State of the Franchise
The song remains the same in Cleveland. The tune is “Winds of Change.” In August of last year the Lerner family completed their sale of the franchise to Jimmy Haslam. He immediately brought in former Eagles president Joe Banner to serve as CEO and following yet another disappointing season, Haslam cleaned house in the front office. After posting a 9–23 record in his two seasons with the club, coach Pat Shurmur was fired. Following him out the door were dismissed GM Tom Heckert and team president Mike Holmgren, who left on his own accord.
With five straight seasons of 10-plus losses and nine losing seasons in the last 10 years overall, it’s hard to fault Haslam for wanting a fresh start. On their way in are GM Michael Lombardi and coach Rob Chudzinski, each of whom have worked for the franchise in the past. Lombardi spent time in the Browns player personnel department in the ‘80s and ‘90s and “Chud” served as the team’s tight ends coach and offensive coordinator before moving on to San Diego in 2009. Most recently, he was the offensive coordinator in Carolina, while Lombardi was plucked from his television gig at the NFL Network.
The biggest challenge for Chudzinski, the seventh coach since the franchise’s 1999 return to Cleveland, will be to make the league’s 25th ranked offense more explosive. QB Brandon Weeden, RB Trent Richardson and WR Josh Gordon all showed promise as rookies, but only one starting quarterback had fewer completions that traveled 20-plus yards through the air than Weeden, and Richardson managed only six carries of 15-plus yards. The Browns’ focus in free agency and the draft was on defense, so new offensive coordinator Norv Turner will be charged with getting more out of the talent on hand. He has a stellar reputation as a coordinator and he’s well respected for his work with quarterbacks, so a more vertical and aggressive attack should be on the way.
The Browns defense will get a facelift, as new coordinator Ray Horton will be bringing his 3-4 defensive alignment over from the Cardinals. Paul Kruger was the team’s big free agent acquisition, and Barkevious Mingo was drafted out of LSU in the first round to add two pass-rushing linebackers to help fit the personnel to the new scheme. The likes of nose tackle Phil Taylor and inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson have provided a strong presence up the middle, so the improvement on the edges should round this unit into a balanced and formidable group that can stack up with the Browns’ division rivals.
The chances of Cleveland experiencing a meteoric rise within the treacherous AFC North are slim, but with a solid staff in place and a roster teeming with potential, improvements should be expected. Like most NFL teams, however, the Browns will only go as far as their quarterback play will take them.
Barkevious Mingo - LB, LSU
(Round 1, 6th overall)
Look for the dynamic pass-rush specialist to be utilized similarly to how Aldon Smith was in his rookie year.
Paul Kruger - LB, Ravens
The price was steep to acquire Kruger’s services coming off a breakout season, but he fits the Browns’ new scheme well.
Davone Bess - WR, Dolphins
Acquired in a draft-day trade, he will slide right in as the Browns’ slot receiver.
Jason Campbell - QB, Bears
With new management and a new head coach in town, he could get some starts if Brandon Weeden fails to impress.
Ben Watson - TE, Saints
With his departure, the pressure will be on Jordan Cameron to turn some of his potential into production this year.
Phil Dawson - K, 49ers
Leaves after holding down placekicking duties for the Browns for the last 14 seasons. Shayne Graham stands to be his replacement.
Mohamed Massaquoi - WR, Jaguars
Battled injuries throughout his time in Cleveland and didn’t live up to his second-round draft slot.
Josh Cribbs - WR, Raiders
Never clicked as a full-time receiver and was frustrated with his limited offensive opportunities with the Browns, but his return skills need to be replaced.
BUILT TO LAST?
RB Trent Richardson impressed as a rookie, totaling 1,317 yards and 12 touchdowns in 15 games. He proved to be every bit the “three-down” back he professed to be leading up to the 2012 draft. He finished second on the team with 51 receptions in addition to his team-leading 267 carries. Durability, not talent, will be the concern regarding Richardson heading into the 2013 season. A minor knee procedure conducted last August caused him to miss the entire preseason and surely played a role in his slow start as a pro. His production increased as the season rolled on, but he battled nagging injuries throughout, including finger, ankle, and rib ailments in addition to dealing with his balky knee. He’ll be expected to carry a heavy offensive load for Cleveland, but Richardson’s ability to hold up to said workload will be the biggest determining factor in his value to the Browns and in turn, fantasy squads.
IS WEEDEN THE GUY?
By no means was QB Brandon Weeden’s rookie season a disaster. He threw for 3,385 yards and posted a 14:17 touchdown-interception ratio. A few years back that would have been considered a decent opening act. But, in the wake of the historic performances turned in by his 2012 draft classmates Robert Griffin, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson, Weeden’s production presents more questions than answers in today’s NFL. The Browns haven’t had a legitimate franchise quarterback since their reinstatement back in 1999, so there’s an ongoing annual search to find that player. Based on the offseason approach demonstrated by management it seems as though the team is willing to give Weeden another season to cement that role. Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer were brought in for depth purposes and the team chose not to select a quarterback in the draft. With nine selections next year and some highly-touted quarterback prospects potentially in the mix, Weeden’s leash would seem to be one-year long.
GOING ON THE DEFENSIVE
The AFC North and the NFC West are the league’s most physical divisions. In order to compete it’s imperative to be stout on the defensive side of the ball, so the Browns turned their focus in that direction this offseason. They brought in Ray Horton from Arizona to implement a 3-4 scheme and added several players to fit that style of play. Linebacker Paul Kruger was the big free agent score, but Cleveland also added LB Quentin Groves and DE Desmond Bryant to the mix. Then they used their first-round pick on one of the draft’s elite pass-rush prospects, LB Barkevious Mingo. Add to that group the likes of linemen Ahtyba Rubin and Phil Taylor, along with LB D’Qwell Jackson and CB Joe Haden, and you have a nice collection of talent that could provide several useful fantasy options in IDP leagues and also make the Browns’ Team D a decent sleeper group in drafts this season.
Rising: With Trent Richardson banged up, Montario Hardesty saw added reps during OTAs. He’s next in line for carries should Richardson miss any time during the season.
Declining: Josh Gordon will do some damage in the 14 games he is eligible to suit up for, but he’ll start the season by serving a two-game suspension.
Sleeper: Davone Bess has hauled in 50-plus catches in each of his first five seasons. He fits the slot role better than anyone who has suited up for Cleveland in a long time.
Supersleeper: Coach Rob Chudzinski has had good success with tight ends in his last two stops in San Diego and Carolina, and Jordan Cameron doesn’t have much competition for snaps.
Jabaal Sheard - LB
Recorded 15.5 sacks in his first two years and now there’s a major threat working the opposite side.
D’Qwell Jackson - LB
He’s a high-volume tackler with the skills to add interceptions, sacks and fumbles.
Barkevious Mingo - LB
Has the speed to be a disruptive force in passing situations with the upside for much more.
RotoWire Rank: 15