Questions begging (and getting) answers
Twenty-five questions (and answers) as the Browns officially kick off the 2015 season Thursday morning with the start of training camp in Berea. In no particular order . . .
How long will it take head coach Mike Pettine to name Josh McCown as his starting quarterback for the season opener? He said he’s not guaranteeing it, but c’mon, do you really believe that? He strains his credibility when he talks like that.
Who will win the running back battle? Is there someone good enough to be the top dog right out of the chute? That’s two questions, but don’t be surprised if rookie Duke Johnson, if given the chance in exhibition games, is the man because of his talents as a receiver out of the backfield. With the emphasis placed on the running game (because of a weak passing game), it’s possible all three candidates (Johnson, Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West) will see plenty of reps throughout the course of the season.
Where will first-round draft choice Cameron Erving wind up on the offensive line? Somewhere to the right of center Alex Mack, most likely right guard unless he shows well in camp at right tackle.
And which starter from last season loses his job? The candidates are John Greco and Mitchell Schwartz. Pick one.
What will be nose tackle Danny Shelton’s most difficult job? Many have labeled the club’s top draft choice a two-down lineman. He’s got to prove them wrong. If he plays anywhere near as well he did in college, that shouldn’t be difficult as long as he keeps his ponderous weight down.
Who benefits if Shelton comes through and veterans like Randy Stark, the Bryants (Armonty and Desmond), Billy Winn and John Hughes stay healthy and control the line of scrimmage? The inside linebackers, who, if kept clean, can be much more productive than last season. Karlos Dansby, Craig Robertson and Christian Kirksey on occasion were effective at times last season when the defensive line showed up.
Speaking of the defensive line and ponderous weight, will tackle Phil Taylor play an entire season? Looking at a playing pattern since he was drafted in 2011, yes. He plays just about every game in every odd season, while injuries in even years have cut short his season. This is his fifth season. He’s due.
Sticking with the defense, how much of a chance will second-year cornerback Justin Gilbert get to claim a starting job after a disappointing rookie season? With the addition of nine-year veteran Tramon Williams, practically none. But a strong camp and exhibition showing could result in plenty of time as a nickel back in his battle with K’Waun Williams, who surprised everyone last season with a steady performance.
How much longer can Tramon Williams, signed as a free agent, continue to be effective? His performance has slipped in recent years. That’s why the Green Bay Packers did not did not stop him from leaving. Look for that to continue.
What are the odds Barkevious Mingo can be the edge rusher the Browns thought he was when drafted a couple of years ago? Very high unless he packs on about 15 more pounds and comes up with more moves than the two he employs. He’s (disappointingly) more effective in pass coverage.
How easy/difficult a transition to the NFL will it be for rookie edge rusher Nate Orchard, who produced 18½ sacks in college last season? It’s one thing to rush the passer in college, where pass blocking schemes are far less sophisticated. Orchard, who arrives with the reputation of having a motor that doesn’t stop, will be successful in transitioning to the National Football League if he is smart enough to adjust on the fly to the wide variety of looks he is certain to get as he zeroes in on opposing quarterbacks. If not, he’s Mingo all over again.
Who else stands out in that area? Veteran Paul Kruger, who produced 11 of the team’s 31 sacks last season, and Scott Solomon, a late-season pickup last year who flashed in his only two games with seven tackles and a sack.
What about defensive end Xavier Cooper, for whom the club traded up in the college draft and about whom it is full of praise because of his revved-up engine? Bears watching. Again, the switch from college to the professional ranks can be steep. There is no question the Browns are counting on Orchard and him in the pass rush.
Who wins the placekicker battle? The candidates: Carey Spear and Travis Coons. Both were signed as free agents out college and cut by their teams before signing with the Browns last December. Spear is a native Clevelander (Mayfield High School). Neither possesses what you would call a big leg. The guess here is no one wins and the Browns scour the waiver wire and sign a veteran just before the season opener.
