CLEVELAND (92.3 The Fan) – The Cleveland Browns enter the season with arguably the best quality young talent that the franchise has had since it’s rebirth, but the team will have to answer a bevy of questions in 2013.
Here is a candid look at the issues the Browns face this season. The answers to which will shape the next offseason and years to come.
First and foremost, is Brandon Weeden the quarterback not just for now – but the future?
After throwing for 3,385 yards 14 TDs and 17 interceptions as a rookie, the jury is still out on Weeden and the Browns front office isn’t exactly behind him 100 percent either. Although offensive coordinator Norv Turner sees Weeden’s raw skill, Turner has spent the offseason deprogramming him from the dink and dunk version of the ‘West Coast offense’ as well as working on his footwork, mechanics and the mental aspect of the game – including trying to teach him to stop allowing his brain to get in the way of his instincts. Turner has said that he sees Weeden play at his best when he’s not thinking and just reacting. This is a make or break year for Weeden and his only opportunity to prove – at least while in Cleveland – that he is not just a legitimate starting quarterback but the “championship caliber” quarterback they desperately seek. He won the job but can he keep it? The key for Weeden this season – let it rip. He has everything to gain and not much to lose – other than his starting job.
Can they keep Trent Richardson healthy?
Despite not having the preseason and most of training camp to prepare because of a second arthroscopic knee surgery in 6 months, Richardson was ready to roll for the season opener against Philadelphia last year. In week 6, he broke a pair of ribs against Cincinnati which slowed him up the rest of the way and gave critics a 3.6 yards per carry average to chew on and spit out at every opportunity they could. Even though the No. 3 pick in the 2012 draft was never 100 percent, Richardson still ran for 950 yards and 11 touchdowns – both rookie franchise records. He added 367 receiving yards and a score as well. Now imagine what he could do if he was healthy? That’s what the Browns have tried to do this offseason, during training camp and the preseason – get him to week 1 at 100 percent. They’ll need every carry, every catch, every yard and every score they can get out of the 23-year old back from Alabama to have any hope for success this year.
Will Greg Little and Josh Gordon mature into dependable weapons?
Little has put in a tremendous amount of work in off the field to hone his craft and develop his skill. He took the criticism from media and fans over dropped passes to heart and used it to motivate himself to get better this year. The question is can he make all that work off the field pay off on Sunday’s? There’s nothing the Browns can do about Josh Gordon’s 2-game suspension to start the season other than treat it as if he had an injury. They key is how Gordon responds when he returns in week 3. The Browns will need their biggest playmaker in 2012, who caught 12 passes for over 20 yards – including 5 touchdowns. It’s time for both of them to put the pedal to the metal – on the field – and have breakout seasons.
Will the youth movement pay dividends in talent and wins?
Over the last 4 offseasons the Browns front office has gutted and restocked the roster with youth from top to bottom. Only 4 players remain on the team who were added prior to 2009 – Alex Mack (1st rd 2009), Ahtyba Rubin (6th rd 2008), Joe Thomas (1st rd 2007) and D’Qwell Jackson (2nd rd 2006). Everyone else – gone. The last 4 drafts have seen the Browns add 19 players – 11 starters and 4 more are significant contributors (including spot starts). The jury is out as to what they’ll get out of the 4 draft picks from this year. Barkevious Mingo is expected to develop into an elite pass rusher once he gets on the field. 7th round pick Garrett Gilkey might be the only other pick that appears to have the potential to be a hit unless Leon McFadden and or Armonty Bryant also develop into legitimate contributors based on skill and talent – and not need. A positive that the Browns are finally moving in the right direction is that they will not start a single rookie Sunday against Miami. A year ago the Browns started 6 rookies against Philadelphia.
Depth, depth and depth. It is the Achilles heel of this team.
There is no such thing as a perfect or complete roster – not in the NFL. The Browns entered training camp with depth at quarterback, receiver, on the offensive line and the front 7. That’s it. They are down to quarterback and the front 7. Receiver, tight end, offensive line (namely right guard), running back, safety and cornerback are all major weak spots outside of the starters. Desperately scanning the waiver wire on cut down weekend to fill key backup roles – especially at running back – is not a good sign. If the Browns can keep the vast majority of their starters at those positions healthy, they should be fine. But 1 or more injuries to these areas could derail the season.
Then there’s that whole kicking thing.
When free agency began in March, the odds of Phil Dawson returning after 14 seasons were slim – and none. Dawson felt betrayed by the previous front office, which promised him a quality long term contract that never materialized when the team used the “franchise tag” on him. But the Browns had no backup plan. Dawson rewrote a large portion of the franchise’s record books and became a weapon from beyond 50 yards his last 2 seasons in Cleveland. Neither Shayne Grahm and Brandon Bogotay worked out so they desperately turned this week to veteran Billy Cundiff. As long as Cundiff is kicking extra points – and the plan is to kick a lot of them this year – as well as field goals inside 30 yards, the Browns should be fine (he’s 65/65). But if they are counting on 3 points when a drive stalls at say, the 20, they better cross their fingers, grab a rabbits foot, wish upon a star and say a prayer or 2. Cundiff is a combined 87 of 119 from 30-49 yards and 5 of 23 from beyond 50. Dawson made 14 of his last 15 from beyond 50 in 2012 and 2013 combined. Many dismiss the value of a kicker – and it appears that this front office and coaching staff has done the same. They’ll likely find out the hard way just how valuable Dawson was, because letting him go without replacing him sufficiently could end up costing the Browns 1-3 games this season.
Because of the lack of depth at several key positions as well as the attrition and injuries that come with an NFL season, it’ll be tough for the Browns to break the streak of double-digit loss seasons, which stands at 5 straight and 9 of the last 10 years, in 2013.
Final record – Best Case: 8-8; Worst Case: 4-12; Realistic Expectation 6-10; My Prediction: 7-9.
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