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2015 Team Report: Cleveland Browns

Quarterbacks

Starter: Josh McCown
Backup(s): Johnny Manziel, Austin Davis

Starting QB: Cleveland's quarterback woes continued in the 2015 offseason as they only secured journeyman Josh McCown. McCown is uninspiring but has leg up on Johnny Manziel due to Manziel's off-field shenanigans and lack of studying the playbook last season. McCown threw 14 interceptions against 11 touchdowns last season.

Backup QB: It will be interesting to see how much rope McCown is afforded should he win the starting job. He's far from an elite option, so if he struggles, Johnny Manziel could be given a chance to resurrect his short career. Manziel provides much more upside than McCown due to his running ability and strong arm, but his off-field problems and lifestyle have taken precedence over working towards being a better player and teammate. Austin Davis was signed on September 7 after being cut by St. Louis. The signing was probably just for purposes of insurance as Manziel was nursing an elbow injury at the time. Davis was acquired

Running Backs

Starter: Isaiah Crowell
Backup(s): Duke Johnson [R], Shaun Draughn
Fullback(s):

Starting RB: Isaiah Crowell had great success last season as an undrafted free agent rookie. Crowell would have been drafted highly if not for off-field problems that caused him to transfer from Georgia to Alabama State. 607 rushing yards in just four starts is quite impressive. As long as his off-field troubles don't rear their ugly head, Crowell should hang on to the starter's job and have a nice year because Cleveland's offensive line is an elite unit.

Backup RBs: Cleveland drafted Duke Johnson in the third round of the NFL Draft. Johnson's skills project as a back who can be a three-down player. He projects as a third-down back for this season as he exhibited pass blocking skills in college and can catch the ball effectively. He displayed great skills early in the preseason and could lead this backfield in touches due to his versatility and game-breaking ability. Shaun Draughn is a journeyman who was brought back to Cleveland due to the trade of Terrance West. He's unlikely to contribute unless injuries really force the team into using him.

Fullback:

Wide Receivers

Starters: Brian Hartline, Dwayne Bowe
Backups: Josh Gordon, Andrew Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel, Travis Benjamin, Terrelle Pryor, Marlon Moore

Starting WRs: Dwayne Bowe will open the season as Cleveland's go-to receiver despite being the top player on a team who had exactly zero touchdowns caught by wide receivers in 2014. Brian Hartline was cast off his former team in part because of a career low in yards and just 39 receptions. His former quarterback just had the best year of his young career, and Hartline had what was likely his worst. Both are veterans on the decline whose not-elite offensive teams got rid of them in favor of younger, more explosive options. Bowe has been out of practice since August 5 with a hamstring injury and missed the first preseason game.

Backup WRs: Josh Gordon will be suspended for the 2015 season due to a violation of the league's substance abuse policy. Behind aging and uninspiring starters Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline is an experienced but diminutive slot man in Andrew Hawkins. Hawkins caught 63 passes for 824 yards and two touchdowns last season with a similar quarterback situation. He's the top candidate to lead the team in receptions once again this season. Behind Hawkins is another mighty mite in Taylor Gabriel. Gabriel is just 5'8" in stature but made some long plays last season. He will probably be used in various packages but isn't likely to have a consistent box score line game-to-game. Travis Benjamin is entering his fourth season, all with Cleveland. He possesses great speed but isn't a viable threat at receiver due to the other options on the team and the poor quarterback play throughout his career. He only caught four passes in the team's final seven games last season. He did have three touchdowns among his 18 receptions last year and averaged over 17 yards per catch. He's a deep threat but not much else. Terrelle Pryor was signed on June 22 after being released by Cincinnati and saying he was open to a position change. He's an interesting flier for a team with a very weak receiver corps. At 6'4" and capable of a 4.4 40-yard dash, learning the position is a far bigger obstacle than being athletic enough to play it. Marlon Moore will be in his second year with Cleveland. He did nothing except return kickoffs last season and isn't projected to be an option in the receiving game this season either with the veterans ahead of him.

Tight Ends

Starters: Gary Barnidge
Backups: Rob Housler, Jim Dray, E.J. Bibbs

Gary Barnidge and Jim Dray are primarily blocking tight ends. Barnidge has just 44 receptions in his seven seasons, and Dray has only 50 in his five seasons. Both Barnidge and Dray, however, appear to be ahead of Rob Housler. Housler came over from Arizona, where he caught just nine passes last season. Arizona's offensive scheme rarely uses the tight end, so Housler's numbers (not just for 2014 but for his whole four-year career thus far) are misleadingly low. The book on Housler is that he's a move tight end who is capable of stretching the seam of simply catching screens and using his size and athleticism to punish defenders. However, he's struggling mightily to catch on in Cleveland. Rookie E.J. Bibbs has shown some promise in the preseason, both in blocking and pass-catching. But he's unlikely to contribute much in the regular season with the experience ahead of him.

