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2016 Team Report: Cleveland Browns

Quarterbacks

Starter: Robert Griffin III
Backup(s): Josh McCown, Cody Kessler [R]

Starting QB: After a rookie season in 2012 that looked like he would become one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, Robert Griffin III had his career derailed by injury and by a coaching change in Washington. He only started seven games in 2014, and he didn't play at all in 2015 after Jay Gruden felt more comfortable with Kirk Cousins running his offense. Griffin's prospects are hard enough to predict when considering his injury history alone. Making things even more unclear are the unknowns he inherits at wide receiver. Cleveland's receiving corps was so poor that they drafted four receivers this year. On the positive side, Griffin's offense will be run by new Head Coach Hue Jackson, who has proven that he can create an offense that highlights the strengths of his players. Griffin will need to hold off veteran Josh McCown, but due to McCown being a known commodity and Griffin having a higher ceiling, Griffin should be given every chance to be the Week 1 starter.

Backup QB: Once Robert Griffin III was signed by Cleveland, the prevailing thought was that Josh McCown would eventually be released if he didn't beat out Griffin for the starting job. Quotes in mid-May from Browns Executive Vice President Sashi Brown say that the team may retain McCown as the primary backup. McCown carries a high salary for a backup, but with Griffin's injury history, a quality backup would be a nice asset. Brown's words could just be lip service at this point, though, particularly if rookie third-round pick Cody Kessler develops quickly enough to show that he can be the backup. The team has even claimed that Kessler will be given a chance to earn the starting job. They won't say as much, but Cleveland's preferred scenario is probably one where Kessler can make McCown expendable and they can trade McCown before the regular season begins. Kessler's performance at rookie minicamp was a step in that direction as Hue Jackson gushed about his rookie, even continuing to say that he could be the team's Week 1 starter.

Running Backs

Starter: Isaiah Crowell
Backup(s): Duke Johnson, Glenn Winston, Terrell Watson, Raheem Mostert
Fullback(s):

Starting RB: Isaiah Crowell enters his third season in Cleveland after making the team as an undrafted free agent and climbing the depth chart during his rookie season in 2014. Crowell scored eight touchdowns that year but didn't perform as well in 2015. Crowell has talent as a runner (he was undrafted more due to off-field concerns than lack of ability), but the team's lackluster offense limits the upside of all of its members. With new coach Hue Jackson in the fold, Crowell could be a dark horse candidate to break out in 2016. Jackson has shown an ability to get the most out of his running game, highlighted by Jeremy Hill's outstanding rookie year in 2014. Jackson has already gushed about Crowell, calling him "a really good running back." This suggests that Crowell will be given the opportunity to be the workhorse back, particularly on first and second downs, with Duke Johnson playing on passing downs.

Backup RBs: The scouting report on Duke Johnson when he was drafted in 2015 was that he had the skills to be an excellent receiving back. His rookie season did not disappoint in that regard, as he finished fourth among running backs in receptions with 61. He turned those into 534 yards and scored twice. Johnson has been complimented by Hue Jackson already, who said that Johnson does many different things to give the offense a boost. Expect Jackson to use Johnson in a multitude of ways, especially since Cleveland has an unspectacular wide receiver group. The rest of the running backs are unknown and unproven players. Glenn Winston impressed former coach Mike Pettine in practices during last season, but that only resulted in one carry all season long. He'll probably make the team as a backup for the first and second down role. Terrell Watson went to a tiny school (Azusa Pacific) where he broke the records of Tecmo Bowl legend Christian Okoye. His measureables profile similarly to Jonathan Stewart. If he can polish his all-around game enough to get a chance, he's worth keeping an eye on simply due to his size/speed profile. He was with Hue Jackson last year in Cincinnati, so that could be meaningful at final roster cuts. Raheem Mostert has been exclusively a special teams player in his career and should make the final roster in that capacity.

