Can Johnny Manziel help the Browns compete in the AFC North?
The Cleveland Browns are new again. Come Opening Day, they’ll have their third head coach in three years, their sixth different Opening Day quarterback in seven years and a new team playing under a new regime. The second full season under the ownership of Jimmy Haslam starts with a new head coach in Mike Pettine and a new boss on the personnel side in general manager Ray Farmer.
There will be pressure to play rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel — and he very well may earn the job — but veteran Brian Hoyer will provide stiff competition. Five Pro Bowlers from last season are due back to join a nice mix of veteran free agents and more young talent than the Browns have had in several years. Can it result in wins, though? Only if the Browns get solid quarterback play, stay healthy and keep a potentially strong defense off the field and fresh.
Last season, Josh Gordon was the NFL’s most productive receiver despite missing two games due to suspension and playing with three different quarterbacks. Unfortunately, it appears that Gordon will miss significant playing time this season as well as he's already met with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell regarding a reported additional violation of the league's substance-abuse policy. To make matters worse, Gordon also was arrested in early July on a charge of driving while impaired. Incidents like this certainly don't bode well for Gordon’s future nor for an offense that doesn’t have anything resembling a suitable replacement.
Tight end Jordan Cameron is coming off a Pro Bowl season and looking for a new contract, and he’ll likely be in line for 70-plus receptions whether Gordon is in the lineup or not. It will come down to whether the Browns can run the ball — Ben Tate was signed and Terrance West was drafted to help the cause — behind a line anchored by the team’s second- and third-highest-paid players, left tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack.
Eventually, the Browns figure to transition to becoming Manziel’s team — and a strong running game would serve as the foundation for an offense that plays to the mobile but diminutive Manziel’s strengths. Hoyer won’t go down without a fight, though, and who plays quarterback shapes up as the biggest question for this Browns team. Even if Hoyer is more ready and able to produce, Manziel Mania is real — and those who drive it will be ready to pounce at even the slightest of Hoyer’s missteps.
Miles Austin, Nate Burleson and Andrew Hawkins bring experience and savvy to the receiving corps. Tate has waited for the opportunity to be a featured back and, if he can stay healthy, figures to have plenty of chances. The Browns simply couldn’t run the ball at all last year, and that’s part of the reason why they used a high second-round pick on Joel Bitonio, who should slide in immediately at guard.
A Browns team with the ability to chew up rushing yards to complement Gordon and Cameron in the passing game shapes up as a formidable team capable of playing with just about anybody in the league. A Browns team with continued inconsistency at quarterback and lack of playmakers on the perimeter figures to struggle again. Stay tuned.
The Browns have a talented front seven and got stronger up the middle in March by guaranteeing $14 million to linebacker Karlos Dansby and $11 million to safety Donte Whitner, a Cleveland native. The goal of Pettine and new defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil isn’t just to move past last year’s bad habit of giving up late leads, but to be aggressive and dictate the pace of games.
With an offense that figures to be a work in progress, the defense needs to be the strength of the team, at least early on. The defensive line has depth and talent many teams would love to have, and with Dansby, third-round pick Christian Kirksey and what Pettine hopes will be a new and improved Barkevious Mingo in his second year as an edge-rusher, the pieces are in place at linebacker. Rookie Justin Gilbert should start immediately at corner opposite Joe Haden, who’s becoming a star.
Haden, who signed a huge contract in the offseason, has emerged both as a leader in the locker room and the kind of guy opposing quarterbacks don’t want to have to challenge. That’s why it’s so important that Gilbert proves ready to play right away — and probably why the Browns drafted another big corner, Pierre Desir, as fourth-round insurance. The team wants to keep the speedy but small Buster Skrine in the slot.
The Browns need to be better against the run and make impact plays in obvious passing downs. Desmond Bryant should be back after a heart issue ended his 2013 season prematurely, and nose tackle Phil Taylor needs to prove worthy of the $5.5 million 2015 option the team’s new decision-makers picked up in the spring.
Getting to the passer off the edge will help Haden, Gilbert and all involved. A year after the Browns gave Paul Kruger a $40 million contract and used the No. 6 pick in the draft on Mingo, those two simply have to produce at a higher level. Maybe a new scheme and comfort level with their surroundings will help.
Travis Benjamin provided some sizzle in the return game last year, but neither the offense nor the special teams had the same pop after he went down with a torn ACL. He’s expected back, and the Browns hope he can be the same player. Gilbert has rare athletic ability and could contribute in the return game as well.
The kicking game is solid but not spectacular. The Browns were lucky to land Billy Cundiff just before the start of the 2013 season following the departure of Phil Dawson. Cundiff was good enough to land a contract extension. The team would like to see him in position to make more big kicks. Punter Spencer Lanning did a serviceable job in his first true NFL opportunity and should be better this year. With a young offense and nasty weather due for pivotal games, having a solid punting game can’t be overlooked.
Another restart is here, but Pettine and the winner of the Hoyer/Manziel battle will have better overall personnel than many of their predecessors. The Browns have some talent; the key is mixing a little bit of a luck with a little bit of confidence and seeing where that may lead. At an offseason speaking engagement, Haslam listed his three goals for the 2014 season as being competitive in what should again be a very tightly contested AFC North race; improving the win-loss record (the Browns haven’t won more than five games in a season since 2007); and becoming the kind of team Pettine wants in terms of toughness, discipline and establishing an identity. If the Browns run the ball and stop the run, they’ll have a chance for real progress. As for real wins, we’ll see which young players answer the call.
PREDICTION: 4th in AFC North
(Johnny Manziel photo courtesy of Cleveland Browns' Web site, www.clevelandbrowns.com)