The AFC North is arguably the NFL's most competitive division with three teams having made the playoffs last season. Even through all the woes of the Browns in the past, they still finished 7-9. However, they fell apart at the end of the season, losing five straight. They were certainly a surprise team up until that point, although they still have glaring problems. While the other teams have enjoyed success for some time now, the Browns have to make some adjustments if they want to truly compete throughout a full season.
Is Josh McCown the sure starting quarterback?
A few months back, Mike Pettine named McCown as the team’s starting quarterback and sounded pretty firm in his decision. Johnny Manziel spent some time in rehab during the offseason in hopes to get a better focus on the field and fix personal issues. With that, McCown, a journeyman, looks to provide some stability to the Browns. The rest of the AFC North teams all have franchise quarterbacks, while the Browns haven’t had even a solid starter since they returned to the NFL as an expansion team in 1999. The Browns really need somebody better than McCown at quarterback, so there will be plenty of eyes on Manziel during training camp. He’ll certainly be getting plenty of reps because it is almost certain that he will get some playing time this upcoming season.
How will the wide receivers help their quarterback?
To give their quarterback someone to throw to since Josh Gordon is suspended for the entire 2015 season, the Browns signed Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline, presumably for starting roles. Both receivers have had success at some point during their respective careers, but neither figures to be a big red-zone threat. Hartline had just two touchdowns after a reduced role last season with the Dolphins, and Bowe recorded none for the Chiefs. Andrew Hawkins will probably also get significant time after emerging as the team's leading receiver last year. But touchdowns didn’t come much his way either. The Browns only had 12 total passing touchdowns, last in the NFL.
The offense will certainly rely on the rush, but how reliable will that be?
The Browns’ offense really doesn’t have a standout playmaker, but they do have a solid offensive line anchored by All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas. Thus Cleveland’s trio of running backs will play a monumental role in the offense Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West showed some flashes of strong running, but they combined to average four yards per carry, as the team ranked near the bottom of the NFL in this category (3.6 ypc, 28th). Cleveland also drafted Duke Johnson in the third round this year, who figures to get some playing time. The Browns don’t have a solidified star back, so it will be so essential to get better production from its ball carriers as a whole.
Can the league's worst rush defense improve?
The Browns were last in the NFL in rushing yards allowed, and a big reason for that came at the expense of the defensive line. However, they went out during the offseason to fix problems there, drafting NT Danny Shelton in the first round and signing veteran DE Randy Starks in free agency. Shelton will certainly be the most important player along the line because he will be tasked with jamming the middle and allowing for linebackers to get to the running back quicker. Cleveland recognized an obvious need and made sure to get help immediately. However, it remains to be seen if the changes will produce results on the field.
Can the defense, specifically the pass defense, lead this team to a strong season?
There is little doubt that the Browns’ secondary is the premier unit on this team, and it will have to lead the way, just like it did last year. Joe Haden is certainly the best defensive player on the team, and perhaps the team’s best player. Quarterbacks avoid throwing his way because of his ability to consistently win one-on-one matchups. The Browns also added Tramon Williams this offseason to line up opposite Haden. Williams is coming off of a down year, so his performance early on is worth watching. The team also hopes that 2014 first-round pick Justin Gilbert will take a big step forward and be more of a factor and playmaker this season. Safeties Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson take care of the back end. They were both among the league's best at their positions last season, as Gipson was second in interceptions and Whitner was sixth in tackles by a defensive back.