Who is the club’s most important addition? Andy Lee. Without a doubt. A punter? Really? Really. Watch how much a difference he will make in field position this season. That has been missing the last two seasons. Don’t underestimate it.
What rookies will bust out and become a starter and/or vital contributor this season? As many as four, maybe five. They include, in no particular order, Johnson, Erving, Shelton, Orchard and possibly Cooper.
Who wins the punt and kickoff return jobs? Don’t underestimate their importance. The Browns were awful in both departments last season, often putting the offense in deep holes. The leading candidates are Gilbert and wide receivers Taylor Gabriel and Travis Benjamin. The latter, extremely disappointing last season, is farther removed from his ACL surgery in 2013 and thus that much healthier. He was extremely cautious as a return man last season.
How can the offense function efficiently without a true pass-catching tight end? With a great deal of difficulty, that’s how. The Browns have absolutely no one on the roster who can be counted on to contribute in the passing game. When opponents see that, the Cleveland offense can count on seeing eight men in the box with annoying frequency.
All right then, who will be the club’s No. 1 wide receiver? The definitive answer is no one. This corps is just plain bad from top to bottom. But there are plenty of 3’s, 4’s and 5’s. And don’t even think about using of Dwayne Bowe and No. 1 receiver in the same sentence. That’s an oxymoron. Andrew Hawkins, Brian Hartline, Gabriel and maybe rookie Vince Mayle, if he makes the final roster, are mediocre at best.
Well, what about Terrelle Pryor? Where does he fit in? In his own mind, he believes he will be the best wide receiver on the club. Said so just the other day. If the former Ohio State quarterback can translate that approach and combine it with a strong work ethic, he has a chance. Once he starts playing the games, though, he will be in for a big surprise. It’s going to be much more difficult than he believes. The odds of seeing him on the opening-day roster are sizable.
OK, OK, time for a Johnny Manziel question. How comfortable should he get on the sideline as he watches McCown? Very comfortable until McCown suffers the inevitable fate of just about all Browns quarterbacks since the resurrection. He will get hurt. Count on it. Don’t know when, but it will happen and Manziel will get an opportunity to prove he belongs in the NFL. If he fails to be a quick study this time, he will suffer the same result as last season.
From where and from whom will the leadership come? On defense, it’s from inside linebacker Karlos Dansby, strong safety Donte Whitner and cornerback Joe Haden. On offense, it has to come from McCown because, well, because he’s the quarterback and the most important player on that side of the ball.
How much better a defense can the fans expect this season? It can’t be any worse against the run than it was last season when it finished dead last in the league. Shelton’s presence alone assures there will be no repeat. An improved run defense means more teams will throw against the Browns. Now, we’ll see just how good the secondary is. Last season, it ranked very high because most teams preferred to run against Cleveland and didn’t need to throw the ball that much, thus skewing the statistics. An improved pass rush helps.
And what kind of pass rush can the fans look forward to? Pettine arrived in Cleveland from Buffalo with the reputation of being a quarterback-harassing specialist. That disappeared last season when he realized he didn’t have Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus and Jerry Hughes (wrong Hughes) on the roster. The three Bills linemen combined for 34½ of the team’s 54 sacks last season. The Browns’ defensive line produced seven, five by Desmond Bryant. Won’t be much different this season.
What about the offense? Better than last season? Not if it performs as poorly as it did in the last five games when it produced only six touchdowns and just 57 points, 12 via the field goal. Brian Hoyer is gone, Manziel is tethered to the bench and McCown is the quintessential NFL journeyman working with a highly questionable corps of receivers. Don’t hold your breath.
Some questions, deemed less important by the panel of one, have been excluded. The only conclusion that can be reached by the panel is this will be a long, long season. Maybe even longer than last season when 7-9 was regarded as relatively great despite losing the last five games.
Playing a much tougher schedule (only three teams with losing records last season) points to yet another disappointing season in the Factory of Sadness. If the Browns win seven or more games this season, Pettine should be named coach of the year.