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Preseason Power Rankings No. 22: Cleveland Browns

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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?

Strengths.

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.

Weaknesses.

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.

Changes.

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.

Camp battles.

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.

Prospects.

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?

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Falcons visited league office to determine limits of OTA contact

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Last year, excessive contact during offseason workouts resulted in the Falcons losing a week of Organized Team Activities. This year, the Falcons left nothing to chance.

G.M. Thomas Dimitroff, appearing on a special 70-minute special edition of PFT Live, explained that he and coach Dan Quinn traveled to the league office to obtain specific guidance regarding the things that can and can’t be done during non-contact practices. The Falcons engaged in a comprehensive review of their offseason workouts with the NFL in order to determine the limits of the process.

For full details, check out the video. For the full, 70-minute interview with Dimitroff download and subscribe to PFT Live in Apple podcasts, audioBoom, and wherever else podcasts are sold. For free.

Money back guarantee.

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Report: Draft bust Justin Gilbert suspended four games

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One of the biggest draft busts in recent NFL history has seen his career dealt another blow.

Former Browns cornerback Justin Gilbert, the eighth overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft, has been suspended four games, according to Courtney Fallon of NFL Network. There has been no word on the reason for the suspension.

Of course, a suspension only matters if the player has a team to play for, and Gilbert doesn’t. The Browns got rid of Gilbert after only two seasons, and the Steelers cut him this offseason. He’s been unemployed since.

It remains to be seen whether any team will want to pick Gilbert up now, or in the future. It’s possible that this player with Top 10 talent could be done at age 25.

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Malik McDowell signs with Seahawks

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The Seahawks have agreed to a contract with their top pick from this year’s draft.

Adam Schefter of ESPN reports that the team has signed defensive lineman Malik McDowell to a four-year deal. The Seahawks traded down three times before eventually selecting McDowell with the 35th overall pick.

McDowell had 24.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks at Michigan State and disrupted offenses on plenty of occasions during his time in East Lansing. There were also periods where McDowell was a non-factor, leading to critiques of his work ethic during the pre-draft process.

The best of McDowell would make him a good fit in the rotation up front for the Seahawks, who also added Nazair Jones to the mix in the third round.

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Jets sign Corey White

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The Jets continued retooling their secondary on Thursday.

The team announced that they have signed defensive back Corey White to their 90-man roster. They waived/injured wide receiver Brisly Estime in a corresponding move.

White has mainly played corner since entering the league as a fifth-round pick of the Saints in 2012. He spent last season with the Bills and had 30 tackles and two interceptions in 15 games with the Jets’ divisional mates. He’s also played with the Cowboys and Cardinals, although his time in Arizona came after Todd Bowles left to become the Jets’ head coach.

The Jets also used four draft picks on defensive backs and signed cornerback Morris Claiborne this offseason while cornerback Darrelle Revis and safety Marcus Gilchrist were released.

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Buccaneers sign second-rounder Justin Evans

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The Buccaneers waited a while before signing their draft picks, but they have made quick work of it since getting the ball rolling.

First-round pick O.J. Howard signed his deal on Monday, three more picks agreed to terms on Tuesday and the team announced on Thursday that second-round safety Justin Evans has signed his contract as well. That leaves third-round wide receiver Chris Godwin as the only remaining unsigned pick in Tampa.

Evans started for Texas A&M the last two years and made an impression as a big hitter in the secondary for the Aggies. He also had four interceptions, so could wind up filling different roles for the Bucs depending on who else is on the field with him.

The Bucs also signed J.J. Wilcox as a free agent this offseason and the two newcomers will join Chris Conte and Keith Tandy in the mix for playing time at the back end of the defense.

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Sonny Randle, All-Pro receiver and college coach, dies at 81

Sonny Randle, one of the best players in the history of the Cardinals franchise and later a college head coach, has died at the age of 81.

A high school track star, Randle enrolled at the University of Virginia with little football experience and wasn’t even on the team as a freshman. But he made the team as a walk-on during his sophomore year and eventually became a star, leading the ACC in catches, receiving yards, kickoff return yards and all-purpose yards in 1958.

The Chicago Cardinals took early notice of Randle’s talent and used a 19th-round draft pick on him in 1958, even though he still had a year of college ahead of him. In those days, a team could draft a player who wasn’t done playing college football and own his rights until he finished his college career, and the Cardinals were happy to wait until he could sign a pro contract in 1959.

In 1960 the Cardinals moved to St. Louis and Randle became one of the top players in the league, leading the NFL with 15 receiving touchdowns and earning first-team All-Pro recognition. He would have three more Pro Bowl seasons for the Cardinals after that, but injuries began to take their toll, and later in his career he bounced around the league in San Francisco, Dallas and Washington without matching the success he had in St. Louis.

Randle was a natural as a coach, starting while he was still an active player and the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team noticed his speed and asked him to give baseball players instructions on sprinting techniques. Cardinals outfielder Lou Brock, who would go on to lead the National League in stolen bases eight times, said Randle helped him become a faster runner.