Fullback:

Wide Receivers

Starters: Josh Gordon (suspended), Corey Coleman [R]
Backups: Andrew Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel, Jordan Payton [R], Ricardo Louis [R], Rashard Higgins [R], Terrelle Pryor, Rannell Hall

Starting WRs: Troubled receiver Josh Gordon should be reinstated in early August and will be able to return to football this year, pending further incident (this per Ian Rapoport's report on July 25). Gordon will be suspended for the first four games, though. When he returns to the field, expect him to be the most heavily-targeted receiver in the offense and to take some pressure off of rookie first-round pick Corey Coleman. While it has been some time since Gordon has played, he's still just 25 years old and showcased massive skill in his 2013 season that saw him eclipse 1,600 receiving yards. As the first receiver drafted in a quality receiver class, Cleveland will give Coleman the chance to start right away. Coach Hue Jackson said that Coleman showed up to minicamp out of shape but that he still looked explosive, indicating that he's close to where he needs to be physically.

Backup WRs: Andrew Hawkins suffered two concussions last season, spurring rumors that he would retire. He reported, however, to the offseason program. With Josh Gordon's pending return after reinstatement and a four-game suspension, it's likely that Hawkins will move back into the slot role, where his diminutive size and ability to find soft spots in coverage are his best assets. Taylor Gabriel is another small receiver. He's more of a deep threat than Hawkins but isn't likely to see much playing time if the team's rookies develop. Cleveland drafted three receivers between picks 114 and 172. After getting Ricardo Louis from Auburn, Cleveland picked up Jordan Payton from UCLA. He's the all-time leading receiver there, but he's more of a possession-style player compared to the deep threat Louis can be. He profiles as a slot player. More of an athlete than a receiver at this point, Louis was actually worked out by some teams as a defensive back. He'll play receiver for Cleveland and could rush the ball a little as well (he had 68 career carries in college). His best asset is likely being a deep threat to keep defenses honest. Cleveland then picked up Rashard Higgins, Colorado State's career leader in catches, yards, and touchdowns despite only playing three seasons. His measureables and combine times left much to be desired, but his productivity and on-field skill had many film buffs drooling (including our own Matt Harmon, who specializes in evaluating wide receivers). Higgins has more all-around skill than fellow-rookies Louis and Payton. The Terrelle Pryor wide receiver experiment could come to an end in Cleveland if all of the rookies perform well in the offseason. Pryor is still developing, though veteran quarterback Josh McCown called his development "exciting." He caught one pass last year, a deep 42-yarder down the sideline. Pryor's athleticism is still elite, but he needs to show that he can learn the position. Rannell Hall was a starting receiver alongside Baltimore's Breshad Perriman at the University of Central Florida. He was dynamic in college, but he's not an NFL-ready receiver. He's not likely to make the team.

Tight Ends

Starters: Gary Barnidge
Backups: Seth Devalve [R], Randall Telfer

After catching just 44 passes for 603 yards and three touchdowns in his first six seasons combined (including two zero-catch years), Gary Barnidge obliterated his career totals in 2015 when he caught 79 passes for 1,043 yards and nine touchdowns. Typically, six years of data should supersede one outlier when evaluating a player, but the confluence of events that led to Barnidge's breakout mostly still exist. Cleveland's receiving corps is weak and/or unproven from top to bottom, and the quarterback is still far from elite and could use a "safety valve" target. Add in Hue Jackson, who designs his offenses around the strengths of his players (and who presided over Cincinnati's offense in 2015 for Tyler Eifert's breakout year), and Barnidge could lead the team in all or most receiving statistics once again. It's worth noting that Barnidge underwent sports hernia surgery on June 2. He's expected to be sidelined at least until the start of camp, but the regular season is not in doubt. Behind Barnidge, E.J. Bibbs joined the team as an undrafted rookie free agent last season. He showed well in camp and in preseason games, making Rob Housler expendable and further opening the door for Barnidge's huge season. Seth DeValve is a rookie fourth-round pick out of Princeton. His college production was limited due to injuries, but his athletic profile is very intriguing. He ran a 4.68 forty at his Pro Day and has a 40-inch vertical. He's a project but one worth keeping an eye on due to the athleticism.

