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2012 Team Report: Cleveland Browns

Quarterbacks

Starter: Brandon Weeden [R]
Backup(s): Colt McCoy, Thaddeus Lewis

Starting QB: Brandon Weeden was drafted with the Browns' second pick in the first round of this year's draft. While most teams may be against starting a rookie right away, Weeden isn't your typical rookie. At 28 years old, Weeden will look to make up for lost time and produce right away. He has his shortcomings, however. He took most of his snaps in college from the shotgun; he struggles to make decisions in the face of pressure; and he's very heavy-footed in the pocket when it comes to avoiding the rush. This team threw the ball around at a very high rate last year (570 passes to 415 runs). While the change of offensive coordinator to Brad Childress will likely bring more balance early in games, the fact that this team might be behind very often should leave them as a team that throws much more than it runs. Weeden will have his struggles and will be fortunate if he reaches 3,300 yards and 15 TDs.

Backup QB: Colt McCoy started 13 games for the team last season, and while he didn't completely kill the team, he didn't live up to the pre-2011 expectations created by the promise he showed in his 2010 rookie campaign. Some offseason turmoil that began when his father questioned the team for how it handled his late-season concussion may have led to the team taking Weeden and subsequently shopping McCoy. While he's still on the roster as of this writing, that could change if another team has a camp injury at the position. The end of preseason cut of Seneca Wallace leaves Thaddeus Lewis as the third string backup behind Colt McCoy.

Running Backs

Starter: Trent Richardson [R]
Backup(s): Montario Hardesty, Brandon Jackson, Chris Ogbonnaya, Adonis Thomas [R]
Fullback(s): Owen Marecic, Brad Smelley

Starting RB: Trent Richardson is a player that Cleveland knew it wanted -- so much so that rumors of a Tampa Bay trade-up to the #3 spot led to Cleveland trading a 4th, 5th, and 7th just to move up one spot to select him. If Richardson lives up to the high reviews that have been bestowed upon him (best RB prospect since Adrian Peterson), the three picks with which Cleveland parted will be well worth it. Richardson is a dynamic workhorse, a runner who can break big plays but is also built to take the beating of a 300+ carry season. With the runners behind him and the picks invested in him, Richardson is firmly entrenched as this team's number one. A recent knee scope surgery (the second on his left knee in the past six months) is being called a "minor clean-up" but could lead the team to monitor his early-season touches.

Backup RBs: The oft-injured but very talented Montario Hardesty remains in Cleveland's backup role. The team seems to lack confidence in his ability to carry the load productively and stay healthy. If Richardson unfortunately misses time, Hardesty is likely to get the lion's share of the carries, but the mix will be different. He'll give away many more to the other backups than Richardson will. Brandon Jackson gives the team a dynamic 3rd-down back when Richardson needs a rest. He is a good pass-catcher and has great speed, but his fantasy production is completely dependent upon injuries above him. Chris Ogbannaya is a similar player to Jackson. He was cut by Houston mid-season -- a team that knows plenty about running back injuries. Houston's release of him provides an indication of his ceiling, a low one. The deep sleeper of the depth chart is undrafted free agent Adonis Thomas, the rookie from Toledo. After a three-day tryout, he impressed the Browns staff enough to sign him to a contract and for Pat Shurmer to tell the local media that Thomas could contribute this year. Thomas is stylistically similar to San Francisco 49ers draft pick and former Oregon star LaMichael James: shifty, agile, and versatile. Look for his contribution come on special teams or special third-down packages on those rare occasions Richardson leaves the field.

Fullback: Owen Marecic was drafted by Cleveland with a pick acquired in the famous Julio Jones trade from the 2011 NFL draft. Marecic played 14 games last year, only receiving nine touches. He's not fantasy relevant because of that lack of touches and because he's not necessarily elite enough that Cleveland's backs will see their value fall without him.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Greg Little, Mohamed Massaquoi
Backups: Josh Cribbs, Josh Gordon [R], Travis Benjamin [R], Jordan Norwood, Rod Windsor, Bert Reed, Josh Cooper

Starting WRs: Greg Little, selected in the second round of the 2011 draft, had too many drops in his rookie season. He has top-level size at 6'3" and 231 lbs, but he's not a game-breaker who will rip the lid off the defense. Little has 100-catch potential (think of an in-his-prime Anquan Boldin), but the quarterback situation with which he's been saddled so far won't get him there. He could be a spot-start WR3 in all formats or even WR2 in PPR leagues if Weeden shows promise. Mohamed Massaquoi showed flashed of ability in his 2009 rookie season but has been very pedestrian ever since. With just seven touchdowns in three seasons, Massaquoi's spot on the depth chart is ripe for the picking.

