By Chris Pokorny, Dawgs By Nature
Things did not look too bright toward the end of last season for the Cleveland Browns. The team was sitting with a 1-11 record, and it appeared as though Eric Mangini's first year with the team would be his last. Fans were calling for Mangini's head, owner Randy Lerner was not pleased with the performance of the team, and quarterbacks Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn were trying to top each other for the "worst performance of the season" category every other week.
But then, a glimmer of hope miraculously shined through. The Browns went on to win their final four games, finishing the season at 5-11. Two of those games came against weaker opponents - the Raiders and the Chiefs. The other two games came against teams who were fighting for a playoff spot though - the Steelers and the Jaguars. In those four games, Cleveland had an identity: they ran the ball down the throats of opposing teams, ignoring the passing game for all intents and purposes.
The positive end to the season saved Mangini's job, as well as some of the continuity the team had started to build over the season. With team president Mike Holmgren (Seattle) and general manager Tom Heckert (Philadelphia) now on board, Mangini has less responsibility but has accepted his reduced role well as the team hopes to build upon last year's success.
QB Jake Delhomme
RB Jerome Harrison
FB Lawrence Vickers
WR Mohamed Massaquoi
WR Brian Robiskie
TE Ben Watson
LT Joe Thomas
LG Eric Steinbach
C Alex Mack
RG Floyd Womack
RT Tony Pashos
Jake Delhomme has had some Pro Bowl caliber years statistically, but he's really never been more than an average to an above average quarterback. As the Browns continue to rebuild, that's really all they need this year -- someone who can manage the ship; someone who can get the ball in the vicinity of the young receivers so they can gain some experience; someone who has tasted victory and would love nothing more than to prove all of his doubters wrong. If his throws are kept to a minimum and he continues to buy into his new role in Cleveland, fans will live with him being a one- to two-year holdover for a player like Colt McCoy. Any way you look at it though, this team needed a change from Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn, and they got it.
By virtue of the Cleveland Browns drafting running back Montario Hardesty in the second round and the rave reviews he received in minicamp, he has a chance to seize the starting running back role. After Jerome Harrison's tremendous finish to last season though, and the years that he's had to endure on the bench, it seems only fair to have him be the starter. Both backs are expected to "share time," but you can't tell me that whoever has that "starter" label won't be featured more at crunch time.
The running game is expected to be strong thanks to part of the offensive line and fullback Lawrence Vickers. LT Joe Thomas, LG Eric Steinbach, and C Alex Mack certainly form one of the best starting trios in the NFL at their positions. For as good as they are though, the right side of the offensive line is probably one of the worst in the league. Those positions are expected to be filled by Floyd Womack at right guard and Tony Pashos at right tackle, although third-round draft pick Shawn Lauvao has a chance to play at right guard this year.
The Browns' group of receivers were among the worst in the league last season, even when Braylon Edwards was still on the roster. The group was young, inexperienced, and perhaps most importantly, didn't have an accurate quarterback delivering the football. This year, in terms of players, nothing has changed. The team will try to go with youngsters Mohamed Massaquoi, Brian Robiskie, and Chansi Stuckey as their top three receivers. None of those players are going to make defensive coordinators lose any sleep, so fans can only hope that they have improved in their second year with the team. On the plus side, the Browns added veteran tight end Ben Watson to the roster this season. Watson is an immediate upgrade over what the Browns had last year, and if Delhomme isn't comfortable with his wide receivers, he should find some relief in Watson.
Projected Starting Lineup
DE Shaun Rogers
NT Ahtyba Rubin
DE Robaire Smith
OLB David Bowens
ILB D'Qwell Jackson
ILB Scott Fujita
OLB Matt Roth
CB Eric Wright
SS Abram Elam
FS T.J. Ward
CB Sheldon Brown
On the defensive line, the intriguing storyline this year is the possibility of moving nose tackle Shaun Rogers to defensive end. Rogers draws double teams, but he likes to penetrate into the opposing team's backfield. That's not necessarily what defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is looking for at nose tackle -- someone needs to stay there and clog the line. Rogers would have more flexibility at defensive end in trying to reach the backfield. Taking his place at nose tackle would be Ahtyba Rubin, who played the position when Rogers was injured at the end of last year and seemed to hold his own. Filling out the defensive line is trusty veteran Robaire Smith.
The Browns have a cluster of players at the linebacker position this year, and heading into camp, it's tough to tell who should play where. Scott Fujita comes over from the New Orleans Saints as the frontrunner to be the leader of the group, and will probably start at inside linebacker. David Bowens began last season as an outside linebacker, but due to injuries he had to move to inside linebacker where he was one of the team's best defensive players. D'Qwell Jackson has been the team's No. 1 inside linebacker for a few years now, so would he accept a backup role if it came down to that?
With Kamerion Wimbley departing in the offseason, Matt Roth seems to be the only lock to start at one of the outside linebacker positions. Other threats to start include Jason Trusnik and Chris Gocong, but if the team ultimately wants to have Jackson and Bowens on the field at the same time, Bowens might just have to return to outside linebacker. The lack of a penciled-in starting four at linebacker is not indicative of the team being "weak" at linebacker, but rather having a surplus of average- to slightly-above-average options to choose from.
The cornerback position falls under the "most improved" category for the team this year thanks to the additions of veteran Sheldon Brown and first-round draft pick Joe Haden. Brown is expected to start along with Eric Wright, with Haden filling in at the nickelback position. That means last year's starter, Brandon McDonald, who was known for giving up big plays and being a terrible tackler, will be demoted to a much more suited position on the depth chart. The team is taking a risk at the safety position by going with Abram Elam, who was only average last season, and second-round draft pick T.J. Ward. By drafting Ward and sixth-rounder Larry Asante though, two safeties who thrive at delivering big hits and stopping the run, it seems clear that the cornerbacks will be given more responsibility and trust this year to fall back in coverage.
Projected Starting Lineup
KR Joshua Cribbs
PR Joshua Cribbs
K Phil Dawson
P Dave Zastudil
Between offense, defense, and special teams, I don't think there is any doubt which unit is the most "complete" on the team: special teams. That might seem like a negative to the offense and defense, but it is also a tribute to just how good our special teams unit is (with a little thanks to a player called Joshua Cribbs). Cribbs is the best return man in the league. Kicker Phil Dawson, while not a Pro Bowler, is consistently good, and punter Dave Zastudil has above average distance on his kicks. The team has several players who are Special Teams aces in defending kick returns, such as Blake Costanzo, Chris Gocong, Nick Sorensen, and Ray Ventrone.
Despite last season's struggles, head coach Eric Mangini, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan all return to the team for their second seasons. Daboll was under the most heat last season for not being creative to start the season, but he gained some respect for calling innovative run plays and mixing Joshua Cribbs into the offense during the team's four-game winning streak. Ryan always shows his passion and also seemed to get more creative during the team's winning streak last season, which was part of the reason the team was able to sack Ben Roethlisberger eight times in one game. Fans have started to put faith in Mangini, but if the team has another below average season, there's a good chance that he'll be fired after the season. And, if the team is ever in need of a new head coach, Holmgren is literally just a step away from filling in.
Conclusion/Prediction for 2010
The Browns will be able to control the tempo of games against weaker opponents this season with their strong running game. However, without a big enough threat in the passing game and without any game-changers on defense, it'll be difficult to compete with the playoff-contending teams. Cleveland will be good enough to make opposing teams nervous, but the superior teams will come away with victories more times than not. An optimistic finish of 7-9 is the route to go, which might be good enough to warrant keep Mangini another year.