The Browns are starting over — again — and still have more questions than answers across their depth chart. New coach Hue Jackson will call his own plays and hand-picked his first quarterback, Robert Griffin III, who was released by the Redskins after a year watching from the sideline. There will be plenty of new faces on the roster as the Browns lost four 2015 starters on the first day of free agency in March, later cut veteran defensive starters Karlos Dansby and Donte Whitner and made 14 draft picks in April.
Everything is new again because 2015 was a disaster. The Browns never really developed any on-field strengths, the Johnny Manziel Circus again served as a distraction, and there just wasn’t enough talent to keep up in the rugged AFC North. The hope for 2016 is that first-round wide receiver Corey Coleman will develop, that Griffin will play well, and that a younger, hungry defense will get to quarterbacks and at least keep the Browns in games. External expectations will be very low, and internally the Browns want to see progress and find more young players who show promise.
Jackson believes Griffin is rejuvenated and can regain at least some of the form he showed early in his career. The Browns didn’t invest much in Griffin and claim they aren’t promising him anything, but he figures to get the first crack at piloting an offense that struggled to run the ball last season and was almost always playing from behind.
Joe Thomas and Joel Bitonio return on the left side of the offensive line, though Bitonio could eventually move to right tackle. If Cameron Erving takes a big leap and is ready to be a solid starting center, the offensive line should be a strength of the team the way it was in 2014. If Erving isn’t ready for that job, that creates another question. There figures to be a camp battle at right tackle between Austin Pasztor and rookie Shon Coleman, with Bitonio serving as Plan B or C there.
Losing Mitchell Schwartz and Alex Mack from the offensive line won’t help a run game that ranked 22nd in the NFL last season, but the Browns envision themselves getting production from an inside-out running duo of Duke Johnson and Isaiah Crowell. Johnson’s ability to catch the ball could put him in position to get most of the reps, but Crowell is a power back who’s been good in stretches over his first two seasons.
Tight end Gary Barnidge received a contract extension as a reward for a career year in 2015. He had sports hernia surgery in early June, but the expectation is he will be present when training camp opens. Either way, Barnidge will be asked to play a leadership role off the field and another big role on it as the Browns develop Coleman and their other young pass catchers. Brian Hartline was released in late May, leaving Andrew Hawkins as the only true veteran presence in what’s suddenly a very crowded wide receiver room.
Ideally, Griffin will win the starting job and keep it for the whole season — or at least close. Jackson defended picking quarterback Cody Kessler in the third round and likely will want to see him at some point if the team isn’t winning. The Browns loaded up on future draft picks knowing they’ll likely need to draft a franchise-type quarterback at some point in the near future, though both Griffin and Kessler would love to change that plan.
Ray Horton is back as defensive coordinator after two seasons in Tennessee. There are personnel questions across the board, but Horton’s top tasks are to fix the run defense and create a consistent pass rush. Barkevious Mingo, who showed flashes under Horton as a rookie, is entering the final year of his contract, and second-year linebacker Nate Orchard must also take a big step forward with rookie Emmanuel Ogbah being drafted to improve the position.
Cornerback Joe Haden is rehabbing an ankle injury and coming off his worst season. Haden had established himself as one of the league’s top corners prior to last season and now must rebound. Veteran Tramon Williams mans the other corner for this season, and the Browns must develop depth behind Williams and Haden. Justin Gilbert, one of Cleveland’s two 2014 first-round picks, has not resembled an NFL player, and Pierre Desir struggled when he was forced into action last season.
Christian Kirksey inside and Paul Kruger outside are two locks at the linebacker position. Kirksey is a third-year player who could play himself into the team’s long-term plans. The Browns drafted Ogbah not just to eventually take over for Kruger but to learn from him and to spend a lot of time in opposing backfields. At this point, anything they get from Mingo has to be considered a bonus.
Veterans Desmond Bryant and John Hughes and second-year nose tackle Danny Shelton seem entrenched as starters in Horton’s 3-4 look. Shelton needs to be better for the run defense to improve. And if he can draw double teams, that should help the linebackers make more plays at or near the line of scrimmage. Rookie Carl Nassib should also see plenty of snaps at defensive end, both in the base defense and when the Browns go nickel and are trying to get to opposing quarterbacks.
Placekicker Travis Coons was solid in his first NFL season last year. He had some field goals blocked late in the season, but those may have been a result of protection issues more than anything else. Andy Lee is still a solid punter and will probably be a busy again. Jobs in the return game are up for grabs after Travis Benjamin left for the Chargers. A few of the rookie wide receivers figure to compete with Gilbert, Taylor Gabriel and Jordan Poyer for the top kickoff and punt returner spots.
The roster just isn’t good enough to expect a winning season, or probably even close to one. The Browns have blown too many high-round draft picks over the last several years, and even if the 2016 draft class turns out to be a stellar one, this team is going to take its bumps in the AFC North.
The Browns want to see an offense that improves as it grasps Jackson’s system — and, more important, gets consistent and steady play from the quarterback position. The defense really can’t be any worse than it was a year ago and should benefit from a scheme change and younger legs. The Browns have been struggling to stop the run for more than a decade, and that would be a good place to start in terms of tangible improvement.
With a new coaching staff and management team in place, and with 14 drafted players bringing new energy to the table — not to mention two first-round picks in 2017 — the Browns are looking to the future and believe they’re positioned well.
Now if they could only find a quarterback.