Cleveland Browns 2014 Season Preview
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - One would have thought that with the return of LeBron James to the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers, the Browns could have slipped away in the middle of the night for a second time and nobody would have noticed.
But damned if the Browns didn't keep themselves relevant this summer.
When the 2013 season ended, it was business as usual in Cleveland as the Browns rolled into the offseason with a 4-12 mark thanks to a loss in seven straight to conclude the year. Cleveland's 11th straight season of missing the playoffs resulted in more change, with head coach Rob Chudzinski given the axe after just one season.
After trying out a coach with an offensive background for 16 games, owner Jimmy Haslam went the defense rout with the hiring of Mike Pettine as the 15th full-time head coach in team history.
More alterations came at the top, with Ray Farmer promoted from assistant general manager to the GM role, replacing Michael Lombardi, while Joe Banner stepped down as CEO.
Nothing new in the revolving door known as the Browns, but then things got interesting.
On May 8, Cleveland selected one of the biggest personalities in the draft in quarterback Johnny Manziel out of Texas A&M.
If that didn't bring out the media circus enough, reports surfaced the very next day that electric wide receiver Josh Gordon was facing a year-long suspension due to a second failed drug test.
Gordon would later get arrested for DWI in Raleigh, N.C. on July 5.
Lost in the Gordon legal troubles and the documentation of "Johnny Football" and his interesting off-the-field life, the Browns were quite aggressive in free agency, adding a number of veterans to the roster while compiling a pretty solid draft class.
But most of the focus was on Manziel and if he would beat out Brian Hoyer for the starting job, though Pettine opted to go with the Hoyer midway through preseason.
"(Hoyer) was the clear leader from the beginning," Pettine admitted. "We've maintained all along that if it was close, I would prefer to go with the more experienced player. Brian has done a great job in the meeting rooms and with his teammates on the practice field and in the locker room."
With at least one distraction (hopefully) put to rest, the Browns can now focus on getting the franchise back on track. Bringing in veterans like linebacker Karlos Dansby, safety Donte Whitner and wide receivers Miles Austin and Nate Burleson should help the young core.
"Again, my job, my role here is to try to improve the talent on this football team," said Farmer. "I think we did that, to what degree I'll let you guys judge. I think I'm always looking to get better. The movie is never over."
2013 RECORD: 4-12 (4th, AFC North)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2002, lost to Pittsburgh Steelers in wild card round
HEAD COACH (RECORD): Mike Pettine (first season)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Kyle Shanahan (first season with Browns)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Jim O'Neil (first season with Browns)
KEY ADDITIONS: QB Johnny Manziel (1st round, Texas A&M), QB Rex Grossman (from Redskins), RB Ben Tate (from Texans), RB Terrance West (3rd round, Towson) WR Miles Austin (from Cowboys), WR Nate Burleson (from Lions), WR Andrew Hawkins (from Bengals), WR Anthony Armstrong (from Cowboys), TE Jim Dray (from Cardinals), G Joel Bitonio (2nd round, Nevada), T Paul McQuistan (from Seahawks), LB Christian Kirksey (3rd round, Iowa), LB Karlos Dansby (from Cardinals), CB Justin Gilbert (1st round, Oklahoma State), CB Isaiah Trufant (from Jets), SS Donte Whitner (from 49ers), SS Jim Leonhard (from Bills)
KEY DEPARTURES: QB Brandon Weeden (to Cowboys), QB Jason Campbell (to Bengals), QB Caleb Hanie (to Cowboys), RB Willis McGahee (free agent), WR Naaman Roosevelt (to Lions), WR Davone Bess (free agent), WR Josh Cooper (waived), Armanti Edwards (free agent), G Oniel Cousins (to Buccaneers), G Shawn Lauvao (to Redskins), LB D'Qwell Jackson (to Colts), SS T.J. Ward (to Broncos)
QB: After beginning his career backing up Tom Brady in New England and then having short and uneventful stints in Pittsburgh and Arizona, Hoyer showed a brief flash of being a capable quarterback with the Browns last season before suffering a season-ending ACL injury in his third start.
Hoyer threw for 615 yards with five touchdown passes to three interceptions in three wins and should be motivated to prove the quick success wasn't a fluke.
"It's been my mentality this whole offseason to come out here and act like the starter and be the starter," said Hoyer, who added he cracked a smile when told he would be the starter. "You realize all the work I put in, now here's my shot. Now just go out, and run with it. All you can do is ask for an opportunity and to go out and try and seize it. Now that it's here, it's time to work harder."
That is probably what the Browns want to hear given Manziel's high-profile status off the field. More than a few have wondered if Manziel will have the work ethic to succeed in the NFL, and opening in a reserve role should humble him a bit.
There is no doubt that Manziel has the arm, speed and confidence to handle the NFL, but the maturity needs to come as well.
"I'm 21 years old and age is not an excuse, but I need to mature and I have done some immature things but moving forward I'm going to try and mature and get better and handle myself better as a professional," Manziel said.
