Published August 19, 2011
| Sports Network
If the changes to the Cleveland Browns came at a steady pace last season, then the 2011 version of the club has transformed itself at, to quote Mel Brooks' epic science fiction parody "Spaceballs," ludicrous speed.
Following a 5-11 campaign in 2009, the Browns brought in the respected Mike Holmgren to serve as team president. Though the five victories did represent a one-game increase from the previous year, it was a strong finish that prompted Holmgren to keep head coach Eric Mangini and instead opt to try and fix the roster.
Holmgren brought in a veteran quarterback in Jake Delhomme to lead the offense while adding some youngsters to replace a handful of aging veterans.
It didn't work.
Cleveland posted its second straight 5-11 finish, but unlike the previous year, Mangini's fate was sealed after a season-ending four-game losing streak.
So in comes former Rams offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, the 13th full-time coach in Browns history. He is tasked with turning around a franchise that has made the playoffs just once and posted only two winning seasons since returning to the NFL in 1999.
Ergo, it makes sense that some changes are coming. The Shurmur-led offense will be going with a West Coast system, while veteran coach Dick Jauron takes over a defense that ranked 22nd overall in the NFL under Rob Ryan, who is the new defensive coordinator with Dallas. The Browns were 18th against the pass and 27th against the run, so Jauron will shift the club from a 3-4 to a 4-3 scheme.
The Delhomme experiment blew up quicker than a Lindsay Lohan rehab stint and 2010 third-round pick Colt McCoy comes out of the gate as this year's starting quarterback. How quickly the former University of Texas star grasps Shurmur's system will dictate the length of Cleveland's rebuilding plans, but McCoy said he is ready to go mentally despite less time to prepare due to the lockout.
"Last year, I really tried to prepare like I was a starter anyways, but coming in as a rookie that's really hard to do, especially when you don't get reps," said McCoy. "I'd like to say that my mentality hasn't changed that much, but it has. You come out here and you have to be ready to play. I feel like I'm in good shape. I felt like the guys around me; offensive line, receivers, running backs, I feel like overall everybody was in good shape and ready to work."
McCoy appears to be in good hands, given the success Shurmur had with Rams rookie quarterback Sam Bradford last year.
Cleveland parted ways with more veterans this offseason and injected some talented youth into the mix by grabbing a pair of defensive linemen in the first two rounds of the draft. Both first-round pick Phil Taylor and second- round selection Jabaal Sheard could grab starting spots at defensive tackle and end, respectively, in Jauron's system, one that hopefully won't cause the returning starters to regress.
"I think it's not going to be too different," defensive lineman Ahtyba Rubin said of the change. "I think I learned a lot from the 3-4, stopping the run, being able to lock up and be stout. We just have to transition that over and just make sure we get to the passer this year."
Success isn't going to happen overnight for the Browns, something the front office realized when it traded down from the sixth spot in the first round to collect four future high picks from Atlanta, including the Falcons' first- round choice in 2012.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2011 edition of the Cleveland Browns, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2010 RECORD: 5-11 (3rd, AFC North)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2002, lost to Pittsburgh in AFC Wild Card
COACH (RECORD): Pat Shurmur (first season)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Shurmur
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Dick Jauron (first season with Browns)
OFFENSIVE STAR: Peyton Hillis, RB (1177 rushing yards, 61 receptions, 13 total TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Joe Haden, CB (64 tackles, 6 INT, 18 PD)
2010 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 29th overall (20th rushing, 29th passing), 31st scoring (16.9 ppg)
2010 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 22nd overall (27th rushing, 18th passing), tied 13th scoring (20.8 ppg)
KEY ADDITIONS: FB Owen Marecic (4th Round, Stanford), DT Phil Taylor (1st Round, Baylor), DE Jabaal Sheard (2nd Round, Pittsburgh), S Usama Young (from Saints), P Richmond McGee (free agent), RB Brandon Jackson (from Packers), WR Greg Little (2nd Round, North Carolina), OG John Greco (from Rams), CB Dmitri Patterson (from Eagles)