In retirement Randle became a college football coach and had a great deal of success early on, leading East Carolina to back-to-back Southern Conference championships. That got him hired at his alma mater, Virginia, but he struggled there and was fired after two losing seasons. He eventually got another shot as a head coach, at Marshall, but there were allegations of mistreatment of players, more losing, and he was fired again.

Randle found success later in life as a broadcaster, including working as a color commentator on Marshall games. He worked in broadcasting into his late 70s, retiring in 2014.

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Josh Norman: S–t is going to get really ugly in NFC East this year

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Cornerback Josh Norman is heading into his second season in the NFC East and the league office could be busy if it plays out the way he says it will.

Norman will meet up with old antagonists like Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant and Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham and the Redskins corner had some choice words for both of them in an interview with Tyler Dunne of Bleacher Report. Norman said Bryant is “just a guy” and that Beckham is “a big kid” who isn’t as tough as he acts.

Those comments are likely to rile the two wideouts and Norman is predicting ugliness when the teams meet on the field later this year.

“Trust me when I tell you, it’s going to be bad blood this year,” Norman said. “You think the NFC East didn’t like each other before? This year right here? There’s going to be a lot of fines and maybe some suspensions. I’m going to be honest with you: This s–t is going to get really ugly. Because I do have a safety that don’t give a f–k and I definitely don’t. And I know they don’t have that many people on the offense who do on their side.”

Norman was more complimentary of Julio Jones and Antonio Brown, but the main thrust of the interview was Norman’s insistence that he won’t be backing down from any fights this year. He said he wants his legacy to be one of a player that went about his business with “violence and ruthlessness,” which should guarantee a continued relationship with the league’s disciplinary office if nothing else.

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Odell Beckham won’t say if he’ll be at any OTAs

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A report that Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham would take part in Thursday’s Organized Team Activity was proven incorrect when the wideout failed to make the trip from Los Angeles to New Jersey for the voluntary workout.

Beckham wasn’t at any of the team’s first set of OTAs this week and he wouldn’t give an answer to Kim Jones of NFL Media when she asked if he’ll be at any of the remaining seven on the team’s calendar.

“I love my team and am excited about the season,” Beckham said before offering a no comment on his plans for the rest of voluntary work.

Beckham is heading into the final year of his rookie contract — the Giants have exercised their option for 2018, which is guaranteed against injury only — and that’s the first time when players are eligible to sign an extension with the team that drafted them.

Beckham hasn’t said anything publicly about his deal and isn’t required to be at any Giants practices until their mandatory minicamp in June. He told Jones he will be there for those workouts, which may also present an opportunity to hear his thoughts about a new contract.

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Richard Sherman calls story of friction in locker room “nonsense”

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Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman is denying a report that he and quarterback Russell Wilson aren’t seeing eye to eye, and that the differences between the two are emblematic of the friction between Seattle’s offense and defense.

Sherman told SiriusXM NFL Radio that the story isn’t true.

“It’s just a bunch of nonsense from ‘anonymous’ sources. Can never put much gravity of things like that,” Sherman said.

While it’s true that much of the detail in the ESPN story comes from anonymous sources, it’s a lot of detail from a lot of sources. It’s hard to believe that all of it is false — especially when it comes on the heels of the Seahawks exploring trading Sherman, something they likely wouldn’t be doing if everything in Seattle were going smoothly.

So while Sherman’s denial isn’t surprising, it also won’t be surprising if in the weeks ahead, more reporting focused on the Seahawks confirms that there really is trouble brewing in Seattle.

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NFL declines comment on federal law that would allow sports wagering

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An effort to end the federal ban on expanded gambling has begun. The NFL, which consistently has fought against the expansion of gambling, has nothing to say about that.

League spokesman Brian McCarthy told PFT that the NFL will decline comment on the fledgling effort to end 25 years of federal prohibition against expanded sports betting at the state level. If successful, each and every state would be able to decide on its own whether to embrace sports wagering.

Some believe the league’s decision to let the Raiders move to Las Vegas represents the first step toward an eventual embrace of gambling, along with an effort to find a way to siphon some of the cash that the league traditionally hasn’t been able to directly touch. It’s a long-term play, but it can’t begin until the federal government changes the law.

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Budda Baker signs with Cardinals

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The Cardinals opened the day with two unsigned members of their 2017 draft class.

They’ll end it with just first-round pick Haason Reddick in need of a contract. Safety Budda Baker signed his four-year deal with the team on Thursday.

Baker is not taking part in the team’s offseason program right now because NFL rules bar him from practicing until the University of Washington ends the school year on June 9. He did get to travel to Arizona to sign his contract, however.

“It’s definitely been difficult being away from the veteran type of guys,” Baker said, via the team’s website. “I feel like I knew this coming into it, and I’m just trying to stay focused and stay with the task at hand. You can just control what you can control and when I am here, just be ready.”

