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The LiveBall Sports Cleveland Browns Season Preview

Checking in on the 32 NFL teams, continuing from the bottom.

What we said about the Browns prior to the 2013 season

The Browns were a really bad team in 2011 running a really primitive offense and any hope of competitiveness in 2012 would lean heavily on Trent Richardson coming in and making people forget that Peyton Hillis was ever a Madden cover athlete (he was, for some reason).  The incumbent quarterback was Colt McCoy, but when the Browns’ plan A to trade up in the draft for Robert Griffin III in the 2012 draft fell through, the team settled on using a lower first round pick on QB Brandon Weeden.

Weeden replaced McCoy as kind of a quick-fix style of draft choice for a team that really needed to rebound from a 2011 season that disappointed even the most reasonable expectations, not to mention those who expected that Browns team to make the playoffs.  Based on how poorly the Browns had played in 2011, it was hard to see them improving without Richardson and Weeden being a major part of the improvement.

What we should have known with hindsight

The Browns were better in 2012, but Richardson and Weeden hardly contributed.  Richardson failed to hit the 1,000 yard milestone, despite being one of just a few feature backs left in the NFL.  That makes it seem like Richardson was a failure: he was not, he just was not a high efficiency player as a rookie, averaging under 4,0 YPC.  Weeden on the other hand, offered little to lean on going forward from his age-29 season.  Weeden was worse in 2012 as a 29-year old rookie than McCoy was in 2011 as a 24-year old sophomore.

McCoy has since been traded to San Francisco to be Colin Kaepernick’s backup and low-probability relief ace should Kaep’s NFC-winning half season prove to be a total mirage (it won’t).  Weeden has a very tenuous hold on the starting gig in Cleveland.

This is a great example of why it makes more sense to change up your front office leadership one year too early than one year too late.  The Browns spent two first round picks in 2012 trying to upgrade their offensive backfield, but could have done it just as easily without spending either first round pick.  McCoy flashed vertical playmaking ability from inside and outside the pocket in 2010 and 2011 as the Browns starter, but surrounded that ability with general inconsistency at the position.  Using a first round pick on a McCoy successor four years his senior with a similar college resume isn’t just a move that didn’t work out, it’s a bad process.  Richardson was good enough to defensibly be the third overall pick, but even then, it’s clear the Browns overvalued him as he likely was not a top ten running back in 2012.

The disposed front office deserves a lot of credit for getting 21-year old rookie WR Josh Gordon for a second round pick in the Supplementary draft, a good move for all the reasons that Weeden was a bad move.  It cost the new front office a second round pick, which is unfortunate, but when the Redskins traded two future first round picks to jump the Browns and acquire RG3, there wasn’t a ton of outcry about what that might do to hamstring a future front office.  If ownership leaves a front office group in power too long, the status quo seems to be that mortgaging the future to save a job or three or seventeen is fair game.

The Mike Holmgren-Pat Shurmur era in Cleveland was a bad process that yielded disappointing results, but something about the current iteration of the Browns remains salvageable.  This is not a talentless roster, and there aren’t a ton of bad contracts on it.  With the old regime pushed out the door, there are reasons to be optimistic, pessimistic, and apathetic about the 2013 Browns, and their new management led by Michael Lombardi.

Where does the team appear to think it’s at?

The team feels like 2013 is just the beginning of what they are building towards, but without the team’s long term solution at quarterback on the roster, expectations will remained tempered.  That’s a pretty large hole on the roster: Weeden’s going to get a fair shake to meet expectations, but that leash isn’t going to be long.  It might not even last through the preseason.

The team’s other holes include vertical receivers not named Josh Gordon, and inside linebackers who can stack and shed, and just generally make plays without the defensive line in front of them keeping them clean.  Those are pretty big holes, but overall, it’s nothing compared to what a lot of the competition in the AFC is looking at.

So the Browns sit in the no-man’s land between quarterback-driven contender (which they clearly are not), and rebuilding project (which they really aren’t).  They can choose either direction, and should be able to contend for the division (and obviously a wild card berth by extension) as soon as this fall.  But they aren’t yet one, two, or three pieces away, and like many AFC teams are going to have to ask their coaching staff to plug a lot of known weaknesses throughout year one of the Rob Chudzynski era.

Their lack of overpaid veterans and declining stars give them a significant leg up on the competition, particularly in division with Pittsburgh (and Baltimore, although they’ve turned over the aging stars this offseason).

How did the team improve in the draft and free agency?

The Browns spent a ton of money, adding two outside linebackers in Barkevious Mingo (6th overall draft pick), and Paul Kruger ($$$) who they may have overpaid.  They also added an nice talent on the defensive line, Desmond Bryant ($$$), though they really overpaid.  They did get value in getting two years on QB Jason Campbell’s contract, and I would guess that he’s a slight favorite in the QB competition, though a tie would go to Weeden.

The Browns couldn’t do a ton of maneuvering in the draft because of the Josh Gordon selection, but Gordon will be just 22 this year, so they aren’t complaining.

Because of the relatively low payroll the Browns carried through the Pat Shurmur era, Lombardi and his front office had the ability to spend a lot of money.  They identified the players who fit the Browns now, and gave up that future spending power to upgrade the roster.  The free agent market is still one of the most inefficient ways to spend a team’s resources, but when your team has very few established veterans on long term contracts, you have to use the free agent market effectively to add talent so that you aren’t just drafting players onto a non-competitive team.

The downside is that Lombardi won’t get another chance to get it right if Mingo and Kruger don’t rush the passer that well, and the other main signings, Bryant and Quentin Groves, look like they’ll be cap casualties at best in a few years, if they aren’t wastes of money in the meantime.

The other issue is that every dollar the Browns spend now is a dollar they will not have to build around their quarterback once they find him.

What is the team’s outlook for the 2013 season?

The Browns are in a shockingly strong position, and it gets even better when you consider that no team is going to get as much of a boost going from last year’s coaching to this year’s coaching.  There is nothing Chudzynski and Norv Turner can do to be worse than the coaching they had last season.  It’s probably going to get a lot better.

And even a small improvement in the talent is getting the Browns over .500 for the first time since 2007, when Chudzynski was the offensive coordinator.  I don’t think that improvement can be just assumed, in which case, the Browns are a .500 team.  But the 2013 Browns are a .500 team with a considerable amount of upside.  They can’t compete to win the AFC title without guys like Weeden and Richardson at least hitting the expectations that the Browns had for them when they picked them.  They’ll probably fall short of that.  But eight to ten wins is within the range of what the Browns can accomplish this year.

Previously: Kansas City ChiefsJacksonville JaguarsOakland RaidersPhiladelphia EaglesDetroit Lions,

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  1. May 28, 2013 at 9:02 am

    We really really like this offense in 2013. Chud is an excellent offensive mind, and Norv’s 2 Super Bowl rings as the OC of the Dallas Cowboys in the early 90’s speak to his offensive brains. T Rich is a true feature back, and in Emmitt Smith and LaDanian Tomlinson we have two other highly touted, first round picks, who started in their rookie season, that Norv utilized for all 3 downs. Josh Gordon is on the verge of a breakout in this offense, and Greg Little has some sleeper value. Jordan Cameron is an athletic freak and whoever wins the QB job (Weeden, Hoyer, Campbell) will likely put up better numbers than expected.

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