Backup WRs: Even though he's the newest member of the team, Josh Gordon may have the best chance of any of the players listed here as backups. Gordon has great size at 6'4" and 220 pounds and has excellent speed. If he can learn the team's offensive scheme and build rapport with presumed starter Brandon Weeden, he should slide into the primary backup role -- if not the starting lineup -- by default. This corps of receivers isn't very good. With the NFL's continued emphasis on player safety continuing to make kickoff returns less important, Josh Cribbs has to rely on being involved in the team's offense to be productive and make splash plays. His skills at wide receiver are improving, but no one will ever call him the best route-runner they've ever seen. His 41 / 518 / 4 line from last year was by far the best of his career. Relying on anything more, though, may be a bit optimistic. Others on the team have better wide receiver skills. Beat writers are already saying that Travis Benjamin -- drafted by the team with the 100th overall pick -- could be the opening week slot receiver. A "track-star" type of player, Benjamin could catch five-yard passes and turn them into 50-yard gains. This skill set lends itself well to a team with a rookie QB who will need some easy throws to avoid pressure and become confident. Benjamin's fantasy outlook is rather limited, though, as this team's offense just isn't good enough to sustain drives (or the fantasy value of its skill players). Jordan Norwood has fallen to the bottom of the wide receiver barrel with the acquisition of Gordon.

Tight Ends

Starters: Ben Watson
Backups: Jordan Cameron, Alex Smith

Both the Cleveland tight ends offer their offense above-average pass-catching skills and solid intermediate targets for their quarterbacks. Benjamin Watson is the older player, and his field-stretching abilities are in decline. After suffering three concussions in 2011, Watson insists that he'll be ready to go in 2012. If in a very deep league (which it would have to be) and considering Watson, keep this injury history in mind. Jordan Cameron has really come on strong. He is very athletic and could very well take over as this team's starter before the season is complete.

Place Kicker

Phil Dawson : Another year, another franchise tag for kicker Phil Dawson. Unlike in 2011, this year he quickly signed the escalated tender. Dawson was busy (and successful) from long range in 2011, hitting seven-of-eight field goals from 50-plus yards. Holder/punter Reggie Hodges missed last year with a torn Achilles. If he's not fully recovered it could open the door for free agent acquisition Spencer Lanning. Snapping will be handled by Christian Yount who joined the team for the final month of 2011. Kicker scoring opportunities have been lean for Dawson, as the Browns have ranked 26th, 28th and 31st in that category the past three years.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Josh Cribbs, Buster Skrine, Travis Benjamin [R]

Although he had a down season by his own standards, Wide receiver Josh Cribbs should continue to be the Browns special teams ace in 2012. Competition in training camp will be for the backup position, where cornerback Buster Skrine may face a challenge from rookie Wide receiver Travis Benjamin, who has a strong track record as a punt and kick return specialist. Cribbs is among the best in the history of the NFL, so even if Benjamin looks fantastic, its likely Cribbs keeps the job.

Punt Returners: Josh Cribbs, Jordan Norwood, Travis Benjamin [R]

With Cribbs likely to handle the main punt return chores, the focus will be on the backup spot. Wide receiver Jordan Norwood might get the spot, but he will have to hold off a newcomer. The rookie Benjamin has blazing speed, having run a 4.33 40-yard dash at the scouting combine.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Joe Thomas, LG Jason Pinkston, C Alex Mack, RG Shawn Lavao, RT Mitchell Schwartz
Key Backups: T Oneil Cousins, C/G John Greco, G/T Ryan Miller [R]

