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2013 Team Report: Cleveland Browns

Quarterbacks

Starter: Johnny Manziel [R]
Backup(s): Brian Hoyer, Vince Young, Tyler Thigpen, Connor Shaw [R]

Starting QB: While Johnny Manziel may have to earn the starting job over Brian Hoyer, Cleveland didn’t draft him without the intention to play him. Hoyer is left over from a previous coaching regime and front office, while Manziel was drafted by the current group in charge. Manziel’s playmaking ability will show through in the preseason and will make it too hard for the coaching staff to keep him off the field. With the suspension to Josh Gordon likely ranging from eight to 16 games, Cleveland is going to need all of the playmakers they have on the field. If he’s intelligent enough to avoid big hits and preserve his body, Manziel has the potential to rush for 700+ yards.

Backup QB: Brian Hoyer performed very well in limited action last season before tearing his ACL and ending his season prematurely. Hoyer will have a chance to push Johnny Manziel for the starting job, but he’ll have to significantly better than Manziel throughout the preseason in order to earn and keep that role. Vince Young was signed as a “flier” prior to the draft, but he’s unlikely to end up on the roster after the team drafted Manziel and signed undrafted free agent Connor Shaw. Shaw was a very good player in college and brings mobility to his game much like Manziel and Young. The team is likely to keep Shaw over Young if the two are “tied” in terms of what they show in the preseason. Tyler Thigpen has shown flashes of being a successful player in the NFL, but he is many years removed from that. He could make the roster, but his path to playing time is very much road-blocked.

Running Backs

Starter: Ben Tate
Backup(s): Terrance West, Isaiah Crowell [R], Chris Ogbannaya, Dion Lewis
Fullback(s): Chris Pressley

Starting RB: Ben Tate was signed from Houston during the free agency period. He didn’t fetch a big contract due to concerns over his durability, but he has shown that he’s talented enough to be a productive runner. Tate could be a focal point in an offense that could be without star receiver Josh Gordon due to a suspension that should range from eight to 16 games for a second failed drug test. His talent has never been in question since being a second-round draft pick in 2010, but his injury troubles and being stuck behind Arian Foster in Houston have left him still needing to prove that he can be effective as a lead back.

Backup RBs: Cleveland’s running back corps may have been the weakest in the NFL last season. To address that, they not only got Ben Tate in free agency to be the starter, but the also acquired two rookies. Terrance West was drafted in the third round out of Towson. Despite the small school, he’s a player who has the size and tools to be a productive NFL runner. His 225 pound frame and light feet make him capable of carrying a big load if the need arises. Isaiah Crowell was signed by Cleveland as an undrafted free agent. Crowell is a player whose talent far exceeds his situation of going undrafted. Due to legal troubles, Crowell left Georgia and was “red-flagged” heading into the draft. The backup in Cleveland could be a player thrust into extensive duty due to Tate’s injury history, and the rookies seem to be the leaders in the race to be number two on the depth chart. Chris Ogbannaya showed his versatility last season, catching 48 passes and scoring two receiving touchdowns. His ability to pass protect and catch the ball out of the backfield has him as the frontrunner to be the team’s third down back. Dion Lewis is a talented player whose injury history has prevented him from getting extended playing time. With the acquisition of Tate and the two rookies, Lewis may be the odd man out in this backfield.

Fullback: Chris Pressley was formerly with division rival Cincinnati. He missed the entirety of the 2013 season with a knee injury. He should be utilized in Kyle Shanahan’s zone-blocking system, but as is the case with most fullbacks in today’s NFL, he won’t touch the ball often and will largely see his contributions come outside of the box score.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Josh Gordon, Greg Little
Backups: Nate Burleson, Greg Little, Andrew Hawkins, Travis Benjamin

Starting WRs: Josh Gordon took the NFL by storm last season, leading the league in receiving yards despite being suspended for two games. Gordon’s suspension was appealed down to two games from four, and it was for a failed drug test. Gordon’s demons have bettered him once again, leading to another failed test. This time, he will be sidelined for eight to 16 games. Gordon’s talent is dynamic and undeniable, but he needs to get his life right in order to be a consistent player – let alone one who fulfills his massive potential. The team finally addressed the receiver position when it signed Miles Austin on May 15. Austin has been far from the model of health the past few years, making this a “band-aid” situation at best. When healthy, though, Austin is the best receiver on the team – although that speaks to a dearth of talent at the position instead of a surplus of it in Austin.