KEY DEPARTURES: TE Robert Royal (released), OG Floyd Womack (to Cardinals), OT John St. Clair (released), DE Kenyon Coleman (to Cowboys), DE Robaire Smith (not tendered), OLB Matt Roth (to Jaguars), S Abram Elam (to Cowboys), P Reggie Hodges (IR, out for season), QB Jake Delhomme (released), RB Mike Bell (to Lions), FB Lawrence Vickers (to Texans), WR Chansi Stuckey (to Cardinals), OG Billy Yates (retired), NT Shaun Rogers (to Saints), ILB Eric Alexander (released), ILB Eric Barton (released), ILB David Bowens (released), ILB Blake Costanzo (to 49ers), OLB Jason Trusnik (to Dolphins), CB Eric Wright (to Lions), S Nick Sorensen (not tendered), S Sabby Piscitelli (to Chiefs)
QB: The Browns' quarterback position last year was one long carousel ride between Delhomme, McCoy and Seneca Wallace, because all three suffered high ankle sprains during the season. Delhomme began as the starter, but suffered his injury in the first game and missed the next three. Wallace took over before going down, forcing Delhomme to rush back. McCoy (1576 passing yards, 6 TD, 9 INT) then got in five starts before giving way to Delhomme. The silver lining was McCoy getting eight games of starting experience that will hopefully pay off in 2011. If not, Wallace (694 passing yards, 4 TD, 2 INT) could serve as a successful short-term option, given that he played in the West Coast offense for seven years with the Seahawks. Undrafted rookies Jarrett Brown and Troy Weatherhead are the only other quarterbacks on the preseason roster.
RB: Last year's running back duo was set to be Jerome Harrison and rookie second-round draft pick Montario Hardesty out of the game, but Hardesty never got into a game due to a torn ACL and Harrison was eventually traded. That's because running back Peyton Hillis emerged as the featured back after being acquired from the Broncos before the season in a trade that sent quarterback Brady Quinn to Denver. Hillis (1177 rushing yards, 11 TD) carried the ball 270 times and tied for sixth in the NFL in rushing touchdowns, while also having a big role in the passing game. That breakout season helped the powerful back become a finalist in voting to grab the cover of the hit Madden video game, an honor he eventually won over Eagles quarterback Mike Vick. Hillis did struggle late in the season and did not score in his final five games, while going over 100 yards once in that span. Perhaps a reduced workload will help keep him fresh, so the Browns signed a Super Bowl winner in former Packer Brandon Jackson (703 rushing yards, 4 total TD) to battle with a returning Hardesty for carries. Former Stanford fullback Owen Marecic is expected to replace free-agent departee Lawrence Vickers as the starter following his selection in the fourth round of the 2011 draft.
WR/TE: The battle to be McCoy's top target is wide open, with several youngsters competing for the No. 1 receiver position. Both Mohamed Massaquoi (36 receptions, 2 TD) and Brian Robiskie (29 receptions, 3 TD) are 2009 second-round picks whom Cleveland will want to take another step forward this year. They will be pushed by 2011 second-round pick Greg Little, who may have immediately been ready to step into the top role if he hadn't sat out his entire 2010 season at North Carolina for his involvement in the Tar Heels' agent scandal. He still could emerge as the main offensive weapon once he gets his feet wet, and the Browns are always looking for a spot on the field to put the versatile Joshua Cribbs (23 receptions, 1 TD) in. Tight end also figures to be an important position for Cleveland after Benjamin Watson (68 receptions, 3 TD) led the team in catches last year, grabbing seven more than Hillis, while backup Evan Moore (16 receptions, 1 TD) has great size at 6- foot-6. The team also spent a fourth-round pick on USC tight end Jordan Cameron in this past draft.
OL: Left tackle Joe Thomas is the anchor of this underrated line, having started all 64 games since being taken third overall in the 2007 draft. The 6- foot-7, 311-pound Wisconsin product has made the Pro Bowl in each of his first four seasons and was joined last year by third-year center Alex Mack, a 2009 first-round pick. Steady left guard Eric Steinbach returns for his fifth year with the Browns and has started 16 games in five of his last six seasons going back to his days with Cincinnati. Cleveland sent a 2012 draft pick to Shurmur's former St. Louis club for guard John Greco, but he will likely start the season as the backup to second-year pro Shawn Lauvao in a right side of the line that was overhauled following the release of both guard Floyd Womack and tackle John St. Clair. Veteran Tony Pashos starts at right tackle, while rookie Jason Pinkston (5th Round, Pittsburgh) is looking to work his way into the guard rotation. Cleveland did lose some experienced depth during camp when Billy Yates was placed on the reserve/retired list.
