By Dustin Anaas
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
When Mike Holmgren was hired in December of 2009 as the team's President, it became fairly evident that changes were coming in Cleveland. Following consecutive 5-11 seasons, Holmgren gave coach Eric Mangini the boot following the 2010 season, thus starting yet another new era in Cleveland. He hired former Rams offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur as his new head coach and all things considered, there are reasons for the Browns' faithful to be hopeful.
Last season, the Browns overhauled their quarterbacking corps by bringing in Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace to help groom third-round draft pick Colt McCoy with the idea that McCoy would be able to take a season to learn from the sidelines. After injuries and inconsistent play at the position, McCoy was given the starting nod in Week 5 and showed signs of potential, specifically in Weeks 7 and 9, when he picked up back-to-back wins over the Saints and Patriots.
Still, the team relied on a heavy dose of the running game, behind the surprising Peyton Hillis. He showed a combination of downhill running with the ability to catch passes out of the backfield and finished the season with over 1,600 yards from scrimmage and 13 total TDs. The Browns never got consistent play from any of their wideouts, which meant that tight end Ben Watson wound up being the team's leading receiver almost by default. The Browns finished the season with the fourth-lowest total YPG in the league and were second to last in scoring, mostly due to their inability to pass the football.
On the other side of the ball, the team actually showed improvements despite a lack of experience. Linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, who had been the team's leading tackler in 2008, missed the entire season with a pectoral injury and defensive tackle Shaun Rogers had a rough season following a slew of injuries. First-round draft pick Joe Haden was definitely the surprise of the season picking up six interceptions even though he spent much of his time as the team's nickel back.
Things will look a lot different in 2011 with Shurmur at the helm, although Holmgren and GM Tom Heckert have played a heavy hand in the shaping of the team's roster. They have gone from one of the oldest teams in the league to one of the youngest and have changed schemes on both sides of the ball. The Browns will now work with the West Coast offense and have switched from a 3-4 base defense to a 4-3. McCoy is suited to work in the West Coast scheme and will have the benefit of learning from not only Shurmur but also Holmgren who won a Super Bowl in Green Bay with a similar scheme. They have a strong offensive line with the (arguably) best left tackle in the game in Joe Thomas and a potentially strong corps of young position players in receivers Greg Little, Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie and running back Montario Hardesty. It will be interesting to see what comes of their new defense, but with Haden and a budding defensive line, cautious optimism is a reasonable tone to take with this team. 2011 might not be a spectacular year, but with a strong front office and a youthful roster built through draft picks, the team is headed in a good direction. On the other hand, they play in one of the League's best divisions and it will not be an easy fight to the top of the AFC North ladder.
Round, Overall, Player
1. (21) Phil Taylor, DT, Baylor
A large specimen, who is more of a run-stopper than pass-rusher.
2. (37) Jabaal Sheard, DE, Pittsburgh
Real pass-rush threat, who could make an immediate impact on the right side.
2. (59) Greg Little, WR, North Carolina
Big-bodied and has a knack for making impact plays.
4. (102) Jordan Cameron, TE, USC
The former basketball player is a great athlete, but a bit rough around the edges.
4. (124) Owen Marecic, FB, Stanford
An old-school bruiser, who will have immediate special teams impact.
5. (137) Buster Skrine, CB, Tennessee-Chattanooga
A speedy corner who has huge upside.
5. (179) Jason Pinkston, G, Pittsburgh
Prospective left guard, who will likely begin the season as a backup.
7. (248) Eric Haag, S, Nebraska
Adds depth, little else.
Brandon Jackson, RB (Packers)
Will be used primarily in third down situations.
Usama Young, S (Saints)
The Browns are clearly paying attention to their defensive backfield.
Dmitri Patterson, CB (Eagles)
Adds depth behind Sheldon Brown and Joe Haden.
Eric Wright, CB (Lions)
The Browns lose a starter here.
Floyd Womak, G (Cardinals)
Solid presence on the offensive line.
Chansi Stuckey, WR (Cardinals)
Team's leader in receptions among wideouts by default in 2010.
McCOY'S NEXT STEP
Last year Mike Holmgren was adamant that rookie quarterback Colt McCoy would not be rushed into the fold, even going so far as saying that he would not take a snap in his rookie season. Well, with injuries to Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace and an anemic passing game, McCoy got his first chance at starting in Week 6. He had fairly pedestrian numbers in eight starts (1,576 yards, 6 TD, 9 INT), but showed potential, specifically in leading the team to back-to-back victories over the Saints and Patriots. The Browns have a fairly effective running game and an above average offensive line, which, in theory, should create more opportunities in the passing game. However, the Browns don't have a reliable option at receiver at this point and McCoy's progress could be stifled as a result. McCoy is not the best physical specimen on the planet, but he has shown tremendous leadership skills and has the benefit of working with a QB guru in Holmgren. If he can continue to progress, we could have a Drew Brees Lite on our hands.
WHO WILL CATCH PASSES IN CLEVELAND?
The Browns have not had a legitimate threat at wide receiver since the fall of 2007 when Braylon Edwards caught 80 passes for 1,289 yards and 16 scores. Part of the problem has been inconsistent play with somewhat of a quarterback-carousel taking place since the fall of 2008. The Brady Quinn experiment failed, Derek Anderson was unable to recreate the magic he made in 2007 and injuries have plagued the position in Cleveland for the last two seasons. In 2009 the Browns spent two second-round draft picks on wide receivers Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie. Both have shown potential, with Massaquoi being a deep threat and Robiskie fitting the role of a possession receiver. They spent another second-rounder this season on Greg Little, a big-bodied athlete who has loads of upside. Quarterback Colt McCoy and his young receivers need to start clicking or the Browns' will once again have a stagnant offense.
BACKFIELD GETTING CROWDED
Last season, Peyton Hillis was handed the starting job and ran away with it (pun intended). He picked up 1,177 yards on the ground, 477 yards through the air and 13 total touchdowns. Not bad for an old school, bruising back. On the other hand, the Browns' brass was high on second-round pick Montario Hardesty before he tore an ACL and was done for the season after Week 1. The Browns also added former Packer Brandon Jackson in free agency. Hillis will still carry the bulk of the load, but he showed signs of wear and tear down the stretch so it would not be surprising to see the other two pick up more carries in an effort to keep Hillis fresh.
Rising: Colt McCoy is a work in progress, but he has shown tremendous leadership skills and is building a nice rapport with Cleveland's crew of young wideouts.
Declining: Peyton Hillis had a solid 2010 season, but was not nearly as effective in the second half. Montario Hardesty and Brandon Jackson could grab some of the load to keep him fresh.
Sleeper: Evan Moore could be the most athletic tight end on the roster and has great hands. He could become one of Colt McCoy's favorite targets sooner than later.
Supersleeper: Greg Little has the size and talent to be a successful receiver in this league, but fantasy relevance could take some time.
T.J. Ward, S
The team's top tackler from a year ago.
Joe Haden, CB
During his 2010 rookie season, he picked up six INT in just seven starts. Imagine what he can do as a full-time starter
D’Qwell Jackson, LB
Missed last season with a pectoral injury, but could benefit from the Browns' new 4-3.
RotoWire Rank: 27