Experts' Picks (Consensus: fourth)
|DIVISION FINISH: 4 The Browns are headed in the right direction, but their win total this year won't show it. Tough to make significant strides when you play in this division.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 4 The Browns are better on paper, but a difficult road schedule will make it tough to draw closer to the top three teams in the division.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 4 If Norv Turner can continue to elevate Brandon Weeden's performance, the future will be brighter.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 4 There are still too few playmakers for this team to dream big. New head coach Rob Chudzinski has his work cut out for him.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 4 The Browns are getting better. Really.|
Five things you need to know about the Browns:
1. The workhorse: Offensive coordinator Norv Turner hasn't hidden the fact that running back Trent Richardson is going to be the centerpiece of the offense. The target is for him to get 300 carries and 60 receptions. The Browns want to hand off the ball to him on early downs and throw it to him on third downs. Richardson is really valuable in the red zone. Of his 11 rushing touchdowns (a franchise rookie record), nine were in the red zone and 10 of them were between the tackles, which ranked second in the NFL behind Arian Foster, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
2. Steel-clad defense: Jimmy Haslam was a minority owner for the Pittsburgh Steelers before taking control of the Browns. During his four years with the Steelers, the defense ranked No. 1 twice and also finished second one year. So it makes sense that Haslam believes an attacking style of defense is the best way to win in the NFL. The Browns hired Ray Horton, who played and coached under Dick LeBeau, to be defensive coordinator. In 2012, when Horton was the defensive coordinator in Arizona, the Cardinals blitzed 42.3 percent of the time, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The only team to send five or more pass-rushers more often in 2012 was the Houston Texans (46.9 percent). Compare that to the Browns, who blitzed 26.5 percent of the time last year. That ranked 17th in the NFL.
3. Weeden's finishing touch: It is believed the Browns are giving Brandon Weeden this season to prove he is the quarterback of the future. How he handles the pressure situations will determine whether the Browns need to find another franchise quarterback. The Browns lost seven times by 10 points or fewer last season, and three of them came after the Browns had the lead in the fourth quarter. Some of the blame can be put on how Weeden finished games. He was the 27th-ranked passer in the NFL in the fourth quarter, throwing five touchdowns and five interceptions. Only four quarterbacks threw more interceptions in the fourth quarter.
4. Injuries muddle cornerback battle: Rookie third-round pick Leon McFadden was the early favorite to win the job opposite Joe Haden. But a slow start in offseason camps and a groin injury in the preseason dropped him on the depth chart. Free-agent pickup Chris Owens was the starter entering training camp until a foot injury sidelined him in the preseason. Now, Buster Skrine has an opportunity to start after struggling mightily last season. Pass defense has been a major weak spot for Cleveland. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Browns allowed 22 touchdowns to opposing wide receivers last year, which tied for the second most in the NFL.
5. Bad travelers: The Browns' new coaching staff has to figure out how to do something the old one couldn't -- win on the road. In two years under coach Pat Shurmur, the Browns were 2-14 away from Cleveland, which included a 12-game losing streak. It won't be easy for the Browns to get back on track this year. Five of their eight road games are against teams who made the playoffs last season.
-- Jamison Hensley, ESPN.com
Inside The Numbers
The Browns returned to the NFL in 1999, and in that time, their offense has ranked 23rd or worse in 13 of those 14 seasons. To help overhaul that side of the ball, Cleveland hired Norv Turner to run an offense that has averaged at least 20 points per game only twice since returning to the NFL.
Is Brandon Weeden the right quarterback for a Turner-led offense? In his first year in the league in 2012, Weeden had a Total QBR of 26.6, 31st among all quarterbacks who started at least half of his team's games. Only Mark Sanchez was worse at 23.4.
By comparison, Turner's QB during his tenure as San Diego's head coach and offensive coordinator was Philip Rivers, who has the league's ninth-best Total QBR over the past five seasons (62.4).
• Who will step in during Josh Gordon's two-game suspension to begin the season? Gordon had four touchdown receptions of at least 30 yards last season, tied for third most in the NFL. Travis Benjamin was the only other Brown with such a TD reception (one).
-- ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN The Magazine: Non-QB MVP
OT Joe Thomas (10.7 avg. AV since 2010)
The NFL's most reliable left tackle in 2012, Thomas went 73.6 snaps for every missed block and was the biggest reason a young Browns O-line posted the league's 12th-best pass-protection numbers.
-- Pro Football Reference