I hate trying to predict what the Browns will do in a given season. Long gone are the days where I go through the schedule and assign W’s and L’s to each week’s contest. It’s much simpler for me to look at the Browns in a couple of different ways. First, unless they are tearing the team down completely, my standards for an NFL team in a given NFL season is that they ought to be able to win eight games. Luck and injuries and coaching will tell the rest of the tale. Also, simply looking at the roster is instructive. Is it better or worse than last season? I have come to the conclusion that the Browns’ roster coming into this season is undeniably better than it was a year ago.
Granted, just having a roster improvement doesn’t mean much. Across 16 games in one of the world’s most violent sports, guys get hurt. I know the NFL is a no-excuses type of league and “next man up” is the mantra in every locker room, but I’m not a part of the locker room. Some years for some teams, injuries are just too much to overcome. Also, and especially with these Browns this year, the new coaching staff for the second time in two years is totally unknown. It’s still quite possible that the Browns coaching staff of Mike Pettine, Jim O’Neill and Kyle Shanahan is worse than Rob Chudzinski, Ray Horton and Norv Turner. Be that as it may, I’m confident the roster is improved.
Let’s start with the most obvious improvement with running backs. This week the Browns cut Chris Ogbonnaya. I didn’t get any enjoyment out of that, as Ogbonnaya was a good guy who worked hard and was reasonably talented enough to be a journeyman in the NFL. Problem was, the Browns had to use him like a fullback, a featured running back and a third down back over the course of the last few years. Don’t blame Ogbonnaya. Blame those who put the Browns in a position to rely on him so heavily. Which means, don’t blame Ray Farmer who just cut him loose.
This year the Browns signed a legit runner in Ben Tate in free agency. (Ben Tate’s contract details) The Browns then selected Terrance West in the third round of the NFL draft. (94 overall) Add in the fact that the Browns have a real, live fullback — Ray Agnew — not named Ogbonnaya, and it’s easy to see that the Browns are legitimately and almost with out question improved as a running unit.
That brings us to the offensive line. Yes, there are still question marks about Mitchell Schwartz, but there aren’t a lot about John Greco. He moves over to the right to help Schwartz. The Browns had the fifth best offensive line a season ago according to Pro Football Focus, and they drafted Joel Bitonio after bringing back Alex Mack. If they can gain chemistry and if Mitchell Schwartz can improve or even just stay the same, this is another place the Browns likely got better.
Wide receiver is still a major pain point for the Browns, and I don’t expect this to make you feel that much better, but remember what we found out over the course of last year. First of all, Josh Gordon missed the first two games. Secondly, despite all his hard work, Greg Little couldn’t become reliable. He was also cut by the Raiders this weekend, by the way. Davone Bess was a great move by the Browns that blew up in their face. Nobody saw that coming, but man, was that just a mess. Travis Benjamin even tore his ACL last year.
While the Browns have question marks with Miles Austin, Andrew Hawkins, Travis Benjamin and Taylor Gabriel, it’s hard to think they’re worse off. Granted, last year’s receiving corps is hindsight and I might have just doomed this year’s crew to jinx-ville, but last year was about as bad as I can remember for receiving other than Josh Gordon.
Quarterback? Oh man, I have no idea, except to say that Brandon Weeden is untrustable. Brian Hoyer had an awful pre-season and Johnny Manziel doesn’t appear ready yet. The Browns don’t have a “Jason Campbell” this year, which is good and bad, I guess. Unless you want to go back in time and again bemoan the lack of aggressive pursuit of a guy like Alex Smith (sometimes I like to) we should just go ahead and call the QB position “flat” year over year, if not slightly better because the Browns are betting on a guy who actually won two games at the helm in 2013.
The last piece that I will focus on is defensive back. The Browns used their top pick in the draft on Justin Gilbert. They return Joe Haden and Buster Skrine. They lose T.J. Ward and gain Donte Whitner. At safety they return Tashaun Gipson and others like Bademosi, Jordan Poyer as well as adding Jim Leonhard, Aaron Berry, and Pierre Desir. The key here is returning Haden, Skrine, and drafting Justin Gilbert.
Again, I don’t know what the Browns will do with this decidedly better roster. I didn’t even mention the D’Qwell Jackson departure for Karlos Dansby because I’ve talked about it so much already. My point is just that all you can ask for is to have the roster improve every year. Past that, you start to expect those improvements to translate into the record. If I had to guess, the Browns will be as good as their running game this year. Between the offensive line and the personnel changes in that unit, it’s the most glaring difference from the beginning of 2013. Obviously we’ll see if it does, very soon, but overall this year’s Browns team is better equipped.
Photo: Scott Sargent/WFNY