The shift to Hoyer and Manziel came after the offseason release of Brandon Weeden, who the Browns took 22nd overall in 2012.
Veteran Rex Grossman, who saw some playing time in Washington under new Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, was signed during camp as insurance.
RB: The Browns will have a whole new look in the backfield, a makeover that started last year with the in-season trade of former first-round pick Trent Richardson to Indianapolis.
Cleveland finished tied for 27th on the ground last season at a mere 86.4 yards per game, so they added free agent running back Ben Tate while also drafting former Towson Tiger back Terrance West in the third round.
Tate played in an offensive scheme in Houston similar to what Shanahan ran with the Texans as offensive coordinator before moving on to the Washington Redskins. That should help Tate jump right into things after he ran for 771 yards in 14 games a season ago before suffering a rib injury.
By comparison, Willis McGahee led Cleveland a season ago with 377 yards on 138 carries and had two of the club's four rushing touchdowns.
Seven of Tate's nine NFL starts came last season, so he does come in untested in a workhorse role. That should allow for West, who is about the same size as Tate, to get his share of carries after he set FCS records last season with 2,509 yards and 41 touchdowns.
Chris Ogbonnaya, who had 240 rushing yards for the Browns last year, is still on the roster, while undrafted rookie Ray Agnew has the inside track on starting at fullback.
Agnew's father Ray, played for 11 seasons in the NFL as a defensive tackle.
WR: The Browns this offseason added wide receivers Austin, Burleson, Anthony Armstrong and Andrew Hawkins, a group that combined has nearly 900 catches and over 12,000 yards with 82 touchdowns to its resume.
All four together won't be able to replace Gordon, who led the NFL with 1,646 receiving yards last season despite missing two games. He added nine touchdown receptions and has the talent and speed to be one of the to receivers in football.
However, his long-term career has been threatened by his inability to stay out of trouble.
That left the Browns in a bind for the 2014 season and they knew they wouldn't be able to replace Gordon with one player, so they are going with quantity.
"I like our receiving corps," said Farmer. "Like I said, you want to drive the competition. We want guys in here that we think can play and be competitive and contribute to be starters."
Of those expected to fill out Cleveland's top four at receiver, only Travis Benjamin was on the club last year and he was lost for the season after eight games due to a knee injury suffered on Oct. 27.
Hawkins, signed as a restricted free agent from Cincinnati, is also looking to rebound after missing the first eight games of last season with a high-ankle sprain, while Burleson sat out the first seven weeks of the 2013 campaign with Detroit because of a broken arm suffered in a car accident.
The interesting options are Austin and Armstrong. The former broke out in 2009-10 with Dallas, notching back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons before his production began to dip.
Armstrong, meanwhile, had a big rookie year with the Redskins in 2010 and seemed poised to emerge as a big-play threat before slipping into the background, a trend that continued in Cleveland when he was released on the cutdown to 75.
TE: Only Gordon had better numbers among Cleveland receivers than star-in-the- making tight end Jordan Cameron.
At 6-foot-5, 249 pounds Cameron has the size and speed to be the Jimmy Graham of Cleveland's offense, as evidenced by his 80 receptions, 917 yards and seven touchdowns in 2013. Only Graham and Tony Gonzalez had more catches by a tight end last season and Cameron's yardage total was second behind only Graham's 1,215.
Needless to say, whoever is under center for the Browns will look to get the ball to Cameron.
Cleveland made sure to help out its run and pass game by signing blocking tight end Jim Dray this past offseason.
OL: The Browns have a solid foundation along the front line, anchored by left tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack.
Thomas has made the Pro Bowl in each of his seven NFL seasons and incredibly has not missed a game since getting taken third overall in 2007, starting all 112 career contests.
Mack also has a nice string of having played in 4,998 consecutive plays and is coming off his second Pro Bowl selection. However, he almost extended his streak in another city before the Browns matched an offer sheet worth a reported $42 million over five years he signed with Jacksonville.
Cleveland added some youth to its line when it grabbed Joel Bitonio out of Nevada with the 35th pick of the 2014 draft. The 302-pounder brings versatility, having started at both left and right tackle in college. However, he'll begin the season next to Thomas as the club's left guard.
John Greco, meanwhile, is penciled in at right guard after spending the majority of last season on the left side, while Mitchell Schwartz has started all 32 games at right tackle since getting taken in the second round of the 2012 draft.
The key backup is Paul McQuistan, a member of last season's Super Bowl-winning Seattle Seahawks squad. He has experience at left tackle and both guard positions.
DL: The Browns switched to a 3-4 look last season will stick to that scheme under first-year defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil. That takes the pressure off of the front three to get to the quarterback, allowing the big bodies such as Ahtyba Rubin and Phil Taylor to clog up lanes.
Rubin is constantly among the league leaders for tackles among defensive tackles, while Taylor has been a force at the middle of the line since getting taken in the first round of the 2011 draft.
