Thursday, July 28, 2016

Questions seeking answers . . . and still getting them

Picking up on the defense, in particular the secondary. We know there will be two new safeties. So . . .

Any alarm at cornerback?

Uh huh. The biggest question there is whether Joe Haden can play all 16 games. The last time he did that was as a rookie back in 2010, but he started only seven that season. He has never played a full season as a starter – he came close on three occasions with 15 starts. It seems he is an injury waiting to happen.

In his six NFL seasons, he has been sidelined by injuries to his hip, shoulder, foot, ribs, finger and now his head. Last season, it was ankle, finger and concussion issues that forced him to miss 11 games. The Browns need him to stay healthy because he is the closest they have to what amounts to a shutdown cornerback.

The rest of the cornerback lot gives pause for great concern. Veteran Tramon Williams came over from Green Bay last season as a corner with fading talent and proved it time and again. The only reason he wasn’t benched? No one else was better.

The best disappointing second-year man Justin Gilbert could do was replicate his wasted rookie season. Former head coach Mike Pettine’s prize corner, the club’s top pick in the 2014 draft, has been a colossal bust, a spectacular zero.

Now along comes defensive coordinator Ray Horton, a former defensive back, whose main job here is to crawl inside Gilbert’s head and show him what it takes to play solid football on this level. Because he does not know Gilbert yet, expect the youngster to get a fresh start. No preconceived notions.

Haden, who will open training camp on the PUP list, and Tramon Williams are your starters at the corners right now with K’Waun Williams a good bet to nail down the nickel slot. Second-year man Charles Gaines had typical rookie problems, but showed promise as the season wore on last year.

Last season, Cleveland’s corners played an awful lot of man coverage, partly because of experienced safeties and a philosophy that relied heavily on rushing the quarterback. It will be interesting to see how Horton handles this year’s group given the relative inexperience at safety.

Odds on Gilbert becoming a starter, let alone making the club?

If Horton cannot unlock the mystery of why he has severely underperformed, the kid is gone.

What’s the story with special teams?

At least there is some stability somewhere. The only coordinator returning from last season is special teams guru Chris Tabor. Also returning are punter Andy Lee and placekicker Travis Coons.

Lee, who arrived last season as one of the best punters in the National Football League, was not his usual Pro Bowl self. Look for a rebound there.

One would think Coons’ rookie season, when he converted 28 of 32 field-goal attempts and 22 of 24 extra-pointers from 33 yards, is enough to warrant a return. He’ll be challenged by free agent Patrick Murray in training camp and probably win.

Where the club is hurting is the return game now that Travis Benjamin has taken his talents to San Diego. The wide receiver was a constant threat to go all the way every time he touched the football. That will be missed.

Who replaces Benjamin? Raheem Mostert? Gilbert? Marlon Moore? Taylor Gabriel? None pose the kind of threat Benjamin did.

Summing up, where are the greatest strengths and weaknesses on offense?

Unfortunately, there are more of the latter than the former.

It clearly depends on whether the Browns can keep quarterback Robert Griffin III vertical the entire season. With an offensive line that can be best described as questionable, the odds favor Griffin falling far short of that goal, especially with his predilection to run the ball when in trouble.

Coach Hue Jackson might find it difficult to maintain a balanced attack if his team falls so far behind in games that he has no other choice than to throw the football. In that case, Griffin’s lack of accuracy from the pocket could be a problem.

The key is the offensive line. If it cannot pave the way for running backs Duke Johnson Jr. and Isaiah Crowell, the 2016 season will turn out to be a replica of the last two seasons. It’s an absolute must for the Browns to run the ball successfully. Period.

Where are the greatest strengths and weaknesses on defense?

A little different here. There are more strengths than weaknesses. And they all lie in the front seven, an area Horton through the years has exploited successfully. Loading up in that area through the draft makes his job a bit easier.

His aggressive approach to defense was gleaned from his mentor, former Pittsburgh Steelers guru Dick LeBeau. Count on Horton taking advantage of the notion that an attacking defense is a good offense and produces a fan-pleasing style. That aggressiveness will cover up the biggest weakness – the secondary.

If the defense can stop the run, and that is a monstrous if considering the AFC North boasts numerous terrific running backs, if the Browns somehow improve that aspect of the defense, then this could be an enjoyable season.

Time to predict who steps up and becomes the club’s rookies of the year on both sides of the ball.

Wide receiver Corey Coleman from the offense and outside linebacker/defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah from the defense will win those honors.

From all indications, Coleman has impressed the most in pre-season workouts and appears to be the most ready to take his game to the next level. He is a hands catcher with great speed who runs disciplined routes. His biggest hurdle might be learning the entire route tree, something he did not have to learn at Baylor. Dark horse for the honor could be fellow wideout Rashard Higgins, another hands catcher whose college production suggests big things in the NFL.

Ogbah possesses that rare combination of size and quickness. If Horton uses Ogbah’s 6-4, 275-pound frame more to rush off the edge than dropping back into coverage or anchoring against the run, Browns fans very well could see the best Cleveland pass rush in nearly a generation. If he plays as well as I believe he will and is utilized all over the field, he could be one of those players who forces the opposition to play “where’s Ogbah”. Dark horse here is, yep, inside linebacker Scooby Wright III.

So how many games do the Browns win his season?

They own the 12th easiest schedule in the NFL this season. However, it is broken up in the most bizarre fashion, which makes it somewhat tougher and belies the statistical formula that rates strength of schedule.

Five of the first seven games are on the road, where the Browns have been awful for 15 of the last 16 seasons. Five of the next six games are at home before wrapping up the season with two of the final three games on the road. Yikes!

With the exception of a trip to Tennessee, they play in the same time zone as Cleveland every week. Nashville is their westernmost trip.

Despite Las Vegas odds, the Browns will not lose every game. Somewhere along the line, you’ve got to figure they will stumble into at least three victories, maybe even the giddy total of four.

This is not a good team. Yet. With most likely the top pick in the next college draft – maybe two of the top 10 choices with Philadelphia’s pick – the future looks bright. Just not the immediate future.

Training camp opens today in Berea. Buckle up and try to enjoy what most likely will be a very bumpy – and rarely enjoyable – ride through the 2016 season.

Hang in there, Browns fans. With Jackson in charge, better things lurk around the corner. Wait’ll next year carries more promise than ever.

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