Football Nation Preview: The 2013 Cleveland Browns
2012 Record: 5-11
With the benefit of hindsight, if you're the Browns, would you have traded up to the No. 2 spot with St. Louis (the original placeholder) to ensure that you get Robert Griffin III? Indianapolis had their heart set on Andrew Luck, so he was out of the question, but Cleveland could have certainly sweetened the pot for the eventual NFL Rookie of the Year.
Additional hindsight shows that, with the 22nd pick, they could have taken undersized Russell Wilson, but instead chose 28 year old Brandon Weeden. While Weeden didn't turn out to be a joke on the level of Ryan Leaf, it's hard to imagine him as a champion either.
Weeden went 5-10 as a starter, throwing 14 touchdowns and 17 picks (tied for fifth in the league). Only five times during the season did Weeden top an 80.0 rating in a game (72.6 for the year). Other than a healthy stretch in October, it was mostly the pits.
One Dimensional Offense
Trent Richardson's rookie season was a mixed bag. The No. 3 overall pick ran for 11 touchdowns and 950 yards, which shows his reliability. On the other hand, Richardson averaged just 3.6 YPA, tied with Michael Turner for lowest average by a back with at least 800 yards on the ground.
Of every running back with 200+ carries last season (23 in all), Richardson is just one of seven to not break 1000 yards. In fact, he had the most carries (267) without topping the millennium mark. The next highest amount of attempts to not make it was Reggie Bush, who had 227 carries and 986 yards (4.3 YPA).
Richardson handled two-thirds of the team's carries (67.4 percent), creating a sense of predictability. The Browns had the ninth lowest amount of rushing attempts in the league, and they ranked third-from-bottom in third down percentage (30.73 percent).
2013 Projected Wins: 5
Top 3 Rookies
-Barkevious Mingo, DE/LB (1/6): Quick-burst defender is adept at both disrupting in the backfield and batting down passes JJ Watt-style, despite his relatively lean frame.
-Leon McFadden, CB (3/68): Unquenchable motor with joystick-like direction changes, McFadden (5'10, 193) uses his work ethic to make up for lack of size.
-Jamoris Slaughter, S (6/175): Coming off an Achilles tear, questions about his ability to transition to the speed and size of NFL offenses make him a question mark.
Coming off of his big Super Bowl, Ravens linebacker Paul Kruger cashed in his career year (9 sacks and a pick) to the tune of $40M over 5 years in Cleveland. Kruger joins Mingo, D'Qwell Jackson, and Craig Robertson in creating a rather deep linebacking corps.
Replacing the departed Ben Watson at starting tight end looks to be third-year man Jordan Cameron, but he'll have some adequate back-ups/competition in Gary Barnidge (a Rob Chudzinski bring-along from Carolina), and Chicago's Kellen Davis.
Speaking of the Bears, quarterback Jason Campbell signed with Cleveland, and some reports indicated he'd been outshining Weeden at OTAs, though Chudzinski has been quick to laud Weeden's improvements. In addition, Shayne Graham replaces lifer Phil Dawson at kicker.
Potential Starting Lineup
QB - Brandon Weeden
RB - Trent Richardson
FB - Owen Marecic
WR - Josh Gordon
WR - Greg Little
TE - Jordan Cameron
LT - Joe Thomas
LG - Shawn Lauvao
C - Alex Mack
RG - John Greco
RT - Mitchell Schwartz
DE - Ahtyba Rubin
NT - Phil Taylor
DE - Desmond Bryant
OLB - Paul Kruger
ILB - Craig Robertson
ILB - D'Qwell Jackson
OLB - Jabaal Sheard
CB - Joe Haden
CB - Leon McFadden
FS - Tashaun Gipson
SS - TJ Ward
K - Shayne Graham
P - Spencer Lanning
LS - Christian Yount
2013 at a Glance
New Year's Eve was a grand house-cleaning at the Dawg Pound, with not only Pat Shurmur and his coaching staff all exiting, but GM Tom Heckert as well. Executive-turned-talking head Michael Lombardi takes his job, while Chudzinski (who's aided the careers of Antonio Gates, Kellen Winslow II, and Cam Newton) takes the coaching reins.
Chudzinski brings along his ex-Chargers boss Norv Turner to be offensive coordinator (a role he's admittedly been better suited for), while defensive genius, and head-coach candidate, Ray Horton oversees the already solid D.
With Chudzinski and Turner working to rebuild the offense, they begin with perhaps the most underrated receiving corps in the game. Greg Little and supplemental pick Josh Gordon (who will miss the first two games of 2013 via suspension) combined for 1452 yards and 9 touchdowns last season, and are now joined via trade by the consistent Davone Bess.
Beyond that group of receivers, they need someone to get it to them.
While it may seem absurd that Turner could do for the developing Weeden what he did for Troy Aikman two decades ago, it could be a matter of Weeden getting over rookie jitters. Chudzinski used the run to set up Newton's passing game in Carolina, so offensive improvement will likely begin with Richardson.
While the Browns offensive line struggled in the running game last season (largely succeeding in pass protection), the line looks to be unchanged from last year, logically giving them more cohesion.
Anchored by Joe Thomas, and with great pass-blocking strides from rookie Mitchell Schwartz, if they come improve their running dimensions, you're looking at an offensive that will surprise some folks.
For the most part, the Browns defense held their own in 2012, and have the disruption-minded Horton calling the shots.
Switching to the 3-4 defense will see a reworked front seven, especially with Desmond Bryant, Ahtyba Rubin, and Phil Taylor all capable of filling the nose tackle role.
It's the linebackers that could become the team's signature punch. Jackson and Robertson provide an explosive middle, while Kruger, Jabaal Sheard, and Horton-disciple Quentin Groves bring the punch from the outside.
The secondary gets a bit of a facelift, with Usama Young and Sheldon Brown leaving the club. Along with the aforementioned rookies, former Falcon Chris Owens, as well as scrappy safety Tashaun Gipson, fortify a squad with TJ Ward, Buster Skrine, and the pugnacious Joe Haden.
Cleveland may have been 5-11 in 2012, but honestly, another year with the same coaching staff could have provided continuity for the offense as a whole, while maintaining its amiable defense. With Baltimore, and perhaps Pittsburgh, possibly regressing from their 2012 form, the Browns have a slim chance of streaking up the chart.
But it's a new staff with many of the same players. If it's a smooth transition, you could see the Browns beating teams in 2013 you wouldn't think they'd beat. The team known for its shortcomings has perhaps its best chance in years to put a strong foot forward.