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Cleveland Browns 2012 Season Preview

- Somewhere, Art Modell is laughing.

Seventeen years after the reviled former Cleveland Browns owner moved his franchise to Baltimore, 13 years after the new Browns returned as a lowly expansion team and 11 after Modell's transplanted Ravens convincingly won Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa...things haven't changed much.

The NFL stadium on the shores of Lake Erie has been continually shrouded by storm clouds. And the problem for Northeasten Ohio fans in 2012, the skies up ahead aren't much clearer.

Winners just four times in 16 games last year and better than .500 just twice since 1999, the new Browns enter their 14th NFL season with few tangible reasons -- barring historic rookie-season breakthroughs -- to believe that significant positive change is on the horizon.

But not everyone shares the gloom and doom.

"With a young team, you really never know how it's going to respond," said kicker Phil Dawson, a veteran of all 13 years with the post-Modell Browns. "But I'm excited. The fact that we're not getting any recognition, I think that's good. It would be a whole other kind of pressure if they were predicting 14 wins.

"Hey, what do you have to lose? Let's just go out there and do our thing and see where we end up."

Championing that attitude in Cleveland this year is yet another ownership regime, this one led by billionaire Jimmy Haslam III -- the truck-stop magnate who acquired the team over the summer for a reported $1 billion from banking industry chairman Randy Lerner.

Haslam, who relinquished a share of the Pittsburgh Steelers to be able to take over the Browns, said he instantly got an idea of his new city's thirst for a winner upon arriving for a meeting with second-year head coach Pat Shurmur and veteran general manager Mike Holmgren.

"As soon as I got out of my car, the gentleman who grabbed my bags started telling me how serious Cleveland takes its football, how important it is to win, how much the Browns mean to them," Haslam said. "We're in Cleveland now and we're fired up. We'll care about the Browns, the league and winning."

Handling the immediate on-field business will be Shurmur, a 12-year NFL assistant who went 4-12 in his first season as successor to Eric Mangini, who himself won just 10 times in 32 games over two years before heading off to a second career as a cable TV analyst.

Amazingly, if he completes his second season, Shurmur will already be halfway to the longest tenure accomplished by a Cleveland coach since the franchise���s reincarnation -- a four-year stay by Romeo Crennel that yielded 24 wins in four years, including a 10-6 run in 2007.

And even with a 28-year-old rookie quarterback (Brandon Weeden) and a potentially balky-kneed rookie running back (Trent Richardson) to start the season, Shurmur���s got the optimism, too.

"I am looking forward to seeing them compete," Shurmur said of the two 2012 first-round picks. "I am looking forward to them being able to function in a meeting room, learn what we want to do and then go out and do it on the field. Then be able to come in after we do it, watch it on tape and make the corrections we need to make and go out there and repeat the process.

"I am looking to see guys that will show us why we drafted them; that they have the ability to learn and then have the ability to then go out and do it on the field."

Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the Browns, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:

2011 RECORD: 4-12 (4th, AFC North)

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2002, lost to Pittsburgh in AFC Wild Card

COACH (RECORD): Pat Shurmur (4-12 in one season)

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Brad Childress (first season with Browns)

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Dick Jauron (second season with Browns)

OFFENSIVE STAR: Trent Richardson, RB (1st Round, Alabama)

DEFENSIVE STAR: D'Qwell Jackson, MLB (158 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 1 INT)

2011 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 29th overall (28th rushing, 24th passing), 30th scoring (13.6 ppg)

2011 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 10th overall (30th rushing, 2nd passing), 5th scoring (19.2 ppg)

KEY ADDITIONS: QB Brandon Weeden (1st Round, Oklahoma State), RB Trent Richardson (1st Round, Alabama), RT Mitchell Schwartz (2nd Round, California), DE Frostee Rucker (from Bengals), WR Josh Gordon (Supplemental 2nd Round, Baylor), WR Travis Benjamin (4th Round, