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Roster Roundouts ’10: A Cleveland Browns Season Preview

See all of the previous LiveBall Roster Roundouts articles: Bucs.

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Cleveland Browns (Projected Finish: 5-11)

Team synopsis: The Browns landed a guy who might have been the steal of the draft for pretty much any other team in Colt McCoy.  In Cleveland, unfortunately, McCoy’s future is tied tightly to the short term success of free agent pickup Jake Delhomme, who might not have any more success to offer.

Best Players

  • RB Jerome Harrison (drafted – Washington State/2006 5th round pick)
  • WR/KR Josh Cribbs (signed – Kent State/2005 undrafted)
  • LT Joe Thomas (drafted – Wisconsin/2007 1st round pick)
  • C Alex Mack (drafted – Cal/2009 1st round pick)
  • NT Shaun Rogers (trade – Detroit/2007 3rd round pick, CB Leigh Bodden)
  • CB Sheldon Brown (trade – Philadelphia/2010 4th, 5th round picks)

Best Prospects

  • QB Colt McCoy (drafted – Texas/2010 3rd round pick) [Peak comparable: Chad Pennington, Miami]
  • RB Monterrio Hardesty (drafted – Tennessee/2010 2nd round pick) [Peak comparable: Frank Gore, San Francisco]
  • FB Peyton Hillis (trade – Denver/QB Brady Quinn) [Peak comparable: Leonard Weaver, Philadelphia]
  • WR Brian Robiske (drafted – Ohio State/2009 2nd round pick) [Peak comparable: Kevin Walter, Houston]
  • LB David Veikune (drafted – Hawaii/2009 2nd round pick) [Peak comparable: Kavika Mitchell, Buffalo]
  • CB Joe Haden (drafted – Florida/2010 1st round pick) [Peak comparable: Charles Woodson, Green Bay]

When compared to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Cleveland Browns are very obviously loaded with talented football players.  They have a higher quantity of “best” players, and of top prospects.

The problem the Cleveland Browns face is that almost none of their best players are solidifying a premium position.  The exception is Joe Thomas, who has played a pretty excellent left tackle for the last three years with almost no notable output from his offense.  Josh Cribbs is listed as a wide receiver/kick returner, but he’s one of the best players on the Browns because he keeps their special teams among the league’s best units, not because he’s a developing number one receiver.  Jerome Harrison, listed here as one of the Browns best players, isn’t even first string on his own team thanks to the drafting of Hardesty.  You could argue that a healthy Shaun Rogers fills a premium position on the nose of the 3-4 defense, but the Browns defense didn’t get meaningfully worse with him out of action this past year.  He and Sheldon Brown aren’t part of the Browns future, and their play today will be largely wasted without much better performance from the quarterbacks, receivers, linebackers, and safeties.

The Browns’ top prospects begin to address these issues.  McCoy offers the Browns a legitimate project quarterback with the requite accuracy to be great.  Hardesty is a hard-nosed big back who is absolutely loved by scouts, more so than the very productive Harrison.  Robiske projects as a no. 2 WR on a team without a no. 1, but he has a great pedigree.  Veikune is a bit of an inside/outside tweener, who projects closer to league average than an elite pass rusher — he won’t solve the pass rush by himself.  Hillis is a fantastic H-back prospect who fits the scheme, but will not play a premium role in the offense.  Haden has superstar potential at a premium position, also costing the Browns a high pick and millions of dollars.

Still, the Browns future involves more drafting of college players who offer the highest upside at quarterback, receiver, and rush linebacker, positions that are loaded on the very best teams, and the Browns only started to address this year in the secondary.  Unfortunately for McCoy, if the Browns have a bottom-five final record at the end of the year again, they could choose to start their offensive rebuilding at the quarterback position.  And for McCoy to make a difference before the Browns look to a different quarterback of the future, Delhomme must win some games this season.

Can that be done?  I’m not optimistic.  With considerably more explosive offensive runners to take the load off of the quarterbacks shoulders, a line perfectly capable of opening up huge running lanes, it’s Delhomme’s decision making that must be both as quick as his feet, and as accurate as his passes.  Delhomme still brings a downfield arm, but that would have mattered more when the Browns still had Braylon Edwards in the fold.  With Edwards in New York, Delhomme’s top two targets may very well be TE Ben Watson, and Hillis, one guy between the hashes, and one guy in the flat.  The downfield plays will fall to 2nd year WR Mohammad Massaquoi, but with his complete inexperience in the role, we’re more likely to see zero quarterback “flash” formations featuring even more Josh Cribbs.

Delhomme figures to have a dreadful completion percentage on passes intended for his wide receivers, because in the same offense, Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson both failed to complete even 50% of intended passes to current Browns WRs.  Mike Furrey, now in Washington, caught 59% of his targets.  Cribbs was the only other player over 50%.  He had 54% of his targets converted into catches.  Edwards was poor, his replacement, Chansi Stuckey, wasn’t much better, and rookies Robiske and Massaquoi were both dreadfully overmatched.  The viability of the Browns’ running game driving the offense makes Watson a decent fantasy play around the goal line where the Browns simply don’t have any other options.  As for the positives: Massaquoi (18.4) and Robiske (15.1) both put up very good yard/catch averages in 2009.  They just need to learn how to make themselves more available to quarterbacks when they aren’t running uncovered through the Detroit secondary.

With a potentially dominant rushing attack, and a scaled down version of the west coast offense to be employed (the personnel on the team is only partially west coast oriented, and the coaching staff is a lot of holdovers from the previous offense), it almost makes little sense to not play McCoy right away.  The ceiling for the Browns this year is third place.  I suppose that if they can win 8 games, that might be good enough for a 6th seed playoff berth (though, probably not), and both games against the Bengals are winnable, and they also get the Bills, and start the season against the Bucs and Chiefs.  That’s both a schedule that could bear a 2-0 start for the Browns, and one that could be better used to get Colt McCoy’s feet wet before the going gets tough.

After all, if there was any real reason that the Browns failed to build on a 10-6 record in 2007, it’s that they were too enslaved to the idea of having a veteran quarterback (Derek Anderson) who had “proved” he could get the job done.  After a poor half-season in 2008, Anderson lost the job to Brady Quinn.  However, Quinn’s career was derailed by inconsistent play (53% completion as Browns starter; but more TDs [10] than INTs [9] for his career) and injury, not to mention the disposition of the Browns to go back to Anderson any time Quinn looked overwhelmed.  Anderson, of course, never failed to prove conclusively that moving on from him was the correct decision, but the Browns continued to go back to the well until the very last snap of the 2009 season, when Anderson and Quinn combined to win each of their final two starts as Browns quarterback.

A minor victory for Browns fans would be if the team moves on to Colt McCoy in a regular enough manner so that the dreams of a bright future aren’t marred by the decision making of a 35 year old Jake Delhomme.  There are no major victories to be had for an also-ran in the AFC North this year.  Three wins, five wins, seven wins…it’s all the same going forward.  Every victory that McCoy gets this year is meaningful.  Every win that Delhomme gets only matters if the underlying performance suggests the Browns deserved it.

The Browns took their secondary from a weakness to a strength in one offseason, which is how they can keep games close enough to use their running game for four quarters.  Pass defense and a strong running game is a nice way to garner success for a young team.  For the Browns, it’s really the only thing they have going for them.  With Shaun Rogers and other faceless veterans on the DL (Robaire Smith, C.J. Mosley), and no star player at the linebacker level, the Browns can be run on.  They also figure to not have any semblance of a pass rush for the second straight year.  The defensive front seven is the largest weakness of a team that simply needs more premium players at premium positions.  Development will be the first attempt at solving these issues, but paying big money for a free agent who can help is probably next years’ mandate.

Fighting for a spot on the Roster

The Browns added the old-as-dirt Bobby Engram to the mix at receiver.  He will likely play the third receiver role, which effectively gets as much playing time as a fourth receiver because of an offense that features two receivers plus Josh Cribbs.  If things go perfectly, Massaquoi and Robiske are the starting receivers with Josh Cribbs and Peyton Hillis playing the same H-position in the offense with very, very different roles.  Then Watson starts at tight end with Hardesty in the backfield.  Engram is then the first guy off of the bench on third downs, replacing (likely) Massaquoi.

The Browns will likely keep six receivers, so long as you count Josh Cribbs in those six.  That means that with two receiver spots remaining, and developmental rookie Carleton Mitchell having the in-track to one of those spots, either Syndric Steptoe or Chansi Stuckey is out of a job.  Neither has much value as an NFL player.  Stuckey was a revelation when Brett Favre was throwing him passes, Steptoe the same for Anderson.  Both are fairly useless with Delhomme, and must settle for being the second best special teams player in the Browns receiving corps.

Chris Jennings had some explosive runs near the end of last year when the Browns running game was a force, but his spot as 3rd RB is likely James Davis’ for the taking.  The Browns will probably opt to keep FB Lawrence Vickers for goal line packages, and with Hillis in the fold, they won’t roster 4 RBs.

The Browns RG position could go to one of four players: veterans Billy Yates, John St. Clair, and Floyd Womack, or sooner rather than later, rookie 3rd round pick Shaun Lauvao.  If all of those guys make the roster, that leaves one spot for Joel Reinders, Paul Fanaika, and Scott Kooistra.

Cuts must be made at the DB position, where the Browns roster 12 guys, not including the three draft picks.  In particular, the role of “special teamer/fifth safety” can’t be held by both Ray Ventrone and Nick Sorenson.  Coye Francis, DeAngelo Smith, and Brandon McDonald could all be the fourth or fifth corner on the Browns, and McDonald’s experience gives him the edge.  For one of these guys, however, there will not be the role of a “sixth corner.”

The Browns have more veteran LBs than they know what to do with.  Matt Roth and Chris Gocong are the probable starters on the outsides, and then David Bowens is the first backup (though not certain to make final cuts) and David Veikune is a swingman.  Scott Fujita was brought in to solidify a middle which has been horrible for years.  In no specific order, Jason Trusnick, D’Qwell Jackson, and Kaluka Maiava are in a competition to start opposite him.  Maiava will likely remain on the roster as a passing downs coverage backer who doesn’t play on running downs.  Keeping the eight names above would force veterans Eric Barton and Blake Costanzo off the roster, so no one (outside of Fujita and Gocong) is really all that safe.

The Browns are happy with Ahtyba Rubin backing up Shaun Rogers, but are less happy with Rogers who is serving a short prison sentence following an arrest for being caught trying to pass airport security with a loaded firearm in his luggage.  They are also happy with a Mosley-Smith-Kenyon Colman rotation at DE.  6th round pick Clifton Geathers is likely to be the other DE on the roster.  The Browns will probably be happy with just six defensive lineman, but might find a way to keep journeyman Titus Adams.  Kwaku Danso is the only other nose tackle on the training camp roster, his best shot to make the roster involves Shaun Rogers doing something else stupid to make the Browns cut ties with him.

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