PRESEASON OUTLOOK: Left tackle Joe Thomas is a four time All-Pro selection. As blind side bodyguards go, there are few (if any) in the league that can compare in quality to Thomas. He's a rare athlete who played both ways at Wisconsin. On a personal level, there's a lot to like about this rugged outdoorsman, who chose to go fishing instead of attend the NFL draft in New York City. Center Alex Mack is also a Pro Bowl selection that uses a combination of height, toughness, and technique to dominate defensive tackles. The story about Mack playing through appendicitis is legendary (he got surgery during the bye week and started the next game). Left guard Jason Pinkston, right guard Shawn Lauvao, and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz are all converted left tackles from college and are also all young players with the potential to be very good. Schwartz is the rookie of the group, and he comes from the same Cal program as Mack, with an older brother Geoff already in the league. Oniel Cousins provides depth at the swing tackle position and could start if Schwartz isn't ready. Fifth-round pick Ryan Miller is another college left tackle converted to guard, and undrafted center Garth Gerhart (younger brother of Toby) should win the backup center job this preseason. Most wouldn't expect the Browns offensive line to be such a highly graded unit, but breaking down all the factors, they are young, talented at key positions, and will only get better with time.

Team Defense

The Browns had the second best pass defense in the league last year (184.9) YPG, but that was mainly because their run defense was so poor (147.4 YPG). As a fantasy unit, the Browns defense / special teams was among the worst in the league. Teams exploited their weak run defense, which lowered their sack totals (32) and takeaways (only nine interceptions). Cleveland was one of four teams who did not score a defensive touchdown last year, which also didn't help their team defense fantasy numbers. One bright spot, they have a good returner in Josh Cribbs, who is capable of scoring a special teams touchdown any given week. The Browns spent their first three picks on offensive players in the draft and didn't address their run defense until the fourth round when they selected defensive tackle John Hughes. He will be a good addition to defensive tackles Ahtyba Rubin and Phil Taylor, but the pass rush won't see a significant upgrade. D'Qwell Jackson is one of the league's best middle linebacker in the league. He sheds blocks well and gets to the ball. As a result, he make a lot of tackles and often is at the right place at the right time to produce turnovers. If he can get some help on defense, especially against the run, the Browns defense / special teams could elevate into a Top 20 unit.

Defensive Line

Starters: DE Jabaal Sheard, DE Frostee Rucker, DT Ahtyba Rubin, DT Phil Taylor (inj) DT John Hughes
Backups: DT Brian Schaefering, DT John Hughes, DT Billy Winn, DE Juqua Parker, DE Marcus Bernard

Starting DL: The Browns made the switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 last season and have done a great job of building a foundation up front. Ahtyba Rubin is arguably the best defensive tackle in the league. His 55 solo stops in 2011 were tops among tackles and second among all defensive linemen. At 330 pounds he is formidable against the run while powerful and athletic enough to be a factor in the pass rush as well. Paired with last year's first round pick Phil Taylor, the Browns are very tough to run on inside. Taylor checks in at about 335 and, like Rubin, moves very well for a man big man. Between them the Browns starting tandem totaled 92 solo tackles and an impressive nine sacks last season. Unfortunately Cleveland may now be without Taylor to open the season. He suffered a torn Pectoral while lifting weights in early May and could miss as much as six months. Rookie John Hughes or possibly veteran Brian Schaefering will get the call until Taylor can return. The team made a great move in selecting Jabaal Sheard in round two last year as well. As a rookie he played virtually every down totaling 40 solo tackles, 8.5 sacks and forcing five fumbles. The only weakness Cleveland had up front last season was at the defensive end spot opposite Sheard. They hope to have resolved that issue by adding former Eagles starter Juqua Parker. Parker may not be as stout as his other three line mates, but he is a capable run defender and a strong edge rusher. The Eagles rotated Parker out too often for us to know what to expect from a box score perspective. He could be a surprise there if he plays full time as anticipated. In a division that plays outdoors in bad weather, features strong running games and quarterbacks that can win the game with their arms if they are not pressured, the Browns front four are built to compete.

