There are many reasons to want the NFL regular season to just get going already.
One is how the Browns’ roster looks on paper.
Top to bottom, the Browns have a very interesting depth chart, an enviable foundation of both young and experienced talent. While the Browns were just 4-12 a season ago, they have one of the NFL’s best tackles (Joe Thomas), centers (Alex Mack) and cornerbacks (Joe Haden).
However, the Browns (again) don’t have a clear-cut starting quarterback, with veteran Brian Hoyer and rookie Johnny Manziel set to battle it out. They are also in danger of losing wide receiver Josh Gordon to yet another NFL suspension. The Browns also must adjust to their third head coach (Mike Pettine) in three seasons.
There is also the matter of the Browns’ divisional competition. The Ravens have reloaded. The Steelers still have Ben Roethlisberger, who has won far more than he has lost against Cleveland over the years. The Bengals are going for four straight playoff berths. (Four straight!)
Yes, NFL turnarounds can happen. But they need a jumping-off point. So here we are with Cleveland. Do the Browns now have the might to stand in and fight in this tough division? Or will they wilt again like so many other recent seasons?
The Browns have a deep and skilled defense. Only the Seahawks and Bengals allowed fewer yards per opponent play a season ago. Moreover, Cleveland was strong against the run and the pass, ranking in the top 10 in yards surrendered per rush and pass. Pettine has worked with talented, stout defenses with the Ravens, Jets and Bills, and it would be a surprise if the Browns didn’t field an above-average “D” this season.
The line is one of the strengths of the Browns’ offense. Thomas and Mack are Pro Bowlers, and the additions of second-round pick Joel Bitonio and ex-Seahawk Paul McQuistan strengthens Cleveland’s hand even further. Bitonio could get the call at left guard, and McQuistan can play tackle or guard.
Finally, in Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron, the Browns have a pair of Pro Bowl targets whom they have drafted and developed.
If Gordon is banned for an extended stretch, the Browns’ passing game will be put to the test, as opponents will be able to focus upon Cameron. While the Browns did add receivers Andrew Hawkins, Miles Austin and Nate Burleson in free agency, there is no replacing Gordon’s field-stretching and coverage-dictating skill.
The uncertainty at quarterback also must be considered a weakness for the time being. Hoyer has just four career regular season starts, and he comes off an October ACL tear. Manziel is gifted, but it’s unclear how long it will take him to adjust to the NFL game.
The Browns don’t have many major concerns on defense, but they do lack a star pass rusher, with no player exceeding 5.5 sacks a season ago. Collectively, the Browns appear able to generate enough pressure, but it would be nice if a real difference-maker emerged here.
Goodness, where do we start? Well, let’s go back to the final day of the 2013 regular season, when the club surprisingly fired coach Rod Chudzinski. After hiring Pettine, the club later parted ways with CEO Joe Banner and G.M. Mike Lombardi, promoting Ray Farmer to G.M.
The changes didn’t stop there. The Browns released inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, a good player for some bad Cleveland teams. They would replace Jackson with Karlos Dansby, who had a monster season for Arizona in 2013 (122 tackles, 19 passes defended, 6.5 sacks). The Browns would also make a big change at safety, signing Donte Whitner to replace T.J. Ward, who signed with Denver. An Ohio native, Whitner is solid vs. the run and pass.
On offense, the Browns added some much needed help at running back, signing Ben Tate in free agency and drafting Terrance West in the third round. The club also changed offensive coordinators, hiring Kyle Shanahan. He’s the fourth offensive coordinator the club has had in the last five seasons.
On defense, former Bills assistant Jim O’Neil takes over for Ray Horton as defensive coordinator, but Pettine’s influence on this side of the ball will be strong.
All eyes will be on yet another quarterback competition. As a first-round pick, Manziel figures to have his chances to win the job, but Hoyer can’t be discounted, especially if the rookie is at all shaky in the preseason. The Browns’ most spirited play a season ago came with Hoyer in the lineup.
Guard, outside linebacker and cornerback are other positions worth monitoring, but only because the Browns have well-regarded prospects at each spot. Bitonio is one to watch at guard. If Barkevious Mingo can take a step forward, the Browns will be that much stronger at outside linebacker. At cornerback, first-round pick Justin Gilbert figures to be tested by clubs leery of going after Haden.
The Browns’ schedule is a Fluffernutter sandwich on cardboard bread. If Cleveland can handle the tough edges of the campaign, there’s a chance to gobble up ground in the middle.
The Browns begin their season at nemesis Pittsburgh, then host top-class New Orleans and stout Baltimore before the Week Four bye to end September. However, October and November could be more favorable for Cleveland. Though the Browns play five road games in this stretch, three are against the Jaguars, Titans and Bills. The Browns also have home contests against the Raiders, Buccaneers and Texans. If Cleveland is ready to take a step forward, it will make the most of these two months before closing out the season with home games against tough Cincinnati and Indianapolis and road matchups at Carolina and Baltimore.
In the end, the Browns’ season rides on their offense. Only five other clubs scored fewer points per game in 2013. If Hoyer or Manziel seizes the job with skilled play, the Browns could be in the postseason race much longer than in past seasons.
In so many other campaigns, the Browns have marched out overmatched lineups and have tried to grit and grind out wins. This is a different club, one with the skill to be one of the AFC’s surprise teams, a real feel-good story. But there are hurdles, too.
But at some point, it would be nice if the Browns cleared them, you know?