STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
The Browns enter the 2012 season under familiar circumstances, hoping a big jump is on the horizon, their team poised to make its losing ways a thing of the past. Last summer was filled with a similar optimism. Despite a 5-11 record in 2010, supporters were quick to point out that seven of those losses were by a touchdown or less. Team President Mike Holmgren had cleaned out the front office and brought in his own guys with the hiring of head coach Pat Shurmur and defensive coordinator Dick Jauron. Running back Peyton Hillis was coming off a season in which he piled up 1,654 total yards with 13 scores, and rookie quarterback Colt McCoy had engineered victories over the vaunted Patriots and defending Super Bowl Champion Saints. Cleveland was trending up.
Unfortunately in 2011, things didn't go according to plan, and once again the Browns failed to meet expectations, finishing a disappointing 4-12, including losses in their final six contests. It was the fourth consecutive season that the team lost at least 11 games, and the third time over that span that they ended the year in the basement of the AFC North. Will next season play out differently? There are reasons to believe so.
The main problem last season was a woefully uninspired offense that scored 13.6 points per game. Hillis played nothing like the stud the Browns uncovered 12 months prior, suffering through a campaign marred by injuries and marked with controversy. Meanwhile, McCoy showed few signs of growth before bowing out early due to concussion issues. Armed with an arsenal from last year's trade with Atlanta, the Browns made a big splash in the first round of April's draft to address their most pressing needs. They traded up one spot to secure Alabama running back Trent Richardson to be the new face of the franchise and selected Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden with the Falcons' pick to supplant McCoy.
With each rookie expected to play a vital role, 2012 would figure to be yet another rebuilding year for the Browns, but the organization has employed a sound strategy. The roster has been built from the inside out and should be solid in the trenches. The defense played well last season, ranking fifth in points allowed and second against the pass. Brad Childress was brought in to fill the vacancy at coordinator to help the offense along. Is a giant leap in the standings likely? Probably not, but a full offseason and a year of experience in their new offensive and defensive systems in conjunction with the influx of young talent should make the Browns more competitive and produce viable fantasy options on both sides of the ball.
Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama (Round 1, 3rd overall)
Instantly becomes focus of the offense. Not much competition on the roster for touches, making it likely he will serve as the third-down back and handle the goal-line duties.
Brandon Weeden, QB, Oklahoma State (Round 1, 22nd overall)
Played minor league baseball and enters the league at age 28. Browns brass is hoping his maturity will result in an expedited transition to the pro game and should start Week 1. At 6-4, 221, he has more prototypical size and a bigger arm than McCoy.
Mitchell Schwartz, OT, California (Round 2, 37th overall)
Already tabbed the starter at right tackle. Big, athletic guy with NFL bloodlines.
John Hughes, DT, Cincinnati (Round 3, 87th overall)
Third-rounder was a surprise selection graded much lower. He's a run-stuffer who fills a big need though, as Cleveland ranked 30th against the run in 2011.
Travis Benjamin, WR, Miami (Round 4, 100th overall)
Tied for fastest 40-time among receivers at the combine at 4.36. Can stretch the field and adds a dynamic return threat. Might get a look within team's thin receiving corps.
Frostee Rucker, DE (Bengals)
Swiped from division-rival to start opposite Jabaal Sheard. Stout against the run and registered a career-best four sacks in 2011.
Peyton Hillis, RB (Chiefs)
Wore out his welcome in the locker room. Has the looks of a one-year wonder.
Eric Steinbach, G (FA)
Former Pro-Bowler was released in a salary cap dump after missing all of 2011 due to back surgery.
LOCKED AND LOADED COWBOY
Good quarterback play is a prerequisite to winning in the NFL. With that in mind, the Browns felt they needed to upgrade from Colt McCoy and drafted Brandon Weeden with the 22nd overall pick. The feeling among NFL brass is that quarterbacks are coming into the league more ready-made than in the past, and last season Cam Newton and Andy Dalton provided backing for that sentiment. Weeden wont approach the record-setting stratosphere of Newton, but Dalton could make for a realistic comparison. Dalton threw for 3,398 yards with a 20:13 TD:INT ratio in a ball-control, run-based offense that could be similar to the approach featured in Cleveland. Of course, Weeden won't have A.J. Green or college teammate Justin Blackmon on the outside helping him get there, but those numbers represent an attainable upside for the rookie gunslinger.
WHICH WAY WILL HE THROW?
With the Browns failing to add a veteran receiver through free agency, the consensus leading up to the draft was that they would use a top pick to bolster a lackluster unit. That didnt happen, as Cleveland waited until the fourth round to take a wideout, selecting Miami's Travis Benjamin. So the group that produced one 100-yard game and team-highs of 61 receptions, 709 yards, and four touchdowns returns essentially unchanged. The situation may not be as dire as the noise would indicate, however. Based on their actions, Browns' management clearly felt the problem was with the quarterback, not his weapons. Receiver is the most dependent position in football, and the upgrade to Weeden should open up the deep ball, and bring more balance to the offense. Greg Little should build off his impressive rookie season and be a solid fantasy investment, and the starter opposite him, likely Mohamed Massaquoi, could have nice sleeper value.
NO ORDINARY ROOKIE
When asked for his impression of Trent Richardson, all-time great and Cleveland legend Jim Brown referred to him as "ordinary." That's not what the Browns were thinking when they selected him third overall and that assessment won't be reflected when he flies off fantasy draft boards in the early rounds either. With all due respect to arguably the greatest running back of all time, there's little about Richardson's game that could be described as mundane. The Heisman finalist racked up 2,017 yards-from-scrimmage and 24 scores last year playing in the rugged Southeastern Conference. He doesn't have track speed, but he's a powerful runner with excellent moves, phenomenal balance, great patience and a quick burst through the hole. Ultimately, his workload, not his skill set, will be the driving force behind his value in 2012. The three-down feature back is a dying breed in the NFL, and Richardson's ability to catch the ball and hold his own in pass protection will place him among that dwindling group.
Rising: Greg Little was the big winner this offseason with the Browns choosing not to add a front-line receiver and upgrading at quarterback.
Declining: Surely Colt McCoy was expecting the Browns to draft him a new weapon in the first round. Instead the team took his replacement.
Sleeper: Mohamed Massaquoi broke on to the scene with 624 yards and three touchdowns his rookie season but barely surpassed those totals in his next two years combined. The change to Weeden could vault him back into fantasy circles.
Supersleeper: Starting is a long shot for Travis Benjamin, but his speed puts the home run and return game in play.
DQwell Jackson, LB
Enjoyed a monster 2011, finishing second in the league with 158 tackles. Also added 3.5 sacks, three fumble recoveries and one interception. Health is the only concern.
Jabaal Sheard, DE
Team leader with 8.5 sacks as a rookie in 2011.
Joe Haden, CB
After a six-interception rookie campaign, looking to bounce back from sophomore season goose egg.
RotoWire Rank: 29