Johnny Manziel was all set to be the biggest attraction in a city desperately in need of one. Then came the signing of prodigal son LeBron James, and now Manziel is nearly an afterthought in the wake of the Cavaliers emergence in the NBA.
But let’s ignore that for now.
The Browns are likely to finish last in the division with a shaky receiving corp that will leave Manziel wondering if his running mates at Texas A&M were superior options.
Odds to Win Superbowl: 75/1
Odds to win AFC: 33/1
Odds to win AFC North: +500
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The Browns will be on their fifth head coach in the last seven seasons and have finished 4-12 or 5-11 in nine of the past 12 seasons. It won’t take much of an improvement to best that, and new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan will use the West Coast offense to maximize the young Manziel. Shanahan was able to produce a 4,770 yard season from Matt Schaub in 2009. He enabled RGIII to excel as a rookie, and he’s certainly the right man to work with Manziel. He’s known for not only enhancing quarterbacks, but also making receivers even better options. Andre Johnson and Pierre Garcon are both evidence of this.
Josh Gordon would have been the beneficiary of this effect if not for the suspension. It was Gordon’s second violation of the league’s drug policy, and it’s obviously putting his career in peril. It leaves Shanahan at the drawing board, but he’s going to try to draw those plays up for Jordan Cameron first and foremost. He’s a former basketball star who brings major size and athleticism, and Shanahan could work magic with those natural tools. Cameron is a natural tight end.
Gordon’s suspension is the major story when it comes to the WRs, so it’s going to be difficult to draw on the remainder of the team to replace his 1,646 yards in 16 games last season. Miles Austin will be important if he is healthy and Gordon is suspended for one year, but recently appealed that suspension according to NBC Sports. It thus stands to reason that he will either miss the entire season or that he’ll miss none of it. This obviously impacts the Browns drastically.
Ben Tate should have a fantastic season at RB. He’s 5’11” 217 lbs and his frame and athleticism should translate to big numbers this season. He only had 421 carries last year behind Arian Foster in Houston and he’s about to hit his prime in a great situation as the featured back of a young offense. Tate will likely have his best season in this, his 5th year in the NFL.
The OL is very solid and has a chance to be a top-5 unit in the league. Left tackle Joe Thomas made his seventh straight Pro Bowl and is just 29, so he could also have the best year of his career. He is a great protector of QBs, and Manziel will be prudent to buy him nice gifts all season if he wants to avoid big hits. That’s not really a joke.
The Browns will again use a 3-4 defense. It’s tough to say it’s repeating past success, but with so many returning players, it makes sense to be consistent. 2013 coordinator Ray Horton is gone, but the Browns likely won’t gamble nor blitz much more this season. It’s a very mediocre defensive unit that really can’t afford to, unfortunately.
The DL is uninspiring. Phil Taylor fell out of favor last season and was seldom on the field. Taylor, though, does not lack talent. He didn’t have his $5 million option picked up for being a garbage player, so if he is better utilized this season (by actually playing), the Browns would receive a serious boost on the DL. Browns management also showed commitment to Ahtyba Rubin by giving him $6.6 million for this season, exercising another team option on him. Both Taylor and Rubin are able to play NT or end in the three-man front, and this gives the defense an added dimension.
The LBs are going to have to start producing at a rate proportionate to pay. Paul Kruger and Barkevious Mingo only accounted for 4.5 sacks between them, with very little pressure put on QBs. Mingo was taken No. 6 overall last season and showed very little instinct and often looked confused. Jabaal Sheard looked great in 2012, but spent most of last year slowed by injuries. He’s still an aggressive young player who could make major strides.
Karlos Dansby could be interesting, after rejuvenating himself last season with the Cardinals. He could be a great fit for the defensive scheme and is a good stopper of the run. The Browns are relying on improvement from Mingo and Kruger, and on Dansby to prove that last season was not a fluke.
The special teams are dependent on Travis Benjamin’s ability to make it back from knee injury and be a return threat. If Benjamin isn’t ready, rookie CB Justin Gilbert will be an interesting option. Phil Dawson inexplicably was allowed to sign with San Francisco. Billy Cundiff was not as good as Dawson on FGs, but he was better on kickoffs. Spencer Lanning is a decent enough punter. Overall, the Browns won’t do anything exceptional because of its special teams.
The Browns are in for another tough season, but at least it may be a more exciting version thereof. Manziel brings an element of flair to a franchise which has lacked it in the biggest way. Having a first year coach is a bit emblematic of this team, yet also renews hope for the fan base that things can change, and that if they don’t, it won’t be from lack of effort on the part of management. The Browns are likely in for a sub-.500 season, and reaching that even plateau would represent improvement enough under a first year coach and rookie quarterback.