In anticipation of the upcoming NFL season, Head & Heart Sports will feature one division each week until the season begins and preview each team’s 2016 outlook. This week we take a look at the AFC North, continuing with the Cleveland Browns today.
Recap of 2015: The Browns 2015 season was the second, and final, under head coach Mike Pettine as the team stumbled to a 3-13 record, tied for worst in the league alongside the Tennessee Titans. There is so much you can blame another terrible year on, beginning with the Josh Gordon suspension, moving to the weird jersey change, not forgetting the offensive coordinator being suspended for assault and including, of course, the Johnny Manziel saga. All of this before the season even started, or, as they call it in Cleveland, a Tuesday. Nothing ever really breaks right for this city, except when LeBron James comes back to town and wills the Cavs to a championship (maybe he should go the football route now…). If you’re looking for a silver lining in the Browns from last season, it’s hard to find. On the one hand, there were a few close losses, including in overtime to the Broncos and the Chiefs, but that has to be outweighed by the fact that their only three wins came against the aforementioned Titans (3-13), Ravens (5-11), and 49ers (5-11). Both the offense and defense ranked in the bottom five in the league by most metrics and their team leaders were Josh McCown with a whole 2,109 yards passing and Isaiah Crowell at 706 yards rushing. At least Gary Barnidge racked up 1,043 yards receiving and nine touchdowns in what was perhaps their only redeeming performance of the season. The Browns were just bad in almost every way.
Significant Additions: HC Hue Jackson, QB Robert Griffin III, WR Josh Gordon, S Rahim Moore, OT Alvin Bailey, CD Eric Patterson
Significant Subtractions: QB Johnny Manziel, LB Paul Kruger, LB Karlos Dansby, C Alex Mack, WR Travis Benjamin, S Tashaun Gipson, OT Mitchell Schwartz, WR Dwayne Bowe, TE Jim Dray
Potential Impact Rookies: WR Corey Coleman, DE Emmanuel Ogbah, DE Carl Nassib, OT Shon Coleman, QB Cody Kessler, OLB Joe Schobert, WR Ricardo Louis
Team Strengths: If forced to look for “strengths” on this team, it would likely be at the tight end position, where Barnidge is at least a known quantity who should continue to perform at a high level. Coupled with the return of oft-suspended receiver Josh Gordon and the options for new quarterback RGIII could certainly be worse. Unfortunately, Gordon will not take the field until Week 5 and in the meantime the receiving options are likely Terrelle Pryor and Corey Coleman. That inspires a bit less confidence, although Coleman could turn in a strong rookie year. The running game is also a stretch to call a strength, but Crowell and Duke Johnson are sufferable options for the coming season. Johnson may even be a legitimate talisman option at running back, but look for the Browns to deploy the same two-back approach as the Bengals.
Team Weakness: It’s a little ironic that in the season the Browns decide to take a chance on high-upside but known injury liability Robert Griffin, they lose Mack and Schwartz in free agency. The offensive line could be in serious trouble this year after those veteran losses and that would mean RGIII sees a lot of the turf. Outside of Joe Thomas, Cleveland’s OL is suspect at best and has a lot to prove this season. The Browns also experienced a ton of turnover on defense and will likely be relying on several rookies at key positions, as well as second-year and free agent players to take on a leadership role. Although the defense should improve (not exactly a tough task), it may be a slow start as everyone adjusts to the new personnel and new system under Jackson. At least for now, put them down as a weakness.
Fantasy Players to Watch: This is a team full of largely low-end fantasy players, but it may be worth taking a flier on RGIII. Either or both running backs can offer a flex option and Duke Johnson may end up a realistic RB2 by the end of the season. Josh Gordon is a top receiver so if you can get around him missing four games, grab him. I would also look for Corey Coleman to have a good rookie season, especially in the back eight when Gordon is integrated and taking a lot of the defensive attention. Lastly, Gary Barnidge should be a legitimate TE1 again this year.
2016 Outlook: There is just so little the Browns have to do to improve on last season that almost anything will be a step forward. With a new front office, new head coach, new quarterback, and just generally a lot of turnover on the roster, this is a team that is looking to reset and rebuild. Whether Hue Jackson and general manager Sashi Brown get the opportunity and time to actually shape this team is another question entirely, but just some consistency this year at key positions can only lead to better results on the field. It might be hard to remember, but RGIII was once discussed alongside the likes of Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, and Andrew Luck as the new elites in the NFL. If he can regain a shade of his former self while avoiding injury, that Browns will have a capable guy under center. Similarly, if Gordon can just not fail a drug test he instantly elevates the entire offense. If the running back group, which has shown flashes of greater potential, can take a step forward it will offer a little more protection for the Browns’ new fragile QB and a way to control the tempo of close games. That might be a lot of “ifs”, but these are all small, manageable tasks for the Browns’ offense. On the defensive side of the ball, it will be a learning curve but one that could lead to average results over the course of the season.
Record Prediction: So, if those things break right, Cleveland can safely double their win total from last season, go 6-10, and hope/pray/sacrifice-a-goat that things are on the upswing. This is not the year for them to suddenly shoot for the Super Bowl, nor can they. Rather, this Browns team faces the usual tough conference foes, as well as the AFC East, where they lucked out in being on the receiving end of Brady’s first game back from suspension. And they do so from a position of complete rebuild. 2016 will not be about winning games, but seeing who fits on this roster and what progress they can make toward their goals of actually having competency and consistency on both sides of the ball. Sorry, Browns fans, this is not LeBron coming home, this is just another year in a tough town, but maybe it is the start of something new and hopefully better.
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