DL: The shift to a four-man front will likely feature a pair of rookies in Taylor and Sheard following the offseason release of both end Kenyon Coleman and nose tackle Shaun Rogers. The 6-foot-4, 355-pound Taylor will plug a massive hole in the middle for Jauron, while Sheard brings a ton of energy and pass-rush skills off the right side. Assuming Sheard earns a starting spot, the left end will likely be filled by Jayme Mitchell, acquired by the team in a midseason trade with the Vikings last year, with Marcus Bernard (28 tackles, 7.5 sacks) back to work as a situational pass rusher after leading the Browns in sacks last year while making two starts in 15 games. Rubin (82 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) was a bright spot on the line last year and will have a bigger role in his fourth season after starting all 16 games in 2010. Brian Schaefering (31 tackles), who made nine starts a season ago, will be the main reserve at tackle.
LB: The shift to three linebackers will take some of the pressure off projected starters D'Qwell Jackson, Scott Fujita and Chris Gocong to get to the quarterback. The 27-year-old Jackson will be looking to get his career back on track after missing 26 of Cleveland's past 32 games due to injury, including all of last year because of a pectorals tear, and Fujita has said that the injury-prone 240-pounder is built to play in this system. Jackson did amass 154 tackles in 2008 and will man the middle between Fujita (51 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 1 INT) and Gocong (75 tackles, 2 sacks). Getting sacks has never been a strong suit of Fujita, who last year was one shy of his career high set back in 2004, and Gocong, set to start on the weak side, owns just six career sacks but 244 tackles. There won't be a lot of experience behind that group following the offseason loss of six linebackers, including Eric Barton, David Bowens, Matt Roth and Jason Trusnik. That overhaul has left third-year USC product Kaluka Maiava and just-as-youthful Titus Brown (11 tackles) as the key reserves.
DB: The Browns landed a pair of starters in last year's draft with Florida corner Joe Haden, taken in the first round, and safety T.J. Ward, a second- round choice out of Oregon. Haden (64 tackles, 1 sack, 6 INT) led the club in interceptions while playing in all 16 games and making seven starts, while Ward (123 tackles, 2 INT) immediately stepped in to start 16 games and become the club's leading tackler. Ex-Philadelphia cornerback Sheldon Brown (63 tackles, 2 INT) made 16 starts in his first year with Cleveland and will be backed up by another former Eagle in offseason pickup Dimitri Patterson (52 tackles, 1 sack, 4 INT). Rookie Buster Skrine, a sixth-round pick out of Tennessee-Chattanooga, has also impressed this offseason. With the loss of Abram Elam to the Cowboys, the Browns signed ex-Saint Usama Young (23 tackles. 1 sack) to compete with returnee Mike Adams (45 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) for the starting free safety position.
SPECIAL TEAMS: This unit isn't usually an issue for the Browns, but things did get a bit murky when punter Reggie Hodges went down with a season-ending leg injury in camp. Hodges had a solid season in 2010 after averaging 43.9 yards per punt and his expected replacement, Richmond McGee, was working as a stock trader when he got the call to try out. It's all aces after that, though, with kicker Phil Dawson and Cribbs still in the mix. Dawson has been kicking for the Browns since 1999 and hit all 20 of his field goal attempts from inside the 40 a year ago. However, he did miss all of his tries from 50-plus yards. Cribbs is a former Pro Bowl return man who has 10 special-teams touchdowns in his career, including eight on kickoffs.
PROGNOSIS: The upcoming season for the Browns looks a bit like last year, except that the club isn't coming off a strong finish. There is still plenty of promise, along with a handful of questions, and it looks as if Cleveland did another fine job in the draft. However, the Browns are going through a complete overhaul at a time when there is less of a window to prepare due to the lockout. Landing a number of draft picks for 2012 shows that the Browns also believe there are still some struggles to endure, but at least Holmgren now has his own man on the sidelines. Most of 2011 will serve as growing trials for Cleveland's young players as the likes of McCoy, Sheard and Taylor learn how tough the AFC North can be.