Opening day will see the Cleveland Browns third head coach in four seasons and their sixth starting quarterback in seven while the faithful fans have suffered through six consecutive losing teams. With five Pro Bowlers on the field 2014 promises to be better but just what can Browns fans expect from this team?
Coach Mike Pettine made official on Wednesday what just about everyone already suspected; Brian Hoyer will be the starting QB when the Browns open their season on the road against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday September 7, 2014. Rookie Johnny Manziel didn’t play badly but the general consensus, and one I agree with, is that Manziel needed to flat out outplay Hoyer to win the job and the reality is that neither of them has set the world on fire this preseason.
So the Browns will start the season with Hoyer at the helm. People forget that Hoyer isn’t exactly an unknown commodity in Cleveland and that he only played three games before getting hurt. He actually fared pretty well in those three games, completing 57-of-96 passes with 5 touchdowns and zero interceptions. He finished his 2013 season with a QB rating of 82.6 which wasn’t bad by any means. Hoyer is a good choice for the time being until Pettine decides to usher in the Manziel era.
Hoyer is the starter but no matter who won the job the big question is who the heck is he going to throw to? Last season’s leading wide receiver Josh Gordon is facing a possible year-long suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy and with his season now highly in doubt after his arrest for DWI Hoyer will be looking elsewhere. That list would include newcomers Miles Austin, Nate Burleson, Andrew Hawkins and possibly Travis Benjamin. Luckily for Hoyer he has tight end Jordan Cameron who had 80 catches for nearly 1000 yards. The shelves are pretty bare in the Browns pantry.
If the Browns are going to move the ball at all this season they’ll need to do so on the ground. The Browns brought in the Houston Texans Ben Tate. He won’t set the world on fire but one stat that sticks out for me that should benefit the Browns; Tate finished 8th in Pro Football Focus’ elusive rating, which should benefit the Browns and Tate when he isn’t running behind the right side of the Browns line. Rookie Terrence West has also looked decent this pre-season as has Manziel.
The offensive line is much improved over last season anchored by one of the best centers in the game in Pro Bowler Alex Mack. He’s joined on the left line by fellow Pro Bowler Joe Thomas and rookie Joel Bitonio. This left side is as good as it gets. John Greco and Mitchell Swartz fill out the right side of the line. If the Browns are going to score they’ll need the maximum effort out of all five of these guys and not just Mack and Thomas.
This offense won’t put a bunch of points on the scoreboard but they won’t be inept either. If Hoyer can remain healthy and Gordon doesn’t get suspended for the entire season, this offense just might be better than people give them credit for. I like the addition of Tate and how the rookie West has looked this preseason. It’s going to have to be a total team effort for this team to score but with this team and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s creativity, this offense could surprise a few people this season.
If the Browns are going to wind up on the plus side of things this season it will have to be the defense that gets the job done. Much to the delight of Cleveland fans everywhere the Browns did some serious upgrading on the defensive side of the ball this past off-season. Let’s see what the Browns will put on the field in 2014.
Signing cornerback Joe Haden this offseason was pure genius. The price tag was steep (five years, $67 million, $43 million guaranteed) but definitely worth it. The Browns have a top five cornerback who’s strong in trail coverage, zone as well as his ability to line up and take the man in the slot. Players like Haden don’t come around very often and Cleveland is all the better for this.
At the other corner will most likely be rookie Justin Gilbert. He’ll have his hands full covering the No. 2 receivers and while QB’s have learned to avoid Haden like the plague, Gilbert will need to demonstrate he can handle the job and he will have plenty of opportunities to prove himself as he will see plenty of balls thrown his way.
The secondary looks like it should be fairly strong this season. The Browns signed safety Donte Whitner to ride alongside Tashaun Gipson. Gipson had five picks last season and he should have plenty of opportunities again this season alongside Whitner. Jordan Poyer will be the third safety in obvious passing situations and Buster Skrine might see some action out there as well.
The defensive line should be okay with Billy Winn and Desmond Bryant on the outside and Ahtyba Rubin lining up over center. In 2013 the three had 7 sacks and 54 tackles between them. They’ll need to up those totals a bit but for a three-man front those numbers work.
The linebacker corps of Karlos Dansby, Paul Kruger, Craig Robertson, Barkevious Mingo and not to mention Jabaal Sheard are just about as good as it gets. Sheard and Mingo are guys who can smash a QB with 5.5 and 5.0 sacks respectively last season. Look for bigger numbers from both of these linebackers this season.
Spencer Lanning returns to do the punting and Billy Cundiff will handle the kicking duties for the Browns this season.
How I see it: The AFC North is going to be another close race and the Browns should be in the thick of things. I think the key will be how well Hoyer starts the season and whether or not the Browns can get their running game going. They will play good defense against all but the elite offenses but they will need a whole lot of luck in order to win the North.