Place Kicker

Casey Spear, Travis Coons: The Browns became the latest team to decide that they had seen enough from Billy Cundiff and Garrett Hartley last year. The kicking competition is wide open with two completely unproven options in Spear and Coons battling it out. Coons can also punt, and Spear is known for his rare tackling prowess. Both were about 80% accurate in college. Spear had an offseason stint with the Eagles last year before losing out to Cody Parkey, and Coons was released by the Titans when Ryan Succop became available right before the open of the 2014 season. The Browns could follow suit and sign a veteran right before the season if neither youngster has a good summer.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Justin Gilbert, Marlon Moore, Taylor Gabriel, Travis Benjamin, Duke Johnson

Cleveland's return game was unsettled at best last season with below average performances across the board, and turnovers in abundance. Little was done to address the situation in the offseason so the same cast of characters are likely to be involved in 2015. Travis Benjamin was outperformed by Marlon Moore on kick returns, with the latter having a pedestrian but team best 24.8 yards per return on his 13 kickoff returns. Shaun Draughn began the year as the returner, with Justin Gilbert filling in when Draughn was dealing with an injury. Gilbert performed well enough that when Draughn was no longer needed as a backup running back, he was released and the job passed to Gilbert.

Punt Returners: Travis Benjamin, Tramon Williams, Jordan Poyer

As bad as the kick returns were, the punt return game was even worse for the Browns. Cleveland had so many ball security issues that even turning to Jim Leonhard as a designated punt catcher resulted in a miscue. Lacking other options, the Browns will likely look at Jordan Poyer and Travis Benjamin again, and may give Tramon Williams a try out.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Joe Thomas, LG Joel Bitonio, C Alex Mack, G John Greco, T Mitchell Schwartz
Key Backups: G Cameron Erving [R], T Michael Bowie, G Vinston Painter, C Nick McDonald, T Andrew McDonald

Joe Thomas is a stud. Let's just get that statement out of the way. The Browns' left tackle is a cornerstone. He's an amazing player and has been rock solid throughout his (likely Hall of Fame) career. However, the rest of the line is where the meat of this ranking occurs. The Browns suffered a tough loss mid way through last season, when All-Pro center Alex Mack broke his leg. Prior to last season, the team had declared Mack as a transition tagged player and was able to match a giant deal when Jacksonville tried to woo him away. Clearly he's important to the franchise. Without Mack, the unit suffered and dropped from a top tier line to a middle of the pack line. That set of circumstances should give some context to the Browns' pick of Florida State's Cameron Erving at 19 overall in the first round. Many on-lookers were surprised by this selection, who the commissioner announced as an offensive guard. Erving can compete there (John Greco's right guard position is more threatened than Jon Bitonio's left guard position). Erving can also snap if Mack gets hurt (or moves on in the future) or he could also compete at right tackle against Mitchell Schwartz. Erving can actually play all five positions which is an increasingly rare skill in the league. Erving has been getting reps at right guard and right tackle in OTA's and his situation is one to watch in the preseason. I am going to project Erving as the starting right guard, as they probably aren't going to keep their first rounder on the bench. This isn't a huge bump in the rankings however, as Greco is a solid starter in his own right. A move that went under the radar last season was when tackle Michael Bowie was signed off of waivers. Seattle had expected to slip this injured player through on his way to the reserve list but the Browns and three other teams put in a claim. Bowie has legitimate starter potential at right tackle and is another who could challenge Schwartz for the job. If Bowie wins that starting position during preseason, this would likely translate into a rise in the rankings for the Browns' line.

Team Defense

The Browns team defense is only getting better with the addition of Danny Shelton up front to help a run defense that struggled at times last year, Tramon Williams to help Joe Haden while 2014 Justin Gilbert develops, and a return to full health for 2013 #6 overall pick Barkevious Mingo. They made Andrew Luck about as bad as any defense did last year and should be worth consideration in DFS and streaming defense approaches, beginning with a nice at the Jets, home vs. the Titans and home vs. the Raiders set of games to matchup with three of the most vulnerable quarterbacks in the league.