Place Kicker

Patrick Murray: 2015 kicker Travis Coons had a rough camp and was overtaken by 2014 Tampa kicker Patrick Murray, who missed 2015 with a torn ACL. Murray was better than Coons throughout camp, and Coons didn't even make it to the final round of cuts. He had trouble with blocked kicks late last season after losing a game to the Ravens on a last second block returned for a score. Coons could get a look elsewhere during the season if a team finds itself in need of a kicker.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Raheem Mostert, Justin Gilbert

Signed only for the final three weeks of 2015, Raheem Mostert nonetheless tied for the team lead in kickoff return attempts. He's battling to keep the job with Justin Gilbert, the man who was Cleveland's primary returner until a concussion in week 12 sidelined him for several weeks.

Punt Returners: Raheem Mostert, Corey Coleman [R]

Travis Benjamin handled 28 of 29 punt returns for Cleveland in 2015. With Benjamin no longer in town, Raheem Mostert has been getting most of the reps at punt returner during camps and preseason. Rookie Corey Coleman is also a potentially explosive option, and if the team works him in on offense slowly punt returns would be a good way to get him on the field.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Joe Thomas, LG Joel Bitonio, C Cam Erving, RG John Greco, RT Austin Pasztor
Key Backups: Shon Coleman [R], Alvin Bailey, Michael Bowie

Despite the skill positions not putting up many fantasy points in recent years, the Browns offensive line is still very good and led by the left side. Left tackle Joe Thomas is a perennial All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection, the team held on to this key player after not getting any trade offers it found worthy. Left guard Joel Bitonio was playing at a borderline Pro Bowl level before his season ended in week 10. The team will be pleased to have him back in action. Center Cameron Erving was drafted to replace Alex Mack and this season he will get his opportunity to be the undisputed center. John Greco is solid at right guard but the right tackle spot could be of some concern. The team drafted Shon Coleman out of Auburn to compete with Austin Pasztor. Both players look to replace Mitchell Schwartz, who departed via free agency. Michael Bowie is an interesting swing tackle option and could also factor into that position battle. Still, aside from right tackle, this is still among the league's better lines, primarily because of the future Hall of Famer manning the left tackle spot. Tier Ranking: Top Tier.

Team Defense

The Browns at one point had a defense that appeared to be on the rise, with high-priced free agents or early draft picks all over the unit. The 2014 edition was second in the league in interceptions and among the top 10 in points allowed. 2015 was a total disaster, and a 2016 team in rebuilding mode is unlikely to generate much in the way of fantasy outbursts. Last year did produce big D/ST games against lowly opponents like the 49ers and Titans, so perhaps there is some streamer value to Cleveland's defense, but that is the extent of their fantasy value.

Defensive Line

Starters: NT Danny Shelton, DE Carl Nassib (R), DE John Hughes
Backups: NT Jamie Meder, DE Xavier Cooper

Starting DL: In 2015 first round pick Danny Shelton the Browns have an anchor for their run defense. At 6'2" 339 pounds he is a powerful space eater who commands double teams and is even then hard to root out. What Shelton does not bring to the table is a pass rush. His rookie campaign produced 19 tackles and 18 assists but the numbers are not a good measure of his overall contribution. Desmond Bryant was Browns only sure starter at end. His season ending pectoral tear puts further stress and uncertainty on an already somewhat thin position. There was already going to be an open competition between second year pro Xavier Cooper and veteran John Hughes for the starting job opposite Bryant. Rookie Carl Nassib had impressed enough to join the competition even before Bryant's injury. With the veteran out of the picture Nassib, Hughes and Cooper will probably be the three man rotation at end. Linebacker Armonty Bryant could be in the mix as well. He has played end in the 3-4 previously and the Browns have somewhat of a log jam at OLB anyway. Cooper was the team's 2015 third round pick. He saw playing time in a rotation with Hughes and Randy Starks last season. Both he and Hughes are good players who fit well in the scheme but neither seem to have what it takes to become special.

