Questions seeking (and getting) answers
The 2017 season officially gets under way for the Browns Sunday in Berea when rookies report to training camp. Three days later, coach Hue Jackson and his staff welcome the veterans and preparations for the season begin in earnest.
The first few days will be spent getting acquainted with 37 new faces occupying spots on the 90-man roster. That’s a radical turnover from last season’s unforgettable 1-15 season.
That includes 20 rookies as the Browns begin phase two of their plan to almost totally reshape the team. They will field one of the youngest teams in the National Football League this season.
And with youth, of course, comes struggle. Fans bore witness to that last season with a roster littered with first-year professionals. All of which provokes many questions. Here are answers to some of them.
In the first of a two-part look at the 20117 Cleveland Browns, we feature the offense . . .
Let’s start with the offensive line. Better than last season’s?
By far. Then again, it doesn’t take much to be better. Last season’s group surrendered an embarrassing 66 sacks, a club record that most likely will never be broken.
Adding (right guard) Kevin Zeitler and (center) JC Tretter in free agency and getting left guard Joel Bitonio back from injury helps immensely. It would help even more if Bitonio and Tretter can remain healthy for 16 games, which has proven difficult in the past.
Joe Thomas returns at left tackle, of course. Who plays right tackle?
It had better be second-year man Shon Coleman, who will battle Cameron Erving for the job. If Erving wins out, it will be a turnstile to the quarterback in the passing game.
What about the depth along the OL?
Definitely better than last season with the acquisitions of Zeitler and Tretter. John Greco and Spencer Drango coming off the bench in the event of an injury is a definite upgrade from last season. Can’t say the same for Erving, though.
Odds the offensive line will cut in half those 66 sacks?
Not in half. That’s way too optimistic. But look for a significant reduction like around 40 to 45, an improvement of a little less than a sack and a half a game.
Jackson is zeroing in on a more balanced offense this season. What are the odds he will be successful in his effort achieve that goal?
That depends almost entirely on how successful the Browns’ running game is. It sure wasn’t last season, although it averaged 107 yards a game, thanks mainly to a 231-yard game in the season finale in Pittsburgh, when the Steelers rested many starters.
The running game last season went through a terrible eight-game stretch midway through the season, seven of which produced ground games of 27, 40, 68, 45, 33, 33 and 58 yards.
If the offensive line can provide enough running room for Isaiah Crowell, who came thisclose to a 1,000-yard season in 2016, Duke Johnson Jr. and, maybe, rookie Matthew Dayes, then Jackson’s 50-50 goal has a chance at becoming a reality and strengthens the club’s ability to prolong drives and keep the defense rested.
How many touches will Johnson average and how much of a factor will he be in the passing game?
If Jackson truly wants to diversify his offense, Johnson has to be a big part of it. He has arguably the surest hands on the team and is the team’s most effective runner in the open field.
Problem is Jackson still runs him between the tackles on occasion. Johnson is more of a slasher who is more effective as a cutback runner. He needs at least 15 touches a game to be effective.
Enough about running backs. What about the wide receivers? Is the current corps better or worse than last season’s?
Worse. It might be the worst in the NFL. Well maybe the New York Jets’ wideouts are a bit worse. But there is no argument that can honestly disprove that notion with regard to the Browns, especially after the departure of Terrelle Pryor, the only legitimately dangerous wide receiver on the roster last season.
Is there anyone on the roster now who can duplicate Pryor’s 77-catch, 1,007-yard effort in 2016?
No. Pryor caught 45.8% of the club’s completed passes last season and accumulated 49.6% of the total yards by the position.
Well, what about Kenny Britt, who was signed as a free agent after Pryor left for Washington? Didn’t he have 68 receptions for 1,002 yards last season with Los Angeles last season?
Sure did. But which Kenny Britt did the Browns sign? The one who had a career year last season or the one who averaged 34.4 receptions and 554 yards in his first seven NFL seasons?
With an extremely young and inexperienced corps behind Britt, odds are he will come a lot closer to the numbers in his first seven seasons than the ones he put up last season.
But don’t wide receivers take longer to develop?
Yes, but Ricardo Louis, Rashard Higgins and Jordan Payton had such poor rookie seasons, it’s hard to imagine any of them making up for considerably lost ground. And Corey Coleman couldn’t stay healthy long enough to be reliable.
Is Coleman brittle or a star on the horizon?
Brittle wide receivers do not go far in the NFL. Perhaps it’s a bit premature to label Coleman as brittle right now, but he isn’t exactly off to a blazing start from an injury standpoint as a professional.
What about Josh Gordon?
Can’t discuss him until – or if – Commissioner Roger Goodell unshackles him. He may have already destroyed his career.
The tight end picture changed with Gary Barnidge’s departure and the drafting of David Njoku. How much of a factor are Njoku, Seth DeValve and Randall Telfer (if he can stay healthy long enough) in Jackson’s offensive scheme?
They will play a large part in both phases of the offense. Expect to see a lot of a two-tight end looks, especially in the running game. Njoku most likely will be a three-down tight end who will get plenty of looks in the passing game.
And whose passes are these young receivers going to catch? Who will be under center in the season opener against Pittsburgh?
The guess here is Brock Osweiler to begin with unless he is so abysmally bad in exhibition games that Jackson opts for either Cody Kessler or DeShone Kizer.
Kessler is a concussion – he had two last season as a rookie – waiting to happen. And throwing Kizer in there against the Steelers in the season opener would be – trying to be kind here – not advisable.
If Jackson wants to get anything out of Kizer, he must initially shackle him to the bench for several games, put a clipboard in his hand and let him learn all about the NFL from a safe place. Otherwise, the coach is messing with the kid’s future.
When Kizer does start, whether it’s through injury or incompetence, how much will Jackson dumb down his game plans?
If he is smart and really cares about his young quarterback, he will keep it as simple as possible.
Odds Osweiler will be on the roster at the end of the season?
Very good unless he suffers a season-ending injury early on.
Tomorrow: The defense and special teams