Defensive Line

Starters: NT Phil Taylor, DE Randy Starks, DE Desmond Bryant
Backups: NT Danny Shelton, NT Ishmaa'ily Kitchen, DE Billy Winn, DE Armonty Bryant, DE John Hughes, DE Xavier Cooper

Starting DL: The success of a 3-4 scheme relies on the front three to hold ground and eat up blockers so that the linebackers can make plays. The Brown now have a collection of defensive linemen that can be deployed to serve that purpose. Phil Taylor is penciled in at nose tackle but his struggles to stay healthy over the past three years were enough of a concern that the team selected Danny Shelton at #12 overall. If healthy, Taylor will be the starter early on but he is not a lock to hold the job all season. At the least there will be more of rotation at the position to get the youngster on the field. At defensive end the team has a number of options. Desmond Bryant all but certain to be one of the starters. He has the size and strength to hold up at the point of attack and enough quickness/athleticism to contribute as a pass rusher. Bryant led the Browns defensive line with 5 sacks in 2014. At the other defensive end there is going to be heated competition. John Hughes, Billy Wynn and Armonty Bryant are all solid veteran contributors with experience in the scheme, but none of them are standouts. Cleveland added former Dolphins starter Randy Starks via free agency and drafted Washington State lineman Xavier Cooper in round three. Starks is penciled in as a starter but this job could change hands a few times before September. In Phil Taylor, Ahtyba Rubin and Desmond Bryant the Browns have a trio of linemen who are all in excess of 310 pounds and are an excellent fit in their 3-4 front. The 335 pound Taylor lines up at nose tackle and is the anchor of the run defense. He has the size and strength to hold his ground and forces offenses to commit two blockers on most running plays. The 2011 first round pick has 7 sacks on his NFL resume. Taylor's biggest contribution as a pass rusher however, lies in his ability to push the pocket and flush the quarterback to teammates. The 330 pound Rubin has a very similar skill set to that of Taylor, with a bit more quickness and athleticism. Rubin will see some snaps at nose tackle as well, but will work mostly at end. He demands a lot of attention when offenses want to move him. Bryant is the most athletic of the trio. At 6'6" and 310 pounds, his height and wingspan make Bryant the biggest pass rush threat of the group. He has 14.5 sacks over the past four years including 3.5 in twelve games last season despite battling nagging injuries. In fact, all three of these players were banged up at times in 2013. If they can all stay healthy in 2014, the Browns will be tough to run on.

Backup DL: Over the past couple of years the Browns have struggled to keep all their starters up front healthy. That has allowed them plenty of time to look at their depth. John Hughes and Billy Winn have proven to be serviceable replacements. Armonty Bryant has shown flashes but is undersized and has also battled injury. The fact that the organization used a third round pick on Xavier Cooper when they had other places of need, is a good sign that they were not completely happy with their depth. Cooper is athletic for a big man, and does a good job of getting off blockers to make tackles. If he can prove himself capable at the point of attack Cooper will see a good deal of playing time as a rookie.

Linebackers

Starters: ILB Karlos Dansby, ILB Christian Kirksey, OLB Paul Kruger, OLB Barkevious Mingo
Backups: ILB Craig Robertson, ILB Tank Carder, ILB Hayes Pullard, OLB Nate Orchard, OLB Scott Sullivan OLB Darius Eubanks

Starting LBs: The success of any 3-4 scheme lies with the ability of its linebackers to make game changing plays. That is an element the Browns need to improve on if they are to turn the corner this year. A healthy Karlos Dansby will help a lot on the inside. He missed a few games last year and is 33 years old, but Dansby is a proven playmaker. At the other inside linebacker spot the Browns return second year man Christian Kirksey as the starter. Kirksey looked good at times during his rookie season but made little big play impact as a two down player. It will be interesting to see if he moves into a full time role in his second season. After an unspectacular first season in Cleveland, former Raven Paul Kruger exploded for 12 sacks in 2014. Providing he was not a one year wonder, Kruger should be in the double digit vicinity again this year. It will help the cause greatly if Barkavious Mingo can keep offenses honest. He has 7 sacks in two seasons as the third man at outside linebacker. With Jabaal Sheard moving on, Mingo will step into the starting role. If the 2013 first round pick can live up to expectations, the Browns may be set for the long haul. He still has a lot to prove though. Mingo may get off to a slow start after having a minor knee surgery early in camp. He may miss the opener and may not be 100% until week three or four. Outside linebacker Paul Kruger stepped up big in 2014. With 12 sacks, 4 forced fumbles and a recovery, it was by far the biggest season of his six year career. So long as Kruger was not a one year wonder, the Browns are set on one side. Opposite Kruger is a different question. Last season the rest of the team's outside backers combined for only 4 sacks and 1 recovery. Jabaal Sheard has moved on leaving 2013 sixth overall pick Barkevious Mingo in line for the job. The problem is that Mingo actually took a step back in his second season, dropping from 5 sacks as a rookie to just 2. The team is counting on him to step it up in his third season but they drafted Nate Orchard out of Utah in the second round just in case. espite making no significant additions, it is at outside linebacker where the Browns hope to see the most improvement. In this scheme it is the outside linebackers who are called upon to be a disruptive force, particularly when it comes to putting pressure on the quarterback. The most successful 3-4 teams expect 20+ sacks from their starters at this position over the course of a season. In 2013 Cleveland's top three outside backers produced 15 between them. Last year's free agent prize Paul Kruger proved to be no more than adequate with 4.5 sacks and a couple of forced fumbles. Holdover Jabaal Sheard managed to lead the club with 5.5 sacks as he made the transition from 4-3 end to 3-4 linebacker, and first round pick Barkevious Mingo contributed a solid if unspectacular 5 sacks. The organization is counting on improvement from all three as they enter their second year in the scheme.

