AFC North preview: Cleveland Browns

After another losing season that resulted in a fourth-place finish in the AFC North, the Cleveland Browns were once again forced to start over, bringing in a new coaching staff for 2013, and now head into the upcoming regular-season with their hopes placed squarely on the shoulders of two NFL sophomores.

In his first season as the Browns’ head coach, Rob Chudzinski plans to implement an aggressive style of play on both sides of the ball and will be supported by Cleveland’s new offensive coordinator Norv Turner, as well as defensive coordinator Ray Horton, who is also entering his first year with the organization.

More importantly, Cleveland’s resident starting quarterback Brandon Weeden, has been given the keys to the franchise, an opportunity that rarely presents itself to such an inexperienced pivot.

In 2012, Weeden threw for 3,385 yards with 14 touchdowns and a disappointing 17 interceptions – a stat that must improve immediately in order for the former baseball player to turn the corner and take the next step as a perennial starter in this league.

However, the fact of the matter remains that if Weeden fails to progress or suffers an injury of any consequence, Cleveland will have only veteran journeyman QB Jason Campbell, who will begin the season as the backup, or, fifth-year QB Brian Hoyer who is the Browns’ third-string option.

If Weeden now holds the keys that drives this offense, then it’s safe to say that fellow second-year pro RB Trent Richardson was also given a copy.

In his rookie campaign, Richardson rushed for 950 yards with 11 touchdowns and began to establish himself as one of the NFL’s top up and coming, do-everything backs.

The downside of Richardson’s performance in 2012? For starters, Richardson suffered a broken rib in week six and sat out the Browns’ regular season finale with an ankle injury. That may all sound insignificant until you consider that the former Alabama star running back had knee surgery this past August. With only Bobby Rainey and Doug Johnson available as backups, an injury to the Browns’ most effective offensive weapon would likely spell disaster for the 2013 season.

Another concern that must weigh heavy on the mind of Turner, concerns the lack of depth on the offensive line, more specifically at guard where both starters, Jason Pinkston and Shawn Lauvao, are out with ankle injuries and expected to miss at least the first few games of the regular season. Fortunately for the Browns, seven-year pro Joe Thomas remains a fixture up front and brings both leadership and experience that will help to carry the unit through the injuries.

With Cleveland’s lead wideout Josh Gordon scheduled to miss the first two games of the regular season due to a suspension, the Browns will begin 2013 with Greg little (53 rec, 647 yds, 4 TD), who is expected to start opposite second-year receiver Travis Benjamin (18 rec, 298 yds, 2 TD), at least until Gordon returns.

Newly-acquired wideout Davone Bess (61 rec, 778 yds, 1 TD) could also start, but is likely to begin the year as the team’s top reserve, while Josh Cooper, a former teammate of Weeden at Oklahoma State, will also be available in a supporting role.

Defensively, Ray Horton is expected to bring an aggressive style of play to the Browns, a style that Horton learned first-hand while playing for and coaching with the legendary Dick LeBeau.

For the most part, Cleveland is expected to blitz much more often in 2013, a philosophy helped by the off-season acquisition of Paul Kruger, who led the Ravens in sacks last season..

Expected to start in his first year with the Browns, DL Desmond Bryant (36 ct, 4 sk, 1 ff), is entering his fifth-year as a pro after spending 2012 with Oakland, while former first-round draft pick Philip Taylor and veteran Ahtyba Rubin (44 ct, 2 ff, 2 sk), return to start on the defensive line.

Cleveland’s linebacking corps added what they hope will be the unit’s centerpiece of the future when they drafted Barkevious Mingo with the sixth overall pick this past June. Unfortunately, Mingo is currently sidelined with a bruised lung suffered during the preseason and despite his return to practice this past Monday, is expected to miss at least the first week of the regular season.

Also a concern, CB Buster Skrine had a disappointing 2012 campaign but is still projected to start opposite fourth-year CB Joe Haden, as Cleveland’s answer to opposing deep-threats.

Ending the year without an interception in 2012, some felt that Skrine should be overtaken by Chris Owens, who was acquired during the off season after spending last year with the Atlanta Falcons.

Considering the coaching changes, Cleveland could spend the first few weeks of the regular season becoming accustomed to the new regime, time that this franchise no longer has to waste. On the other hand, this is a team that lost seven games by 10 points or less last season, evidence that this is no longer the same franchise who opponents most often considered to be among the league’s worst.

However, since Cleveland returned to the NFL in 1999, the Browns have averaged 20 ppg only twice while earning a reputation as one of the NFL’s most consistently unsuccessful teams. In order for that to change, Cleveland will first have to establish themselves within their own division, a task made all the more difficult with the progression of the Cincinnati Bengals, as well as the presence of both the defending champion Baltimore Ravens, and the still-dangerous Pittsburgh Steelers.

After a 5-11 finish in 2012 that included an abysmal 1-7 record away from home, as well as a 2-4 mark against AFC North opponents, it’s clear that Cleveland has a lot of work ahead.

If Weeden progresses and Richardson stays healthy while lightening his workload, believe it or not this football team is more than likely just a few years away from league-wide relevancy, closer than they’ve been in a long time and something that football fans in Cleveland most definitely deserve.

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