The Cleveland Browns have not exactly been a great source of fantasy talent in recent years but at FFKL we like to take the long view. The Browns had a tremendous 2012 draft (and supplemental draft) and appear to finally have the pieces in place to become a dynamic offense. Will it happen this year? Probably not, but the seeds have been sown.
Let’s take a look at the projected starting line-up and break it down by position group:
LT: Joe Thomas (#1 round, 27 years old)
LG: Jason Pinkson (#5 rounder, 24 years old)
C: Alex Mack (#1 round, 26 years old)
RG: Shawn Lauvao (#3rd round, 24 years old)
RT: Mitchell Schwartz (#2rd round, 23 years old)
This should be the strength of the Browns offense and one of the most under-rated lines in the league entering this season.
Football Outsiders ranked the Browns line at 16th in passing and 23rd running for the 2011 season. The overall rankings don’t tell the whole story here. At first glance, 23rd is on the low side of mediocre and not something to get excited about, however, if one goes deeper things don’t looks so glum. While overall the Browns ranked low, they were 2nd overall in Stuffed percentage (number of runs with no gain or negative yardage) and 31st in Open Field (running beyond the line of scrimmage). In other words, Browns RB’s were rarely hit in the backfield but were consistently brought down by the first tackler in the open field. If your line is getting the RB to the hole unmolested, he absolutely has to make plays. Partly do to injury, partly to ineptitude, Brown’s RB’s just couldn’t get the job done.
Now you know why the running games was bad and why the Browns traded up to draft Trent Richardson.
The pass ranking, on the other hand, was respectable despite a QB who held onto the ball too long and frequently fled the pocket despite a lack of defensive pressure. As teams realized McCoy can’t throw deep or outside the numbers the underneath stuff got swallowed up. If there is anything that is apparent when watching film on Weeden it’s that he doesn’t leave the pocket, he’s not afraid to take a hit, and he can make all the throws.
Pro Bowler’s Joe Thomas and Alex Mack anchor a group littered with high draft picks including last year’s most glaring weakness, RT, which was addressed in the 2012 draft. The Browns were criticized by some for not selecting the consensus best tackle in this spot but the Browns were not looking for a left tackle, they needed a right tackle and Schwartz was the best one on the board.
Guard play was sketchy at the beginning of the 2011 season when an injury to LG Eric Steinbach forced a 5th round draft pick, Jason Pinkston, into the starting line-up too early. RG Lauvao, had missed nearly the entire 2010 season and was essentially a rookie himself. As the year progressed, both players became more comfortable and Pinkston followed up by showing up to mini-camp in incredible shape and was the most improved offensive lineman on the team through those practices.
With competent running back play in the form of newly arrived Trent Richardson, I’ll be surprised if the Browns don’t finish as a top 10 rushing offense.
TE: Ben Watson (#1 round, 31 years old)
Ben Watson did not have a great 2011 season and the Browns are hoping he’ll be hard pressed to keep his starting job.
The Browns love 2nd year man, Jordan Cameron, a converted basketball player out of USC. The guy basically spent the 2011 season learning how to play the position and didn’t see the field until the last few games of the season where he managed 6 catches for 33 yards. Not much to get excited about, but Cameron was praised by the coaching staff as one of the most improved players at mini-camp. He has all the athletic talent and just needs to put it together.
Fan favorite Evan Moore rarely made it on the field last year and doesn’t seem to be a favorite of this coaching staff.
QB: Brandon Weeden (#1 round, 28 years old)
I’ve written about Weeden elsewhere so I’m not going to re-hash it all here. Suffice it to say, if he were four years younger he would have been drafted #3 overall and I expect him to play as well or better than the two QB’s drafted ahead of him this year.
Opposing teams will have to respect Richardson and the run game which should leave Weeden in a lot of man to man situations. All Weeden will need to do this year is protect the football, and keep the defense honest by going over the top (with accuracy) a few times a game. If Weeden can play well enough to keep an eight man out of the box, the Browns offense could be pretty good right now.
