An interesting thing happened in Cleveland last year. No, really! They played defense. Joe Haden, Jabaal Sheard, Phil Taylor, D'Quwell Jackson and Athyba Rubin starred for a very young defense that finished fifth in scoring and tenth in total defense. The Browns got torched against the run (30th) but overall there are encouraging signs for a mostly-under-25 group of players.
Pay no attention to the other side of the ball if you wanted to stay awake for the game.
Peyton Hillis made no mockery of the Madden curse. Not only did he miss six games with injury, but he played very poorly when he was active. Colt McCoy was a great college quarterback. That's the end of that sentence.
If the Browns wanted any chance of being competitive in a difficult AFC North division, they were going to have to find a way to score and so they pushed hard to upgrade the offense through the draft. On first and second round picks they managed to get a new starting quarterback, running back, receiver, and tackle. Additionally, they hired former Vikings coach Brad Childress to run the offense, a job he hasn't held since he was with the Eagles in 2005 and they finished... 19th in total offense.
Well, at least they've got Trent Richardson!
And some other players. Here are all the names you need to know in Cleveland. Literally.
2011 Record: 4-12
Sorry, no take-backs. The Browns decided to surprisingly hitch their wagon to Weeden, who at pick 22 was not only drafted far before what many people expected, but was drafted six numbers lower than his age. Weeden is, very literally, one of the older players on the team. He was once traded for Kevin Brown in baseball.
Fair enough, Weeden had an outstanding senior season at Oklahoma State after throwing for over 4,700 yards and nearly leading the Cowboys to a national championship season before defeating Andrew Luck in the Fiesta Bowl. It was the greatest single season for a QB in the history of the franchise and Weeden should know since he's been a fan since football was invented.
He hasn't been so good in the preseason however: 49% completions, 6.1 yards per attempt, 0 TD, 1 INT.
Frankly, I don't know what to think of the Browns offense around him let alone have faith in Weeden himself or Brad Childress. The best case scenario is that Greg Little breaks out, Josh Gordon gets up to speed very quickly and Trent Richardson stays healthy and then maybe Weeden has an Andy Dalton-like season. That's pretty doubtful, especially in this division.
2012 Projection: 56% completions, 3,000 yards, 12 TD, 15 INT, benched for a few games
Colt McCoy and Seneca Wallace remain around. That's definitely a thing.
Let's pretend that Richardson's knee will be fine and he plays the whole year. To the history books!
Looking at similar top 5 pick running backs, what have they done as rookies? Richardson is considered one of the best to enter the draft in the century. Other really highly drafted RBs?
Darren McFadden was #4 in 2008. He rushed for 499 yards and 4 TDs as a rookie. He was actually drafted ahead of several players that have more career rushing yards: Jonathan Stewart, Rashard Mendenhall, Chris Johnson, Matt Forte, Ray Rice, and Jamaal Charles. Holy crap, what a draft.
Adrian Peterson was #7 in 2007. Rushed for 1,341 yards and 12 TD as a rookie.
Reggie Bush was #2 in 2006. He did have 1,307 yards from scrimmage and 8 total touchdowns as a rookie, with a punt return for a TD.
LaDanian Tomlinson was #5 in 2001. Rushed for 1,236 yards and 10 TD as a rookie.
Jamal Lewis was #5 in 2000. Rushed for 1,346 yards and 6 TD as a rookie. Thomas Jones was #7 in 2000 and rushed for 373 yards as a rookie. Thomas Jones has more career total yards than Lewis.
Basically, if you believe that Richardson is in the mold of Tomlinson or Peterson, you're set. But even some of the best started out slowly and it's going to be important to see if Weeden and the passing game can take some of the attention off of him. I also think that Montario Hardesty will see some action and this isn't a one-man show, especially after an injury scare. He's very talented though.
2012 Projection: 250 carries, 1,300 yards, 9 TD, 400 receiving yards.
He lost his rookie season to an ACL tear in the preseason and then in his first year back, rushed for just 266 yards on 3 yards per carry. Potentially, Hardesty could be back to the skills that made him one of the nation's top running backs as a senior at Tennessee, which prompted the Browns to take him in the second round, but he hasn't proven anything yet. He's rushing again for just 3 yards per carry in the preseason.
The fact that Richardson still hasn't taken an NFL snap should give Hardesty some opportunity, but is he any good? He looks relegated to spend the season as a spot back and even if he starts, I'm not confident in his abilities.
2012 Projection: 100 carries, 340 yards
Brandon Jackson is also around, another former 2nd round pick that hasn't accomplished much in his career. It'll be between him and Hardesty for backup reps to Richardson. I'm not entirely confident in this lines ability to open holes and maybe only Richardson has a chance to be productive.
Little had a little bit (boom, nailed it, article over!) of production last season as the only receiving option in Cleveland outside of Josh "What is he, really?" Cribbs. Any time a rookie gets 701 yards, especially without a QB, it's worth noticing.
Howevver, Little caught just 51% of his targets (partly McCoy is to blame) and was ranked very low by Football Outsiders. He could do better on a better offense and a better quarterback, but does he have either of those?
2012 Projection: 50 catches, 600 yards, 4 TD
He's the highest upside receiver on the team and perhaps one of the highest upside rookies in the league. Gordon was suspended at Baylor for testing positive for marijuana, something that shocked the nation to find out college kids were smoking marijuana, and then transferred to Utah but entered the supplemental draft before ever playing there.
In one season at Baylor, Gordon had 42 catches for 714 yards and 7 TDs. He's a big, fast receiver with the potential to make some huge plays at the NFL level. Coaches in camp have been both impressed and disappointed with Gordon but that's not uncommon and eventually he could put it all together. I expect him to have a couple of big games this year and then we'll take it from there. He's someone you'll really want to pick up but don't be surprised if he puts up a 0 after putting up 100 the previous week.
2012 Projection: 35 catches, 630 yards, 3 TD
His career is going backwards: 624 yards as a rookie, 483 yards in his second year, 384 yards last season. Now there are more mouths to feed.
2012 Projection: 30 catches, 360 yards
He's now in his eighth season, believe it or not. Last year he had 41 catches for 518 yards, which is almost half of his career total. He hasn't returned a kick for a touchdown in two years but his 1,905 all purpose yards last season was pretty good. You're in a league that counts return yards? Cool, let's talk about Cribbs. You're not? Let's not.
2012 Projection: Impossible to tell.
He was their fourth round pick in the draft, which made him the "cool new receiver" until Gordon was taken in the supplemental draft. Don't expect much.
Ben Watson and Evan Moore
They combined for 71 catches and 734 yards with 6 TDs in 2011. Together, they're one good tight end. Apart, they're useless in fantasy. But Moore has been hurt so it's possible that Watson could see an increase in production and he had 68 catches for 763 yards in 2010. Right now Moore is listed as fourth on the depth chart behind Watson, Jordan Cameron, and the tight end Alex Smith. It's still possible he could cut if the Browns don't keep four tight ends and then Cameron might be stealing catches from Watson.
2012 Projection: Ehh... stay away. Cameron would be a really deep sleeper. Like, "ambien" deep.