Backup DL: Jamie Meder saw significant playing time in a rotation with Danny Shelton last season. He may be on the field for fewer snaps in 2016 but last season Meder showed his ability to provide quality depth. Xavier Cooper is all but certain to see significant action even if he fails to bypass Hughes for the starting spot. Like Meder, Cooper has shown the ability to hold down the fort if called upon. The wildcard here is Carl Nassib. He is a raw but talented player who was exceptionally productive in his final season at Penn State when he led the nation with 15.5 sacks. A great motor helped him to collect a number of prestigious awards in 2015. There were concerns among scout about Nassib being a one year wonder. Others were unsure what kind of scheme/situation might best fit his abilities at the pro-level. Even the Browns initially seemed unsettled as to where he would line up. Shortly after being drafted Nassib had conversations with both defensive line and linebacker coaches. That question has probably been resolved with the injury to Desmond Bryant.

Linebackers

Starters: ILB Christian Kirksey, ILB Demario Davis, OLB Paul Kruger, OLB Emmanuel Ogbah [R]
Backups: ILB Scooby Wright III [R], ILB Tank Carder, ILB Joe Schobert [R], OLB Barkevious Mingo, OLB Nate Orchard, OLB Armonty Bryant

Starting LBs: Inside linebacker is a huge question mark for the Browns. Both of last year's starters are gone leaving third year man Christian Kirksey as the incumbent at one spot. Former Jets starter Demario Davis was signed in free agency to man the other spot. Kirksey has been a two down/early down starter for the past two years. He is a solid run defender who does a good job on the blitz, but there are concerns with his cover skills. So far in his career he has not looked much like the kind of young player a team can build around as their centerpiece. A different scheme could make all the difference in the world however. From 2013 through 2015 Davis was a three down starter for the Jets. As a run defender he has good range and is a dependable tackler but Davis could be more physical. In coverage he is only adequate. Davis can rush the passer (7 career sacks) but has only 1 career interception and is still looking for his first forced fumble. He is much younger than last year's starter Karlos Dansby, but it is hard to see Davis as an upgrade. The Browns have a lot of competition at outside linebacker as they look for someone to step up big. Paul Kruger led the club with a career best 14 sacks in 2014. Unfortunately defensive end Desmond Bryant led the team with 6 a year ago as only four teams recorded fewer sacks on the year. Cleveland used several players at outside linebacker in 2015 and they may follow the same pattern this year. Kruger will be in that mix and is the favorite to be one of the starters. The coaching staff has high expectations for rookie Emmanuel Ogbah who is billed as a powerful run defender with great upside as a pass rusher. Last year's second round pick Nate Orchard will also be in the mix for first team snaps. He was part of the rotation for much of 2015 finishing with 3 sacks. There is no star power among the Cleveland linebackers but they do have some young players with big upside. Maybe this is the year one of them takes the next step.

