the crew on the sidelines. It may be blind hope, but eventually a coaching staff has to be successful in Cleveland.
Pre-training camp Browns prediction: 7-9, 2-4 in the AFC North