Backup WRs: Nate Burleson was brought in to provide a veteran presence and either push Greg Little into fulfilling some of his potential or take Little’s job opposite Josh Gordon. With Gordon now facing an eight to 16 game suspension, Burleson is going to have to assume a larger role – and perhaps that of a go-to receiver for his team. He’ll be 33 when the season begins, so his ability to do that is certainly in question. Greg Little has been in the NFL for three seasons but has never surpassed 61 catches or 647 yards. Little has failed to live up to his potential as a second receiver, so it’s hard to imagine him doing so in the top role where he’ll be defended by the best players on opposing defenses. Andrew Hawkins came over from division rival Cincinnati where he carved out a nice slot-man role for himself, catching 51 passes for 533 yards and four touchdowns in 2012 before suffering an injury last season. Hawkins will have to recapture some of that magic without Josh Gordon and share the middle of the field with tight end Jordan Cameron to give his quarterback (likely rookie Johnny Manziel) some easily accessible options. Travis Benjamin is a speedster who can get behind defenses, but he lack size and overall skill to be a complete receiver. He should contribute on special teams and on the occasional situational deep play or reverse.

Tight Ends

Starters: Jordan Cameron
Backups: Gary Barnidge, Jim Dray, MarQueis Gray

Jordan Cameron emerged in a big way in his first full season as a starter, with 80 catches for 917 yards and seven touchdowns. His basketball-playing background translated very well to the NFL, where Cameron excels at out-jumping defenders and keeping them on his back so they can’t access the ball to keep it away from his grasp. With Josh Gordon’s suspension – whether it’s for eight games or 16 – Cameron is the heavy favorite to lead this team in targets in 2013. His 2013 season looks like it’s much closer to his floor than his ceiling. Gary Barnidge and Jim Dray are blocking specialists only, and MarQueis Gray had just eight touches in 12 games last year after being converted from being a wildcat quarterback in college.

Place Kicker

Billy Cundiff: Christian Yount will be snapping to new co-specialist this year. Long time kicker Phil Dawson was not re-signed or tagged. That role fell to very late post-preseason free agent signing Cundiff, after Brandon Bogotay and Shayne Graham had spent spring and summer competing for the job. At punter/holder, Reggie Hodges was not re-signed. Spencer Lanning held off T.J Conley for the job. The Browns have ranked in the bottom third in kicker scoring opportunities for five straight years.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Justin Gilbert [R], Travis Benjamin, Dion Lewis, Greg Little

Travis Benjamin could fit into the mix when he returns fully from a season ending ACL tear last year, though he was not always the team's first choice when he was healthy. Running back Dion Lewis landed the job last year before his own injury and is practicing with the team again. Receiver Greg Little handled 13 returns last year and may also fit in the mix, but it may be the team's first round selection who lands the job in the end. Rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert was a four year kick returner in college, with 102 returns for a 26.3 yard average, and a very impressive 6 career touchdowns which were good enough for a share of 3rd place all time amongst FBS players. The biggest hurdle for Gilbert may be whether the coaching staff is reluctant to expose him to extra injury risk.

