Wednesday, July 27, 2016

More questions seeking answers . . . and getting them

Continuing with the offense before turning to the defense.

Who figures to be the biggest surprise on offense?

Once coach Hue Jackson sees Duke Johnson Jr. in training camp and exhibition games, expect him to make the second-year man out of Miami of Florida his starting running back. Put simply, Johnson is a playmaker.

Whether it’s in the running game or passing game, the 5-9, 210-pounder has the kind of talent, if handled correctly, that can make a huge difference in the kind of balanced offense Jackson seeks.

With proper coaching, Johnson can become a force in the offense. Last season, he was used – make that misused – far too often as a between-the-tackles runner. He is much more of a slasher, off-tackle, cutback type with quick feet and excellent vision.

Last season, Johnson had 165 touches for 913 yards (534 through the air on 61 catches) and fumbled the ball only once (recovered by the Browns), so ball security is not a concern. Isaiah Crowell can be used to get the tough yards.

Now the defense . . .

Now that Ray Horton has returned as coordinator of this side of the ball, exactly how much autonomy will he get from Jackson, whose expertise is clearly on offense?

It should be complete given how hard Jackson lobbied to get Horton back to Cleveland. But one has to take into consideration that in the one season Horton spent in Cleveland as Rob Chudzinski’s defensive boss in 2013, the Browns allowed 406 points.

Known for his sophisticated blitz packages, Horton at least gave the Browns a decent pass rush that season with 40 sacks. Expect more of the same this season, but he’ll be without defensive ends Desmond Bryant, who ripped a pectoral muscle recently, and Armonty Bryant, who must sit out the first four games for violating the NFL’s drug policy.

So who can the fans expect to see harass opposing quarterbacks this season?

Rookies Carl Nassib, Emmanuel Ogbah and Joe Schobert should factor heavily in Horton’s numerous sub packages in the front seven to bolster the contributions of second-year man Nate Orchard and veteran Paul Kruger. Look for at least 40 sacks this season.

Look also for Horton to involve members of the secondary from time to time in an effort to confuse rival quarterbacks. Well-timed cornerback and safety blitzes, as well as zone blitzes, are Horton staples.

And what about the run defense? It has been embarrassingly awful the past two seasons under Jim O’Neil.

It can’t get any worse. Horton will fix it now that he has a legitimate nose tackle in Danny Shelton.

But Shelton was a huge disappointment last season. What’s the difference?

First off, Shelton has pared about 30 pounds to get down to his playing weight of 335 pounds. Horton’s biggest challenge is to make certain Shelton, extremely quick for a man his size, maintains his new figure.

If he can, Shelton can become what many believed he would be in his rookie season last year: a three-down player. Last season, he was manhandled way too often by opposing linemen 1-on-1. Third down saw him parked on the bench. That can’t happen this season.

If it does, the Browns don’t have enough depth at the position to make it easier on linebackers to make plays at or behind the line of scrimmage. Jamie Meder is a nice fill-in at the nose, but he cannot pressure the quarterback like an in-shape Shelton can.

Where do Xavier Cooper and John Hughes fit in?

Depends on how well Nassib and Ogbah perform in training camp. Ogbah, who is listed as a linebacker, has defensive lineman size at 6-4, 275 and could very easily fit in on those rare occasions Horton calls for a 4-3 alignment. And if Nassib puts about 15 more pounds on his 6-7, 275-pound frame, he, too, could find many reps outside.

Cooper and Hughes probably will start the season, but could find themselves in smaller roles if Nassib and Ogbah live up to their advance billing as strong pass rushers.

Looks as though outside linebackers this year will not have as much coverage responsibility as last season. Who benefits?

Definitely Kruger, whose sack production fell last to a paltry 2½ last season because O’Neil preferred him covering running backs and tight ends rather than doing what he does best – beat up on quarterbacks. That will change this season.

Orchard, who saw more playing time in the second half of last season, could surprise with his speed off the flank.

What about Barkevious Mingo?

This clearly will be his make-or-break season with the Browns. The former first-round draft choice has been a spectacular bust in his first three seasons with just seven sacks – none last season – and only 108 total tackles.

On the Cleveland depth chart, Mingo is listed as a starter on the weak side. Speaking of weak, the biggest story at the beginning of every season since he joined the Browns was how weak he was at the point of attack or rushing the quarterback. At 6-4 and a supposed 240 pounds, he was clearly too small to play end in a 3-4 scheme.

He never figured out how to rush the quarterback effectively from linebacker and had a difficult time putting on extra weight. But he reportedly beefed up during the offseason with a nearly 6,000-calorie-a-day regimen and supposedly now weighs in the neighborhood of 250 pounds. All he needs from Horton now is a chance.

What about the inside linebackers?

Gone are Karlos Dansby and Craig Robertson. The Browns will miss Dansby’s size and heady approach to the game. They hope Demario Davis, a starter with the New York Jets the last three seasons, can step in and not miss a beat. The free-agent signee has racked up 313 tackles in that span, 199 solo.

Christian Kirksey, who bounced inside and outside last season, will settle next to Davis. But keep an eye on Scooby Wright III, who might surprise a lot of people. I saw enough of Scooby at the University of Arizona to know he is a special player.

His marvelous instincts for the game enable him to be in the right place at the right time to make plays. An early-season injury last season robbed him of a full season and dropped him to the seventh round of the draft, where the Browns picked him up. The coaches will love him.

A lot of how the inside backers perform this season also will be determined, in large part, by how well the defensive line plays in front of them. Another area of concern for Horton.

The secondary will look a lot different this season. How much of an impact will that have how Horton schemes the season?

A significant one, especially on the inside where the Browns will have two new safeties. Gone at veterans Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson. Whitner excelled at the run game; Gipson was best in the passing game. Both will be missed.

Replacing them will be second-year man Ibraheim Campbell at strong safety and a battle between veterans Jordan Poyer and Rahim Moore will decide who opens at free safety. The lack of starting experience is somewhat alarming.

Any alarm at cornerback?

Check back tomorrow to find out the answer to that and many other questions.

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