Brandon Weeden finds himself in an unenviable position. In years past, his 2012 season would have been credited for how he dealt with poor coaching and offensive inconsistencies, but the NFL has changed. Now it's expected that rookie quarterbacks can have success immediately. In contrast to the performances of Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, it's a hard act to follow.
There is a lot of heat on Weeden to take strides this year. Rob Chudzinski is known for quickly turning around offenses and finding creative ways to take pressure off young players. It's a plan he put into effect in Carolina, where he tutored Cam Newton. Now, the Browns hope he'll have the same effect in Cleveland.
These three things will need to happen in order to turn the Browns around, and once again make them competitive.
1. Chudzinski needs to overcome the trappings of a rookie head coach
The Browns have done their best to give their new leader enough support, but there's no telling how he'll manage situations on game days. Every first-year coach finds himself in a series of tough scenarios, whether it's managing the clock late in a game or making the right call on 4th-and-short.
His coaching history hasn't been littered with great tutors. Neither Norv Turner nor Ron Rivera are known for their ability to manage. Chudzinski was asked to assist both the Chargers and Panthers in this role, but both teams had their own struggles.
The other risk is trying to do too much, too quickly. In Carolina, he rapidly overhauled the roster and installed a pass-first offense, but he finds himself with a roster that doesn't have top-end talent at the quarterback position and a running back who needs to be utilized more than Chud utilized the running backs in Carolina.
2. Ray Horton needs to work his wonders on the pass rush
Rumors abounded that Horton could find himself in a head coaching job, but instead he parted ways with the Arizona Cardinals due to mutual misunderstanding and the perception he lacked a future there. Securing the talented defensive coordinator was the biggest coup for the Browns this offseason, and Cleveland wasted no time getting him tools to work with. They selected Barkevious Mingo with the 6th overall pick, and understood the need to get better on defense quickly -- investing four of their five selections on Horton's side of the ball.
The Browns' defense got sacks last year, but lacked consistent pressure. In comparison, the Cardinals got consistent pressure -- but missed a lot of easy sacks. If Horton can reconcile these two sides, while Mingo proves to be the pass rusher he showed at LSU, the team will be set to compete in the defensively tough AFC North.
3. Trent Richardson needs to stay healthy
Richardson was regarded as the top running back entering the 2012 draft, but was quickly eclipsed by Doug Martin. This wasn't really Richardson's fault, however, as the lack of a consistent deep passing game made it difficult for him to pick up easy yards. Injuries were a factor as well.
This year will be a litmus test for his career. Questions are being raised about Alabama players, as some are seen as worn out by the time they reach the NFL -- a by-product of Nick Saban's tough coaching style, and a brutal SEC schedule.
He has the ability to put himself in the stratosphere of running backs, but if his shin isn't 100% entering the season, it will put a lot more pressure on Weeden -- a bad proposition.
The Browns were a five-win team in 2012, but have far more talent on the roster than they're given credit for. Seven of the team's 11 losses came by 10 points or fewer. If they can limit turnovers, while getting pressure, they could surprise.
In order for that to happen, Josh Gordon needs to take the next step and prove he can be a consistent 1,000 yard-receiver. He has the talent, Greg Little has the work ethic, and if these two can meet in the middle, then Weeden has a chance to secure his job long term.
A 3-4 win improvement isn't out of the question, and is a reasonable goal. It's unlikely they'll threaten for a playoff spot, but an eight-win year would be a godsend in a city waiting for improvement.