BEREA, Ohio -- A year ago, the Cleveland Browns were building a roster for the future as the franchise changed hands. The outgoing Mike Holmgren administration sacrificed 2012 victories to restock the offense with better athletes.
A visit to the 2013 Browns under new management showed at least the new group isn't screwing it up. President Joe Banner, general manager Mike Lombardi and head coach Rob Chudzinski preserved the 2012 draft class of Brandon Weeden, Trent Richardson, Josh Gordon, Mitchell Schwartz and Travis Benjamin that will ultimately determine whether the Browns can catch up to their rivals in the AFC North.
Browns fans can take solace in the concept that the new Jim Haslam ownership is willing to invest heavily in rebuilding the franchise. The foundation is there, but success will take time. Here are the five things I learned on my visit to the Cleveland Browns.
1. Training camp battles: Surprisingly, for a roster in transition, there aren't a lot of position battles. The best ones are at guard, where Chudzinski has a three-way battle for the starting positions. John Greco, Shawn Lauvao and Jason Pinkston are competing to fill out an offensive line that has a great left tackle (Joe Thomas) and a top center (Alex Mack). Greco's recent four-year, $6.4 million extension should indicate that he has the best chance to start. He's taken over as the first-team left guard. Lauvao has the early edge on Pinkston at right guard, but settling that battle should take the summer. Pinkston missed a good chunk of last season because of a blood clot. All three have starting experience, and it will be needed. The Browns' new offense will require long pass blocks to accommodate more five- and seven-step drops by Weeden. Free safety features a battle between two undrafted players from last year -- Tashaun Gipson and Johnson Bademosi. Gipson has the early edge. The next fight is at cornerback opposite Joe Haden. The hope is that third-round choice Leon McFadden could win the job, furthering the team's youth movement. McFadden looked pretty raw in the early practice, which has allowed Buster Skrine, a fifth-round pick in 2011, and free-agent acquisition Chris Owens to jump ahead.
2. A star ready to shine: Trent Richardson appeared to have a disappointing rookie season, rushing for only 950 yards. Lower-drafted rookies such as Doug Martin and Alfred Morris did better. This should be Richardson's year for several reasons. First, he's healthy. Richardson didn't reach his full potential last year because of injuries. He missed a lot of training camp and all the preseason games because of a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery. Then in Week 6 he suffered two broken ribs. Although he continued playing, the injury kept him from sleeping normally. He had to have friends drive him to work because of the pain. Practice was tough, and coaches restricted him to inside runs. Richardson is completely healthy now, and it showed in the first padded practice Sunday. He can run to the inside with power and authority and break runs to the outside. The second benefit for Richardson is offensive coordinator Norv Turner. One of the game's best playcallers, Turner is a master at getting the most out of top backs. He has worked with Emmitt Smith, Ricky Williams, LaDainian Tomlinson, Stephen Davis and others. Richardson has the talent to be in that elite group. Expect him to get more than 300 carries and to be very involved in the passing game with screens.
3. Buying off on the switch to the 3-4: After seeing Romeo Crennel fail to convert the Browns years ago into a good 3-4 defense, I was skeptical of this year's switch to a 3-4. Former general manager Tom Heckert spent two years trying to stock a 4-3 scheme. Well, I'm buying this conversion because of three key moves. Banner spent $2 million a year to bring in Ray Horton as the defensive coordinator. I can't tell you how much he's grown as a coach. He coordinated the Arizona Cardinals' defense for two years, bringing in the Pittsburgh Steelers' blitzing scheme. He is building a scheme that should be good at stopping the run, in part because of two key additions -- Desmond Bryant at defensive end and Paul Kruger at linebacker. Bryant, nose tackle Phillip Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin are a formidable front three. Taylor could be a Casey Hampton-type nose tackle. Rubin and Bryant should hold their gaps at end. That should allow the linebackers to make plays. Kruger will rush from the left side, and former defensive end Jabaal Sheard is doing well in his conversion from defensive end to linebacker. Both linebackers will buy time for Barkevious Mingo to develop as a young pass-rusher. At 237 pounds, Mingo has the speed, but he doesn't have to be rushed into a starting role. D'Qwell Jackson has 3-4 experience at inside linebacker and should keep things coordinated. On paper, it's a good 3-4.
4. Turning the corner with Norv Turner: Mingo is one of the few Browns draft choices who might surface as a rookie, which means the impact of offensive coordinator Norv Turner can't be underestimated. Turner has a history of turning around offenses, and usually the numbers rise significantly in the first year. Clearly, his mission is to get the best out of Weeden, and patience is going to be needed there. Former head coach Pat Shurmur tried to help Weeden with three-step drops and safer passes. Weeden completed 57.4 percent of his passes, but some things didn't look right. Even though he's 6-4, he had 23 passes batted down at the line of scrimmage. Here's the inside story: Weeden is coming out of a spread college offense in which he used the shotgun and didn't retreat from center. Last season he threw from three-step drops to receivers running shorter routes in the middle. Getting the footwork down and trying to loft the short passes over defenders who know to raise their hands resulted in batted passes. Turner will use more five- and seven-step drops that fit Weeden's background. It's not a given he will be a successful quarterback. But Turner will give him the running game and the play-action passes to provide him with a chance to develop.
5. More patience needed from fans: On paper, the Browns look better. There will be significant improvement in the front defensive seven and the running game. In reality, it's going to be hard for the Browns to improve their record by more than a game or two. They went 5-11 last year and played better toward the end of the season. Their schedule is the problem. The killer is a .539 road schedule. The Browns face six teams on the road with winning records: Baltimore, Minnesota, Green Bay, Cincinnati, New England and Pittsburgh. If Andy Reid turns around the Chiefs, that would add to the challenge. The only potentially easy road game is against the New York Jets, but that is the season finale. Over the past four years, the Browns are 0-16 against home teams with winning records. League-wide, teams were 24-97 last season on the road against winning teams. The Browns are better on paper, but the road schedule will force them to be dominant at home just to get to six or seven wins.