RB: Trent Richardson (1st round, 22 years old)
What can you say about Trent Richardson? The man is the complete package: Size, speed, strength, & quickness. He can catch the ball out of the backfield and he can line up wide as a receiver. He excels is pass protection. There is no hole in his game. Typically rookies struggle with picking up the blitz and have predilection for getting their QB’s killed but Richardson will come in from Week One and make an impact.
Last year, Browns running backs consistently went down at first contact. Those days are over.
FB: Marecic, Owen (4th round, 25 years old)
Few players on the Browns were subjected to as much fan scrutiny as Owen Marecic. On a better team, the starting full back would probably not be such a lighting rod. Be that as it may, Marecic was drafted high for a full back and replaced one the Browns most popular players in Lawrence Vickers. This probably would not have been so bad if Marecic wasn’t consistently blown up by linebackers, looked uncomfortable catching the ball, and then missed time with injuries. He was actually a decent special teams player but what the Browns need is Marecic to open holes for Trent Richardson.
The Browns actually brought in Richardson’s fullback from Alabama, Brad Smelley, and there’s already talk that he could take Marecic’s job. It should be an interesting pre-season.
WR: Greg Little (2nd round, 23 years old)
WR: Josh Gordon (2nd round, 21 years old)
Wide receiver may have been the weakest position group on the Browns last year which is why the Browns gambled on Josh Gordon in the supplemental draft.
Greg Little was one of the best rookie WR’s in the league last season and should benefit from a QB who can actually get the ball down field. Defensive scouts from other AFC North teams have been quoted as stating that teams did not have to defend the sidelines or the deep ball against the Browns last year because McCoy didn’t have the arm to make those throws. It makes it awfully tough on a West Coast offense when teams can sit on slants and underneath routes with no worries of getting burned over the top.
The real wild card is Josh Gordon. Yes, it’s probably a stretch to call him a starter but the man is almost 6’4″, 230lbs, and runs like the wind. Watching him on film it’s apparent that he’s a “hands” catcher with great leaping ability. Get the ball in his zip code and he’s going to catch it. Beating out a deadbeat like Masaquoi shouldn’t be that challenging. Ideally, Gordon would have been around for mini-camp to get a jump on things but I’m confident he’ll be starting by mid-season.
Gordon & Little could theoretically give the Browns their most dynamic WR combo since the mid 80’s. With McCoy on the bench, the Browns may actually have a QB who can get the ball down field and make some big plays.
The Sky is the Limit
For the first time since 1999, the Browns have a talented offense. Inexperienced, yes, but the talent is undeniably there and with a little luck the Browns could be a competent offense this year. I wouldn’t want my fantasy roster to depend on a Browns offensive explosion. No doubt there will be struggles when as many as 4 rookies could be starting at some point this season but future looks bright.
For fantasy purposes, Richardson and Little are probably the only two Browns worth carrying at the start of the season. Barring injury, there is no way that Richardson isn’t topping 1,100-1,200 yards and scoring 5-7 TD’s with the potential of putting up significantly higher numbers. Richardson will get 20-25 touches a game in this offense and far less talented RB’s have made a significant impact as rookies. I’d be comfortable going into the season viewing Richardson as an RB2 with a lot of upside.
Little is a tougher call. He’ll get the targets and coming into his second season he should be a better player than he was last year. I believe that with Weeden at QB he’ll have a chance to make a lot more big plays but I also expect the Browns to throw the ball less with a better running game. I wouldn’t want to count on Little as anything higher than a WR3/WR4 . I don’t think 850+ yards & 5+ TD’s is too much to ask and the potential is there for a better season if he and Weeden are able to get on the same page and hook up for some deep balls.
As for the rest. . .Josh Gordon is worth keeping an eye on, especially if he wins the starting job opposite Little in training camp. I wouldn’t expect too much, particularly in the early going, but by the end of the season he could be a viable bye week starter. The other guy to keep an eye on his Cameron Jordan. I expect to see him on the field quite a bit in passing situations and young QB’s typically like TE’s. At this point, he’s not worth a roster spot but he’s worth monitoring.