Desmond Bryant also was putting together a great season for the Browns last year after coming over via free agency, but was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat last December that ended his season after 12 games and saw him undergo a procedure. He is healthy now and ready to contribute.
Cleveland is also high on third-year pro Billy Winn, who made three starts and 11 appearances last season.
LB: The Browns lost long-time contributor D'Qwell Jackson this offseason, but replaced him with another veteran in Dansby, who is coming off an excellent season despite it being his 10th in the NFL.
Dansby had 135 tackles with Arizona last season -- right in line with Jackson's 141 with Cleveland -- to record his seventh career 100-tackle season. The 32-year-old is also a solid upgrade at pass coverage out of the linebacker spot.
He'll slide in next to Craig Robertson, who had 89 tackles and three sacks in 14 starts last season.
On the outside, Pettine and O'Neil will try to utilize Paul Kruger, who made 16 starts with the Browns but had just 4 1/2 sacks and 69 tackles after coming in as a big free agent signing. Kruger is looking to establish himself as an every down linebacker after logging nine sacks in 2012 with Baltimore as a pass-rush specialist.
Joining Kruger on the outside will be sophomore Barkevious Mingo and Jabaal Sheard. Mingo, the sixth overall pick of the 2013 draft, was third among all rookies with five sacks, while Sheard led the Browns in sacks for a third straight year by logging 5 1/2 a season ago.
Chris Kirksey, another third-round pick by the Browns this past draft, played 38 of his 49 games at Iowa at the linebacker spot, seeing action both on the inside and outside.
DB: The Browns lost their two-leading tacklers from last season as safety T.J. Ward, who had 112 stops last season, took his services to Denver.
Cleveland responded by signing strong safety Whitner to team with returning starter Tashaun Gipson, who is his first year as a starter logged a team-high five interceptions along with 14 passes defensed.
Gipson is used to covering for the heavy hitters by playing back and that won't change with Whitner, who used an aggressive style to earn his second Pro Bowl selection last season with San Francisco by notching 103 tackles in 16 starts.
Veteran safety Jim Leonhard was added in late July and played under Pettine when he was defensive coordinator with the New York Jets.
The strength of the secondary should be at the corners, with the Browns using the eighth overall pick of the 2014 draft to select Justin Gilbert to team with Joe Haden.
Both Gilbert and Haden have size and strength to be physical at the line while not giving up much in the coverage game.
Haden is usually tasked with shutting down opposing No. 1 receivers and has done so exceptionally over his first four seasons with 13 interceptions and 68 passes defensed. He was rewarded with a five-year extension this past offseason.
Like Haden, Gilbert may not be asked to start right away, with his spot being kept warm by the capable Buster Skrine.
"They brought that up the first week I was here," Gilbert said of being told that Haden didn't start right away. "They were like, 'If you don't start the first week, Joe Haden didn't start until a couple of games in the season.' Whatever we can do in the defensive room to win games, that's the main key."
Skrine made a career-high 15 starts last season and was credited with 23 passes defensed.
The Browns brought in another former player who served under Pettine with the Jets in Isaiah Trufant, who should add depth to the secondary and special teams units.
SPECIAL TEAMS: While looking to make an impact at receiver, Benjamin should also resume his duties as the main returner and could also field kickoffs along with Gilbert.
Benjamin averaged 11.7 yards per punt return last season, but did take one back for a touchdown and did return a kickoff 86 yards as well.
Punter Spencer Lanning got his first taste of NFL action last season and was solid, averaging 43.8 gross and 37.9 net yards per punt, putting 28 inside the 20-yard line with only five touchbacks.
Things aren't as automatic with kicker Billy Cundiff, who has experience but made just 80.8 percent of his field goal tries last year (21-of-26). He also lacks range, hitting on just half of his four attempts from 50-yards plus.
Long snapper Christian Young signed a five-year extension ahead of the season.
COACHING: In all five seasons as a defensive coordinator -- 2009-12 with the New York Jets, 2013 with Buffalo Bills -- Pettine's defense finished in the top 10 in fewest yards allowed, so players like Kruger, Bryant, Mingo and Bryant should be excited.
However, Cleveland also needs work on offense, so bringing in the talented Shanahan was a good decision.
O'Neil, meanwhile, is familiar with Pettine, having worked as the linebackers coach in Buffalo last season, a unit that constantly got to quarterbacks.
THE SKINNY: The Browns are again building from the ground up with new coaches, a new long-term look under center and another heavy dose of free agents. They went from five wins in 2012 to just four a season ago, so hopefully it only gets better from here on out.
The play of Hoyer will be watched closely throughout the season with Manziel waiting in the shadows -- and hopefully not the bright lights up Las Vegas or some other exotic location -- but Cleveland was smart to address the defense as well. Adding Gilbert, Whitner and Dansby should allow the Browns to at least bang bodies with the likes of Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Baltimore.
The offense, though, will probably take some time to develop and it is too early in the process to be thinking playoffs.
08/25 14:07:52 ET