Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.
The Cleveland Browns check in at No. 28.
Losing takes a toll — on everyone. Players, fans, the front office, everyone. In Cleveland, an angry and frustrated fan base wanted offseason action. It didn’t get it in free agency, where the Browns bypassed the quick — and expensive — fix. It might have gotten it on draft night, when the Browns cast their lot with a new running back and a new quarterback, both of whom are expected to start immediately.
One trade and two picks left the Browns with a new offense and a new approach. Running back Trent Richardson is expected to provide the steady, tough, dependable play the team lacked last season. At 28, quarterback Brandon Weeden became the oldest player ever selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. Immediately the team talked about Weeden starting, and an offense that was miserable in 2011 was betting its chances for revival on two draft picks. The schedule and division are brutal, but the Browns believe a top runner and new passer will bring them closer to competitive than they’ve been in a long time.
The Browns were woeful in 2011, scoring only 13.6 points per game and finishing 29th in total yards per game (288.8). The league’s top two offenses — Green Bay and New Orleans — outscored them by three touchdowns per game. That’s bad.
Something had to be done, and the team identified four areas that needed fixing: running back, receiver, right tackle and quarterback. The quarterback situation was an endless offseason debate, with a good portion of the fan base believing a better supporting cast would help last year’s starter, Colt McCoy.
The organization did not agree. Despite professing fondness and appreciation for McCoy, the Browns first tried to trade up not with Washington but with Indianapolis for the pick that would be Andrew Luck. The Colts quickly rebuffed that effort. Then the Browns tried to acquire the draft pick that would be Robert Griffin III, but could not finish the trade. Then it took a 28-year-old rookie with the 22nd pick in the first round of the draft.
It’s a measure of the Browns’ struggles that the team looked on Weeden’s age not as a weakness — like most of the league — but as a strength. While most teams saw a guy who would be 29 in October and perhaps 31 by the time he “got it,” the Browns saw an experienced and mature player more capable of stepping in right away than a 21- or 22-year-old coming out of college. That’s how badly they wanted someone who could play right away.
The Browns believe that Weeden’s experience in minor league baseball taught him a lot about being a pro. They believe that will translate into on-field success sooner than the normal rookie learning curve would indicate.
Weeden’s every measurable is better than McCoy’s. He threw for 71 touchdowns the last two season while completing just under 70 percent of his throws at Oklahoma State. But he will face a difficult task, with six in-division games against the defenses of the Steelers, Ravens and Bengals. He’ll also travel to face the Giants and Broncos.
One advantage Weeden will have that McCoy did not: Weeden will hand off to a talented and gifted running back in Richardson, who is also a rookie. The Browns liked the former Alabama star enough to give up three late-round picks to move up from fourth overall to third to ensure his selection. It was a smart move — especially after they didn’t get their guy from the Colts or Redskins.
Weeden’s biggest challenge: Learning a new offense while adjusting from a shotgun-spread to working under center. He will have a rookie right tackle in second-round draft pick Mitchell Schwartz of Cal and the same group of receivers that led the league in drops a year ago.
Greg Little, Mohamed Massaquoi and the rest will have to do better. The Browns believe experience and a better quarterback will help the receivers. They also believe a better running game will help the quarterback. Coach Pat Shurmur calls it synergy, something the Browns lacked almost completely last season.
The Browns are asking a lot of three rookies by expecting them to step right in and change the offense. But things were going nowhere fast with the folks from last season. Results may not be immediate, but this was an offense that needed a drastic overhaul, and it got one.
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Because the Browns were so focused on the offense in the offseason, their moves to improve the defense were more, shall we say, subtle. Basically the Browns added two players to a defense that gave up 147.4 rushing yards per game but still ranked 10th overall.
In free agency, the Browns added two journeymen defensive ends — Frostee Rucker and Juqua Parker. Rucker is penciled in to start opposite Jabaal Sheard. Parker will fit in a rotation. Same with third-round pick John Hughes, a surprise choice out of Cincinnati. In the three linemen, the Browns wanted to add depth to a unit that has three legitimate starters — Sheard and tackles Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin. Whether that makes for great improvement is up for debate.