When Baker is able to fully throw himself into life with the Cardinals, he should compete for a role in a secondary that frequently uses three safeties at the same time.

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Michael Bennett calls ESPN article “trash” and “all gossip”

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As one media boycott by Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett ends, another one may be beginning.

In response to a detailed article from Seth Wickersham of ESPN The Magazine regarding the depths of the dysfunction in Seattle, Bennett said via Twitter, “This article is trash and should be on TMZ. It’s all gossip. I’m surprised this came from you.”

Bennett posted another message in response to the notion outlined in the article of resentment toward quarterback Russell Wilson: “I love [Wilson] great teammate and friend and even better human. I was at his house last week and he gave me BBQ ribs.”

Neither Wilson nor Richard Sherman, the primary characters from the Wickersham story, have reacted to the article on Twitter.

Despite Bennett’s protests, Wickersham’s article can’t be described as gossip. He has on-the-record quotes from people like former Seahawks running backs coach Sherman Smith, and Wickersham’s track record suggests that the facts attributed to unnamed sources or something other than #fakenews.

Wickersham will get a chance to react to the reaction, and to further discuss his story, when he appears on Friday’s PFT Live at 7:35 a.m. ET.

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C.J. Mosley recovering from shoulder surgery

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The Ravens picked up their option on linebacker C.J. Mosley’s contract for the 2018 season, but that wasn’t the only offseason development of note for their 2014 first-round pick.

Coach John Harbaugh revealed on Thursday, via Jeff Zrebiec of the Baltimore Sun, that Mosley had shoulder surgery. He has been in the building and taking part in meetings during the offseason program with Harbaugh adding that the team doesn’t have any long-term concerns about his status for the 2017 season.

Ravens guard Marshal Yanda is also recovering from shoulder surgery and has been held out of practices along with linebacker Terrell Suggs, who had biceps surgery. Joining them on the sideline Wednesday was tight end Maxx Williams, who ended last year on injured reserve and had a knee surgery that Harbaugh said no other football player has had before.

Williams, like all the others, is expected to be ready to go in time for training camp.

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Effort commences to legalize sports wagering

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The NFL will oppose gambling, until it doesn’t. And it won’t oppose gambling once gambling becomes legal.

The process of legalizing sports wagering has commenced, with the introduction of legislation that would end the federal ban on the expansion of betting. Via ESPN.com, the Gaming Accountability and Modernization Enhancement Act (GAME Act) would repeal a 1992 law that the prohibit the further spread of state-sponsored betting.

Representative Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) sponsored the legislation. He contends that the prevalence of illegal gambling compels an effort to legalize and regulate wagering on sporting events.

“Despite the federal gaming laws in place today, Americans are betting up to $400 billion a year on sporting events alone,” Pallone said in a statement. “It’s time to recognize that the laws are outdated, and the GAME Act will modernize them by increasing transparency, integrity, and consumer protections.”

It likely will be couched as an issue of states rights, with each jurisdiction determining whether to legalize sports betting and the federal government exiting the business of telling states what they can and can’t do. Over time, plenty of states would embrace sports betting. After years or decades, possibly all will.

The NFL has in the past fought aggressively in court the efforts of states like Delaware and New Jersey to circumvent the federal law that prohibits states from legalizing sports betting. It will be interesting to see what the NFL has to say about this effort to scuttle the federal ban — and whether and to what extent the league will devote lobbying dollars to help the new law or to block the new law.

Some believe that, despite the league’s public-facing opposition to gambling, the decision to allow the Raiders to move to Las Vegas means that the NFL eventually will do an about-face as abruptly as it did about Vegas, going in the blink of an eye from loathing it to loving it — and acting as if it never previously had a problem with it.

As the NFL tries to get to $25 billion in annual revenue, and with billions already changing hands illegally every year via betting on the NFL, this ultimately represents a way for the NFL to grabs some of the money on which it has historically missed out. Eventually, the end game will be to create a mechanism by which fans can bet on games through official websites and apps, finally giving the NFL a piece of a pie that it has stubbornly refused to taste.

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Jets down to one unsigned pick after signing ArDarius Stewart

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First-round pick Jamal Adams will be the final member of the 2017 Jets draft class to sign a contract with the team.

That became unavoidable on Thursday when the team announced that third-round pick ArDarius Stewart has agreed to a four-year deal. Stewart was drafted with the 79th overall pick after the Jets traded down with the Vikings in the third round.

Stewart was one of two wide receivers drafted by the Jets this year and comes to the team after earning a spot on the All-SEC first-team at Alabama last year. Stewart had 54 catches for 864 yards and eight touchdowns for the Crimson Tide with 30 of the catches resulting in a first down.

Stewart joins fourth-round pick Chad Hansen in a receiving corps fronted by Eric Decker, Robby Anderson and Quincy Enunwa in the wake of Brandon Marshall’s release following the 2016 season. They’ll be waiting along with the rest of the Jets to find out who will be throwing them passes as the team conducts a three-way competition for the starting quarterback job.

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