To say it's been a rough few years for Cleveland Browns fans would be an understatement. On the field, the team has been a disaster, winning more than seven games just twice since rejoining the NFL in 1999. The Browns lost at least 11 games in each of the last six seasons, tallying a .391 winning percentage. Impossibly, things have been even worse off the field. Multiple cases of staph infection and a federal investigation into the owner's company are just part of the list of issues. Oh, and the team is going on its third head coach and front office in three years.
The only thing the Browns have been contending for lately is to be the NFL's worst and most dysfunctional franchise.
Coming off a 4-12 season, it's easy to assume it will be more of the same this year, but the Browns may actually be closer to being a playoff contender than you'd initially think. There is talent on the roster and Cleveland wouldn't be the first NFL team to make a quick turnaround. In fact, all the Browns have to do is look back at last year for an example to follow.
The Chiefs went from 2-14 and the No. 1 pick in 2012 to 11-5 and in the NFL playoffs in 2013. While it's possible to make a major turnaround in a year in the NFL, those don't happen without talent in place. The Chiefs didn't go from the least talented roster in the league to 11-5. They had talent on the roster and made major improvements with a few changes and additions. The Browns could be in position to emulate that blueprint for success this season.
Talent in place
Pro Bowl selections are sometimes barely worth the paper they are printed on, but they still show at least a baseline of talent. The Browns had six players selected to the Pro Bowl last season, the fourth-most of any team and as many as the Super Bowl champion Seahawks. The All-Pro team is usually a much better judge of talent and Cleveland also had five players make first or second team. The best teams in the league have a lot more than five or six good players, but Cleveland has a very good core to build around. Joe Haden is arguably the best player on the roster and will once again headline the defense, a unit which could surprise this year.
The Browns finished 23rd in scoring defense last year and 24th in defensive DVOA according to Football Outsiders. Cleveland, however, has more defensive talent than its numbers showed and could be in line for a major improvement this season. The defensive line was solid last season and should be just as good, if not better this season. Ahtyba Rubin, Desmond Bryant, Phil Taylor, John Hughes and Billy Winn combined for a plus-36.9 Pro Football Focus grade, one of the better defensive line grades in the league. That number is even more impressive considering Bryant had a down first year in Cleveland, tallying a minus-0.9 grade. If he plays up to his 2012 form -- when he received a plus-16.5 grade -- the Browns could have one of the better defensive lines in the NFL.
Barkevious Mingo (left) and Desmond Bryant (right) will look to register improved performances in 2014/Photo credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
At linebacker, Paul Kruger might not live up to his large contract, but is still a solid starter. Barkevious Mingo didn't have a breakout rookie season, but remains supremely talented and should improve. The big addition at linebacker is Karlos Dansby, who will replace D'Qwell Jackson on the inside. While Jackson's play has declined in recent seasons, Dansby is coming off a bounce-back year. He's been a consistent performer and should provide a significant upgrade. Although the Browns didn't fare very well in scoring defense, Cleveland wasn't a complete disaster on defense. The Browns allowed 4.8 yards per play last season, the third-best mark of any team, according to Team Rankings.
While Haden is a great piece to have in the secondary, the Browns will have room to improve. Donte Whitner replaces T.J. Ward and even though he's older, shouldn't be much of a downgrade, if at all. Cleveland will need to get better play from free safety and the other cornerback spots. The Browns took the first step to solidifying the other cornerback spot, grabbing Justin Gilbert with the No. 8 pick in the draft. Gilbert is big, strong and fast. There will likely be a learning curve as he transitions to the NFL. If that transition is brief, however, he and Haden could form a very good 1-2 punch at corner.
New head coach Mike Pettine has a history of building great defenses. He co-authored some excellent units with Rex Ryan in New York and the Bills made strides during his only season in Buffalo. He has talent to work with and if he maximizes it, it may be the Browns who have the best defense in the defensive-minded AFC North.
Who plays the Jamaal Charles role?
The Chiefs had plenty of success last year winning with a stout defense and just enough offense. Kansas City, however, had the ability to rely on Jamaal Charles to carry the load. It's easy to mask a lot of flaws when you have one of the best players in the NFL leading the way. Newly acquired Ben Tate will be an upgrade at running back, but he doesn't figure to come close to matching Charles' production. That isn't to say the Browns don't have a player to rely on, he just plays wide receiver instead.
Making a list of the five best receivers in the NFL is a very tough task with more than a dozen deserving candidates. Josh Gordon is doing his best to force his way onto that list. Gordon led the NFL with 1,646 receiving yards last year, despite only playing in 14 games. It'd be easy to think his numbers are inflated from a lack of weapons around him, but he averaged 10.4 yards per target, the second-best mark of any receiver with at least 75 targets. Not bad for a then 22-year-old in his second season, playing with three different quarterbacks -- none of which were even close to league-average starters.
Gordon should only get better and has the talent to carry an offense. He may not have to do quite as much this year with Tate improving the running game and Andrew Hawkins providing a reliable, effective target out of the slot. With Jordan Cameron creating a mismatch nightmare for defenses at tight end, the Browns have the potential to be much better on offense.
All they needed was a quarterback, which leads to the final aspect of the Chiefs blueprint.
Hello Johnny Football
Alex Smith isn't a superstar quarterback. He won't be mentioned with Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning. He is, however, a solid starter and was a huge upgrade for the Chiefs last season. The Browns needed a similar upgrade and traded up in the first round to select Johnny Manziel.
Manziel starred at Texas A&M, often creating something out of nothing. The Browns don't need him to come in and immediately be the biggest playmaker in the league. In fact, they just need him to be non-terrible, a level the previous Cleveland quarterbacks couldn't reach. Gordon, Tate and Cameron make for a talented skill group. Joe Thomas and Alex Mack headline an above-average offensive line. If Manziel can play at even a league-average level, the Browns might just be the favorite in the AFC North. Brian Hoyer proved as much last year when he led the Browns to wins in each of his first two starts. He didn't light the world on fire, he just wasn't Brandon Weeden.
Are the Browns now a lock to make the playoffs with Manziel in place? Far from it. They aren't even a lock to finally break five wins until Manziel proves he can play at the next level. That said, they are far from the running joke they've become. Somehow, between all of the firings, hirings and off-the-field issues, the Browns managed to accumulate some talent. Cleveland has been a laughing stock, yet if Manziel and Gilbert prove they can play, it might be the Browns getting the last laugh next season.