STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
If it weren't for the old school seal brown and orange jersey colors, the casual fan might have a hard time recognizing the new-look Browns in 2014. In addition to personnel overhauls on both sides of the ball, owner Jimmy Haslem shook up the team's front office by firing GM Michael Lombardi and replacing him with Ray Farmer. On the heels of a 4-12 campaign, coach Rob Chudzinski was let go after just one season, replaced by former Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. To run the offense, the defensive-minded Pettine brought in Kyle Shanahan via Washington.
After accepting the promotion, Farmer didn't hesitate to dip into the free agent market to revamp the team's roster. He snagged Arian Foster's understudy, Ben Tate, from the Texans to lead the team's rushing attack, while adding Nate Burleson and Andrew Hawkins to bolster the receiving corps. Not to ignore the defensive side of the ball, linebacker Karlos Dansby was signed to replace tackling leader D'Qwell Jackson, and Donte Whitner was brought in to help cushion the loss of top safety T.J. Ward.
Then came May's draft, which ended up bringing more drama than any Kevin Costner cinematic representation could foretell. Farmer entered and left Day 1 with two first-round selections, although neither pick was made in its original slot. He traded down from the No. 4 pick to select cornerback Justin Gilbert eighth overall, while snagging an extra 2015 first-rounder in the process. Farmer then swooped in and traded for the Eagles' pick (22nd overall) in order to take Johnny Manziel, perhaps the most polarizing player in the draft. In the wake of the selection of the team's future franchise quarterback, No. 2 Manziel jerseys went flying off the shelves in Cleveland, while the Browns' phone lines exploded with requests for season tickets.
However, it didn't take long before the building excitement ground to a halt. News broke that Josh Gordon reportedly failed yet another drug test and is potentially facing a season-long suspension under the league's substance abuse policy. At press time, there's been no official word from the league, but the team's brass is preparing for a 2014 campaign without its star wideout for some, if not all, of the season. Despite missing two games while under suspension to start 2013, Gordon returned to lead the league in receiving with 1,646 yards. It didn't matter if it was Brandon Weeden, Brian Hoyer or Jason Campbell throwing him the ball, Gordon was able to terrorize defenses and make big plays all over the field. The Browns – who reportedly knew about the looming suspension in advance of the draft – curiously didn't select a wideout, but eventually reacted by adding both Miles Austin and Earl Bennett (since released) in mid-May. After releasing Greg Little, the team's wideout depth chart is finally starting to shape up, although no one currently rostered can come close to filling Gordon's shoes.
Johnny Manziel - QB, Texas A&M (Round 1, 22nd Overall)
May not start right away, but the mobile playmaker has star quality.
Ben Tate - RB, Texans
Will have a chance to lead a run-first offensive attack after working in the shadow of Arian Foster.
Nate Burleson/Andrew Hawkins - WR, Lions/Bengals
Opportunity knocks thanks to the Josh Gordon situation.
Miles Austin - WR, Cowboys
A potential No. 1 receiving target if he can avoid nagging injuries.
Justin Gilbert - CB, Oklahoma State (Round 1, 8th Overall)
The team passed on wideout Sammy Watkins in order to solidify the cornerback slot opposite Joe Haden.
Brandon Weeden – QB, Cowboys
Drafted 22nd overall in 2012, but the Browns have already moved on.
T.J. Ward – S, Broncos
Anchored the team's defensive backfield last season and was a turnover threat.
Willis McGahee – RB, FA
The veteran was the Browns' leader with 377 rushing yards in 2013, but recorded just 2.7 yards per carry.
JOHNNY FOOTBALL OR JOHNNY BACKUP?
Though the first-round selection of Johnny Manziel was certainly a splashy move, Cleveland's brass was quick to note that nothing will be handed to the rookie quarterback, with Brian Hoyer still viewed as a contender for the team's Week 1 starting assignment. Of the three signal-callers who drew starts for the Browns last season, only Hoyer remains with the team. Prior to suffering a season-ending torn ACL on Oct. 3, Hoyer made three starts for Cleveland, recording 615 passing yards and five touchdowns against three interceptions. The Browns went 3-0 over Hoyer's starts, though it's worth noting that he was injured after attempting just four passes in his last turn. While the fan base in Cleveland will presumably be clamoring for the dynamic Manziel the moment Hoyer shows any sign of weakness, the Browns have remained consistent in saying that they value the experience that Hoyer (whose injury recovery has reportedly gone smooth thus far) owns.
A NEW FOCUS ON A POWER RUNNING GAME
Last season, the Browns finished tied for 27th in the league with just 86.4 rushing yards per game, but with key personnel changes at running back and the building blocks for a solid offensive line on hand, things could turn around this season. Led by All-Pro tackle Joe Thomas, the team's line also includes both Alex Mack (who Cleveland made the highest-paid center in the league this offseason) and Joel Bitonio, a second-round draft pick out of Nevada. Mix these bruisers with a rushing attack led by newcomer Ben Tate and fourth-rounder Terrance West, and you get an offensive unit centered around a punishing ground game. West has already drawn comparisons to Washington's Alfred Morris, at least in the way he could be utilized by offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
WHO WILL HOYER/MANZIEL TARGET?
Given Josh Gordon's cloudy status, the door is open for other receiving options to step up and absorb a portion of the 159 targets the wideout earned over 14 games last season. After finishing second on the Browns (behind Gordon) in receptions (80), receiving yards (917) and touchdowns (seven) in 2013, tight end Jordan Cameron is a candidate to see added looks as a safety net in an offense minus Gordon. Cameron saw 19 red-zone targets last season, anyway – more than any tight end not named Jimmy Graham – so he's one to watch. Additionally, if former Dallas Cowboy Miles Austin can stay healthy, he has the potential to take over as the team's No. 1 wideout, as he already has two 1,000-yard receiving seasons under his belt. Andrew Hawkins should also see his fair share of targets out of the slot, with Nate Burleson also in the mix.
Rising: Tight end Jordan Cameron is coming off an 80-catch season and figures to be counted on heavily in the likely absence of Josh Gordon.
Declining: With NFL discipline on the horizon, it remains unclear whether Josh Gordon will see a regular-season snap this season.
Sleeper: Rookie quarterbacks are tough to rely on in fantasy, but Johnny Manziel's duel-threat playmaking ability gives him upside as soon as he starts.
Supersleeper: Terrance West will compete for touches with presumed starter Ben Tate, a player who has dealt with injuries in the past.
Karlos Dansby - LB
A top IDP option in Cleveland after racking up 122 tackles, 6.5 sacks and four picks for the Cards in 2013.
Barkevious Mingo - LB
The 2013 first-rounder could very well make the leap in his second season after recording five sacks and 42 tackles as a rookie.
Joe Haden - CB
Opposing QBs won't be looking his way too much, but he anchors the Cleveland secondary.
RotoWire Rank: 18