Backup LBs: Craig Robertson was a three down starter at inside backer for Cleveland in 2013. Last season he got on the field regularly as a replacement for Christian Kirksey in sub packages. It is unclear heading into training camp if he will continue in that role. Robertson is a serviceable veteran backup that is better versus the pass than run. If the Browns have to go any deeper than Robertson, it could be trouble. Tank Carder will probably make the team as a special teams contributor as will rookie seventh round pick Hayes Pullard. At the outside linebacker positions the team is just as thin. Second round pick Nate Orchard should step right in as the third man in the rotation. It will be interesting to see how quickly he transitions from 4-3 end at Utah to outside linebacker as a pro. Beyond Orchard the Brown have Scott Sullivan who was the seventh round pick of Tampa Bay in 2014 and undrafted rookie free agent Keith Pough.

Defensive Backs

Starters: SS Donte Whitner, FS Tashaun Gipson, CB Joe Haden, CB Tramon Williams, CB Justin Gilbert
Backups: FS Johnson Bademosi, SS Ibraheim Campbell, CB K'Waun Williams, CB Pierre Desir, CB Charles Gaines, CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu

Starting DBs: The Cleveland secondary came with mixed reviews last season. They finished 26th in passing yards allowed but second in interceptions with 21. The team returns Donte Whitner at strong safety and Tashaun Gipson at free. Whitner is a tough hard nosed in the box strong safety with above average cover skills, but he is not much of a big play threat. Gipson on the other hand, more of a finesse player and a ball hawk. He has 11 interceptions over the past two seasons including 6 last year in just eleven games. Together Whitner and Gipson form a strong tandem. In Joe Haden the Browns have one of the leagues premier corners. His ability to both run with speed receiver and be physical with bigger pass catchers, gives the Cleveland coaching staff a lot of options. The team signed former Packers starter Tramon Williams to replace Buster Skrine who has moved on. It is hard to say that Williams is a considerable upgrade, but he is an excellent cover corner with proven big play ability. 2014 eighth overall pick Justin Gilbert will compete with K'Waun Williams for the slot corner job. The bottom line here is that the Browns starting secondary is going to be a solid one.

Backup DBs: The Browns are short on veteran depth in the secondary and are particularly vulnerable at safety where Johnson Bademosi and fourth round pick Ibraheim Campbell are all that is behind the starters. Bademosi has all of 15 tackles over the course of his three pro seasons. The team is in better shape at corner. K'Waun Williams saw a lot of action as a nickel corner last season and should see a good deal of playing time in sub packages. Pierre Desir was the team's fourth round pick a year ago. He made a good showing in limited action late in the season. Cleveland also added rookies Charles Gaines and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu in this year's draft. All things considered, Cleveland has pretty solid depth at corner. They have a good mix of experience and youthful talent to develop. and second year pro Janoris Slaughter are all that is behind the starter. Both players are former late round draft choices who have all of 27 tackles between them at the pro level, all of those belonging to Bademosi who finished last season with 11. The team is very young at corner as well, with last year's third round pick Leon McFadden, this year's fourth round selection Peirre Desire and former Jets backup Isaiah Trufant rounding out the depth chart. Injuries in the secondary could potentially derail the Browns hops of a turnaround in 2014.

Last modified: 2015-10-20 17:30:35