The Browns enter 2015 having changed offensive coordinators again, still searching for a real answer at quarterback and still trying to climb out of fourth place in the rugged AFC North. Though this year’s team should have better overall talent and depth and should benefit from having coach Mike Pettine and several key veterans back, it’s fair to wonder if there’s enough offensive firepower to allow the Browns to compete with the league’s best teams.
The defense has been upgraded, and with better tackling and better health among the front seven, there should be a noticeable improvement against the run. The secondary is an experienced and well-paid bunch, too, and has leaders and playmakers in Joe Haden, Donte Whitner, Tashaun Gipson and Tramon Williams.
The offensive line is the team’s strongest and deepest unit, with Alex Mack set to return at center after an injury-shortened 2014 season and perennial Pro Bowler Joe Thomas back at left tackle. Thomas will tutor second-year guard Joel Bitonio and 2015 first-rounder Cameron Erving, who is Mack’s likely eventual successor at center but could play right guard or right tackle. The Browns will try to establish the run and hope to throw off play-action from that.
They’re still building for the future, too; a year after spending two first-round picks on early draft entries who brought maturity issues to the NFL, the Browns went with older, productive players, many of whom figure as 2015 contributors and 2016 starters.
Brian Hoyer was allowed to leave after starting 13 games at quarterback before giving way to Johnny Manziel, who was totally overwhelmed in two starts and spent 10 weeks of the offseason in a rehab center for undisclosed issues. Veteran journeyman Josh McCown was signed to start at quarterback, and veteran receivers Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline were added after the Browns learned their most talented receiver, Josh Gordon, was suspended for at least one year.
Tight end Jordan Cameron departed via free agency, and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan asked out, meaning 2015 marks a fresh start for almost everybody who will touch the ball. Running backs Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell showed promise as rookies, and both are strong, physical runners who figure to have a chance to improve as they get more comfortable with the NFL game. Slot receiver Andrew Hawkins is a playmaker whose opportunities to be productive figure to depend on the ability of Bowe and Hartline to get open down the field.
Manziel returned to the team in the spring, but the Browns’ decision not to draft a quarterback affirmed the assumption that McCown will start 2015 and Manziel will be given a chance to learn how to be an NFL quarterback from the sideline. His task is to prove to the team that his admitted work-ethic issues from last season are in the past. McCown took a beating last year in Tampa Bay, but the Browns believe with a better offensive line and a run-first approach, he’ll be more like the player who kept the Bears afloat in 2013 when Jay Cutler was injured.
Improvement will be judged by efficiency and on the scoreboard. The 2014 Browns had the league’s worst completion percentage (54.6) and third-down success rate and were 27th in the NFL in scoring. The loss of Mack was huge to the offense’s identity and ability to convert key short-yardage chances. But even with the line set to return intact — and possibly with more depth — the Browns still have to prove they have the skill players to turn routine plays into big gains and consistently score more than 20 points per game.
The one offensive certainty: Thomas will come to play. Amazingly, the Browns left tackle has not missed an offensive snap since he was drafted in 2007.
The Browns have been aggressive in consecutive offseasons in trying to add talent to every level of the defense and believe they’ve built a unit with the necessary talent and depth to be among the best in the AFC.
The defensive line was overvalued a year ago and suffered when injuries hit. But the linebacking corps got big seasons from Karlos Dansby and Paul Kruger, and the secondary added Williams to a group that could really make a leap if 2014 first-round pick Justin Gilbert can overcome the maturity issues that plagued him a year ago.
Gipson contended for the NFL interception lead, and though Whitner is 30, he’s still active and disruptive. Haden has emerged as one of the league’s top cornerbacks, and the Browns believe Gilbert has the talent to be a playmaker, too. Even with his issues last season he showed flashes on the field.
There’s age across the defense — Dansby, Whitner, Kruger, Williams, defensive end Desmond Bryant and new defensive end Randy Starks all have plenty of experience — but there are some young legs, too, in Haden, linebacker Chris Kirksey and rookie nose tackle Danny Shelton. The Browns considered Shelton, the No. 12 overall pick in the draft, the best player to immediately shore up a run defense that ranked last in the NFL a season ago. The Browns drafted two defensive linemen in the first three rounds with Bryant nearing 30 and former first-round pick Phil Taylor entering the final year of his contract.
The Browns will ask a lot of this defense, but they believe that the group is up to the challenge if the run defense improves. Some help from the offense on the scoreboard and in time of possession would be welcomed, but there are pieces to work with here.
The Browns had to make a change at placekicker last season when Billy Cundiff struggled. Garrett Hartley was a December addition who faced no real pressure kicks, and it’s surprising the Browns didn’t draft a kicker to give him some competition this summer. Young punter Spencer Lanning established himself last season, but the Browns decided to make a change , acquiring Andy Lee from the 49ers in June. In Lee, Cleveland gets a three-time Pro Bowler who averaged 46.2 yards per punt (39.6 net) since taking over as San Francisco's punter in 2004, while the 49ers reportedly will receive the Browns' seventh-round pick in the 2017 draft. Lanning was released to make room for Lee. The punt-return game was a disaster last season, and Travis Benjamin is probably down to his last chance with the Browns in this training camp. Among the other candidates to return kicks and punts are rookie running back Duke Johnson, Gilbert and speedy second-year receiver Taylor Gabriel.
The Browns won seven games last year, the most by the franchise since 2007. But the offense went totally flat late in the year, there were too many off-field incidents, and the season ended with a five-game losing streak. The 2015 team should be equipped with better leaders, better chemistry and better depth, but it’s still fair to wonder who’s going to make big plays and if this team will score enough touchdowns to be a legitimate playoff contender.