Punt Returners: Travis Benjamin, Jordan Poyer, Kenny Shaw [R]

Punt returner is a murky situation to start the year for Cleveland. Travis Benjamin will likely remain the punt returner when he returns from last season's ACL injury. Jordan Poyer took over when Benjamin was injured and should be in the mix again. The team may also take a look at undrafted rookie receiver Kenny Shaw who kept up a 10.3 yard average on 34 punt returns in college.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Joe Thomas, LG Jason Pinkston, C Alex Mack, RG Shawn Lauvao, RT Mitchell Schwartz
Key Backups: T Oniel Cousins, T Ryan Miller, G John Greco, G Jarrod Shaw

Left tackle Joe Thomas continues to perform at an All Pro level and is one of the most talented offensive linemen in football. 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 a former Pro Bowl selection that still has sound technique. The story about Mack playing through appendicitis is legendary (he got surgery during the bye week and started the next game). Getting left guard Jason Pinkston back from injury is a huge boost to this group. Pinkston missed most of last year with a very serious blood clotting issue in his lungs; it was a life-threatening situation and he was rumored to never play football again. Right guard Shawn Lauvao and Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz are, like Pinkston, converted left tackles from college and are coming along in their development. Lauvao is beatable in pass protection but still is young enough to improve. Schwartz was a rookie who played like a veteran last season and was good in both phases of the game. Schwartz has good football bloodlines as he is from the same Cal program as Mack, with an older brother Geoff already in the league. John Greco was a gritty replacement when Pinkston went down and should battle for a depth spot with Ryan Miller, another left tackle converted to guard. Oneil Cousins provides depth at the swing tackle position but could see competition for this job from rookie Garrett Gilkey out of Chadron State. Undrafted center Garth Gerhart (younger brother of Toby) will battle with Notre Dame rookie Braxton Cave for the backup center job. This line returns all five starters from the end of the 2012 season, for a perfect cohesion score. Overall the Browns line is perennially underrated but they tend to take over games with run blocking, especially at home where emotions run high.

Team Defense

After a disappointing 2012 performance (coming off a solid 2011 campaign), the Browns knew changes were needed. Head coach Rob Chudzinski was hired, and he brought in new defensive coordinator Ray Horton from the Cardinals. The 2012 Arizona defense displayed toughness and was generally underrated in fantasy circles. Horton will bring that same toughness to Cleveland with his 3-4 scheme. While teams changing schemes often struggle to adapt, it appears that the Browns' personnel are well-suited for the switch. Look for the Browns defense to improve and be worth using by those going with a committee approach for their fantasy defense.

Defensive Line

Starters: NT Phil Taylor, DE/NT Ahtyba Rubin, DE Desmond Bryant
Backups: NT/DE John Hughes, NT Ishmaa'ily Kitchen, DE Billy Winn, DE Brian Safford, DE Hall Davis

Starting DL: The Browns will join the ranks of teams running a 3-4 scheme in 2013. Most teams that make this move have a transition period as they shape their roster to fit the new scheme. The Cleveland roster however, may prove to be well suited for this move. Both Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin have the skill set to play the nose tackle position. They are both well over 300 pounds with rare athletic ability for their size. Taylor will get most of the work at nose tackle where he could be surprisingly productive. He missed much of last season with injury but managed 37 solo tackles and 4 sacks as a 4-3 tackle in 2011. Rubin will work mostly at end in the new scheme. His combination of size, power and quickness are exactly what 3-4 teams seek to fill this position. His previous production would suggest the potential for box score success. The third starter up front will be free agent addition Desmond Bryant. While with the Raiders Bryant had success working at both end and tackle in Oakland's 4-3. His 54 solo tackles and 8 sacks as a part time player over the past two season, give us reason to be optimistic about his potential in the new setting. Up front the Browns will have a trio of linemen who are all in excess of 310 pounds, are physical and productive at the point of attack, and have the ability to get after the passer.