The Browns’ linebackers are solid, but not spectacular. Cornerback is a concern. Joe Haden’s play dropped off noticeably as 2011 progressed, and it’s very possible Dimitri Patterson could push aging veteran Sheldon Brown to safety.
The Browns’ defense felt pretty good about itself in 2011, primarily because of its overall ranking and because it only allowed 19.2 points per game. But the run defense numbers seem to undermine the overall rankings. It’s tough to be an effective defense without stopping the run. How this group improves at that facet of the game will determine how it fares in 2012.
The Browns’ tradition of having outstanding specialists continues. The team has placed the franchise tag on placekicker Phil Dawson two years in a row for good reason. He is one of the finest, most dependable kickers in the league. While others work in domes or warm weather, Dawson succeeds in the cold, wind and elements on Lake Erie. The punting competition will be settled in preseason camp. Josh Cribbs is an outstanding returner, but he’s also 28. Rookie Travis Benjamin could challenge Cribbs in the return game.
Final Analysis: 4th in the AFC North
The Browns will go as far as a 28-year-old rookie quarterback can take them, but it won’t be far. The mountain Cleveland has to climb within the division is enormous — Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cincinnati were all playoff teams last season. The Browns have the third-toughest schedule in the league and an opening six games that would make a veteran worry. The Browns could be improved in 2012, but they still might not win seven games.
Related: 2012 Cleveland Browns Schedule Analysis
Outside The Huddle
Brown and Out
Rarely has one team done so little for so many. Since the expansion Browns started play in 1999, they have won a total of 68 games. That’s an average of only 5.2 wins per season. Is it any wonder the fan base is beyond frustrated?
Next Man Up
If Brandon Weeden is the opening-game starter for the Browns, he will be the fifth different starter on opening day in the past five years. The list reads this way: Weeden, Colt McCoy, Jake Delhomme, Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson. Weeden also will be the 16th player to start at quarterback for the Browns since 1999. That list includes Ty Detmer, Tim Couch, Doug Pederson, Spergon Wynn, Kelly Holcomb, Jeff Garcia, Luke McCown, Trent Dilfer, Charlie Frye, Anderson, Quinn, Ken Dorsey, Delhomme, Seneca Wallace and McCoy.
Weeden is not just old; he’s the oldest player ever drafted in the first round. His age when selected: 28 years and 195 days. Nobody counted the hours.
Trent Richardson joins a team with a history of backs that includes Hall of Famers Jim Brown, Leroy Kelly and Marion Motley. But no Browns back has ever been taken as high as Richardson was in the draft, when he went third overall. Jim Brown weighed in on the possible selection of Richardson before the draft with some words of serious caution. Said Brown of Richardson: “I think he’s ordinary.” OK, then.
Team president Mike Holmgren admitted that he talked to the Colts twice to see if they might trade out of the first spot so the Browns could draft Andrew Luck. The Colts declined. Holmgren said talks were brief. “I believe I was in the swimming pool at the owners meetings and I had a drink in my hand,” he said. No word on whether the drink had an umbrella. For the record, Holmgren was joking.
It’s unclear what it means, but the Browns may have more former head coaches on their staff than any other team. Pat Shurmur’s staff includes offensive coordinator Brad Childress (Minnesota), defensive coordinator Dick Jauron (Chicago, Buffalo) and senior defensive assistant Ray Rhodes (Philadelphia, Green Bay).
Statistics sometimes tell the story. The past four years, the Browns offense has ranked 29, 29, 29 and 31 in a 32-team league. In scoring, the Browns the past four years have ranked 30, 31, 32 and 30.
2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:
No. 32:Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31:St. Louis Rams
No. 30:Minnesota Vikings
No. 29:Indianapolis Colts
No. 28: Cleveland Browns
No. 27: Thur., July 26
Order your 2012 Cleveland Browns Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here
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Related: 2012 Cleveland Browns Schedule Analysis