Backup DL: After working at end in the old 3-4, the Browns tried Brian Schaefering as a 4-3 end last season. The results were less than impressive. He has been moved inside this year where he will battle rookie third round pick John Hughes, sixth round selection Billy Winn and second year pro Scott Paxon to determine the pecking order among the backups at tackle. In the long run that job will probably fall to Hughes who is unlikely to become a standout, but is solid in all aspects of the game. The winner of this competition is going to see ample action early in the season while Taylor recovers. There is a good chance that the Browns will use a combination of player to hold down the fort until October or November when they hope to get Taylor back. Free agent addition Juqua Parker started a lot of games for the Eagles but seems to be a forgotten man during camp. Marcus Bernard and Emmanuel Stephens fill out the depth chart at end. With Rucker out, Stephens got the start in the team's second preseason game. To sum it up, Cleveland has decent depth up front but no one waiting in the wings with star potential.

Linebackers

Starters: MLB D'Qwell Jackson, WLB Kaluka Maiava, SLB Scott Fujita (Sus) James-Michael Johnson
Backups: OLB MLB James-Michael Johnson, OLB Emmanuel Acho, OLB Quinton Spears

Starting LBs: Great defense starts up front and that is where the Browns have concentrated most of their efforts since switching back to a 4-3 before last season. D'Qwell Jackson had a monster 2011 campaign that included a league leading 115 solo tackles. Beyond Jackson the Browns are very average at the position. Even with all the production, Jackson may actually be best suited to play on the weak side in this scheme. The club wanted to move him there last season but quickly realized they simply had no other viable option in the middle. That may change however with the addition of fourth round pick James-Michael Johnson, who could eventually move into the MLB role. The season ending injury to Chris Gocong moved Kaluka Maiava into the starting role entering the preseason. Maiava is a serviceable veteran at best and is not the long term answer for any championship quality defense. On the strong side Scott Fujita is a very solid and dependable veteran but he is not a playmaker. Not to mention that he will be taking a three game vacation to start the season compliments of the commissioner. Rookie James-Michael Johnson is likely to get the start on the strong side until Fujita returns.

Backup LBs: The Browns depth chart has a lot of new faces at the linebacker positions. Rookie fourth round pick James-Michael Johnson is really the only backup with starting potential. He was a beast versus the run while at Nevada, where he crushed everything that came between the tackles. The Browns were looking for a MLB that would allow them to move D'Qwell Jackson to WLB. They may have found their man. Johnson is likely to emerge as a starter at some point, possibly as early as this season. He is currently working on the strong side with the first team and at middle backer with the second unit. Johnson has three games to impress before Fujita returns. The question with Johnson is can he be an every down player? Sixth round selection Emmanuel Acho is a raw talent with a knack for rushing the passer. He will be groomed as the eventual replacement for 33 year old Scott Fujita at SLB. The Browns LB depth is tenuous at best but they do have some future potential.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB Sheldon Brown, CB Joe Haden, SS T.J. Ward, FS Eric Hagg
Backups: CB Dimitri Patterson, CB Buster Skrine, CB Trevin Wade, S Usama Young, S Ray Ventrone

Starting DBs: The Cleveland secondary is somewhat of a good news bad news situation. The good news being that the Browns were second best in the league in passing yards allowed in 2011. The bad news being that their mere 9 interceptions ranked 28th. This is a unit that the club is obviously satisfied with, at least to the extent that that made no significant additions. For the team to become contenders there will need to be more big plays from this unit, but as cover corners go Joe Haden is among the league's best and Sheldon Brown is a very good number two. As a rookie in 2010, T.J. Ward lined up at strong safety and had a huge statistical season. The change of schemes and a positional switch to free safety contributed to a sophomore slump of epic proportions. Ward has moved back to strong safety this preseason. He should have a bounce back season but we should not expect a repeat of his gaudy rookie production. If there is an obvious weakness in the Cleveland secondary it is at the safety position opposite Ward. 2011 seventh round pick Eric Hagg has seem most of the work with the starters this preseason, but has not been a standout.

Backup DBs: The Browns have no apparent future stars lurking behind the starters in the secondary Dimitri Patterson is a solid nickel corner who could be a decent number two if pushed into the lineup. Buster Skrine was a pleasant surprise for the club last season and did a commendable job filling in for a handful of games when Patterson was out. Trevin Wade was Cleveland's seventh round pick this year. He is a developmental player who will likely make his biggest contribution on special teams. Usama Young is a journeyman who has been unable to take advantage of several opportunities. Any significant injury to either Haden or Ward would be tough for this club to overcome.

Last modified: 2012-08-31 14:11:46

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