Backup DL: Even the depth up front seems to be good for the transition to a 3-4. John Hughes is another big man with some athleticism. He will backup Taylor at nose tackle and could step right in with little drop off. Billy Wynn was drafted to play the 3 technique tackle position in a 4-3. He stands up well versus the run and as a rookie last season he managed 3 sacks in limited action. The rest of this group is a collection of undrafted free agents and late round picks who are basically projects with little chance of seeing the field in the near future.

Linebackers

Starters: ILB James-Michael Johnson, ILB D'Qwell Jackson, OLB Jabaal Sheard, OLB Paul Kruger, OLB Barkevious Mingo
Backups: ILB L.J. Fort, ILB Craig Robertson, ILB Tank Carder, OLB Quentin Groves, OLB Armonty Bryant, OLB Emmanuel Stephens

Starting LBs: In veteran D'Qwell Jackson and second year pro James-Michael Johnson the Browns have a pair of inside linebackers that should fit well in their new 3-4 scheme. Johnson is the bigger and more physical of the two and will line up at the strong ILB position. He played well as a rookie in 2012 when he spent most of the season working on the strong side in the 4-3. Johnson has the potential to put up strong numbers but much will depend on him remaining on the field in the sub packages. Jackson is more of a finesse player and is a proven playmaker. Previously it was thought by many that he would be best suited to play on the weak side of the Cleveland 4-3, but weak inside in a 3-4 may be the perfect fit. Jackson's tackle production slipped a bit in 2012 but this situation could make him a top 10 linebacker again in 2013. The coaching staff will move foremer defensive end Jabaal Sheard to outside linebacker in the new scheme. We have seen players attempt this transition many times with a less than stellar success rate. That is probably the reason for the Browns additions of Paul Kruger in free agency and Barkevious Mingo in the first round of the draft. Sheard will have his opportunity but in the long run he may be the odd man out. Kruger stepped up big with 8.5 sacks for the Ravens last season. He will step right into an every down role in Cleveland and should be successful. The Browns used the sixth overall pick in this year's draft to grab Barkevious Mingo. Mingo was seen by most experts as one of the top pass rushers in his class and a great fit at linebacker in a 3-4. He will immediately have a significant role and has a good chance to be the opening day starter.

Backup LBs: For a club that is switching schemes the Browns are surprisingly deep at linebacker. L.J. Fort will backup at strong inside backer with Craig Robertson backing up Jackson at weak inside backer. Robertson saw a lot of action last season when he replaced James-Michael Johnson in passing situations. He could get on the field in sub packages again in 2013. Quentin Groves is a journeyman who will provide veteran depth on the outside. Armonty Bryant is a rookie project with a lot of potential. He is a small school defensive end that the Browns will try to transform into a rush linebacker.

Defensive Backs

Starters: SS T.J. Ward, SS Teshaun Gipson, CB Joe Haden, CB Buster Skrine
Backups: FS Kevin Barnes, S Janoris Slaughter, CB Chris Owens, CB Leon McFadden, CB Trevin Wade

Starting DBs: The Cleveland secondary has been a weakness for the past couple of years. It went largely unaddressed this off season so more of the same can be expected. In strong safety T.J. Ward and corner Joe Haden the Browns have a pair of quality cornerstones. Beyond those two however, there is plenty of room for improvement. Teshaun Gipson will enter camp as the favorite for the free safety position but there will be competition for the job. Likewise Buster Skrine will have the first shot at the corner position opposite Haden. Skrine was a starter for much of last season but did little to prove himself. He will feel a lot of heat from veteran Chris Owens and/or rookie third round pick Leon McFadden.

Backup DBs: The Browns are still in search of starters but they have a stable of backup quality players filling out the depth chart in the secondary. They used third and sixth round draft picks on corner Leon McFadden and safety Janoris Slaughter in hope that they can eventually evolve into starters. McFadden will be given every opportunity to claim a starting job during camp and could prove to be a quality option opposite Haden. With several quality veterans on the free agent market it will come as no surprise to see the Browns make additions at the safety position.

Last modified: 2014-05-15 16:05:45