Backup LBs: Cleveland's starting inside linebackers might be described as serviceable but they have a couple of rookies who may take the position to the next level down the road. Wisconsin's Joe Schobert was the Browns fourth round selection. He was an outside backer for much of his college career, finishing last season with 9.5 sacks. At 6'1" 244 pounds Schobert is too short for an outside pass rusher at the pro level. He is athletic enough to drop in coverage, has a knack for getting to the ball in run support and had a way of filling up the stat sheets for the Badgers. Many scouts projected him as an inside linebacker and the Browns coaching staff seems to agree. Within the next year or two we may see Schobert paired with Scooby Wright as the starting inside tandem here. Wright was among the best defenders in college football in 2014 when he has 163 tackles, 14 sacks and 6 forced fumbles. He has drawn comparisons to former Dolphins great Zach Thomas who like Wright, lacked the measurables and athleticism NFL teams like. Wright fell all the way to round seven mostly due to a rash of injuries suffered during his senior year. A few years from now we may look at him as the steal of the 2016 draft. The Browns have plenty of good players at outside backer so depth is not an issue. Nate Orchard and Armonty Bryant may both factor into the rotation on a regular basis while former first round pick Barkevious Mingo needs to step up before he is tagged as a bust. Mingo managed 5 sacks as a rookie in 2013 but seemed to regress last year. He now has a great deal more competition to deal with and may even be on the roster bubble if the young guys show promise.

Defensive Backs

Starters: SS Ibraheim Campbell, FS Jordan Poyer, CB Joe Haden, CB Tramon Williams, CB K'Waun Williams
Backups: FS Rahim Moore, S Derrick Kindred [R], CB Pierre Desir, CB Charles Gaines, CB Jamar Taylor, CB Justin Gilbert, CB Trey Caldwell [R]

Starting DBs: This is clearly a team building for the future. In an effort to stockpile young talent the Hugh Jackson led Browns maneuvered themselves into position for fourteen draft picks. Every level of the defense was addressed to some extent but the Browns will make most of their backfield changes in the form of addition by subtraction. Gone are veteran safeties Donte Whitner and Teshaun Gipson. In their place will be a pair of youngsters with four years or less of pro experience between them. As a rookie in 2015 Ibraheim Campbell started a couple of games due to injury. He played fairly well in those games and in a limited role thereafter. Campbell was a player the Browns drafted with expectations of his becoming a starter, so this was not an unexpected move. Losing Gipson at free safety with his 13 interceptions over the past three years, was probably something the club would have rather done without. Jordan Poyer has been penciled in as the replacement at free safety. He was on the field regularly last season, working mostly in sub packages. Poyer will likely be challenged for the job by Derrick Kindred who may prove to be a fourth round steal. If Joe Haden can get healthy the Browns will be in good shape at corner. Haden missed most of last season after suffering a concussion in week five. He has been cleared from that injury but had ankle surgery in March, putting his participation in training camp in jeopardy while raising questions about his being fully healthy at the start of the season. When healthy Haden is one of the leagues outstanding corners and a solid cornerstone for the unit. Tramon Williams was signed as a free agent last offseason. He is not an elite corner but gives the team an excellent number two. He had a down season statistically in 2015 with one interception and ten passes broken up but has averaged three picks and just over fourteen defended passes over his career. With Haden sidelined K'Waun Williams and Pierre Desir had bigger roles last year. Both are young players who performed well while gaining much needed experience. Those two will compete for the nickel job this summer with second year man Charles Gaines and former Miami second round pick Jamar Taylor possibly in the mix as well.

Backup DBs: The Browns will not be caught short handed in the secondary this year. At safety they have a pair of quality options to fall back on. Rookie Derrick Kindred gives them a probable future starter who will provide quality depth while he is groomed for the job. In free agency Cleveland added veteran Rahim Moore who has three years of starting experience with Denver on his resume. Depth at the corner position featured a group of players who will compete to establish the pecking order behind the top two. K'Waun Williams is the favorite for the nickel job entering camp but he is not a lock to hold the position come week one. Pierre Desir, Charles Gaines and Jamar Taylor will be in a wide open battle this summer. Taylor was Miami's second round pick in 2013. He saw a lot of action as the Dolphins nickel corner over the past two seasons before being traded to Cleveland. Justin Gilbert was the Brown first round selection two seasons ago. He fell out of grace with the previous coaching staff but the new regime could breathe new life into what has been a disappointing career thus far.

Last modified: 2016-08-29 10:44:45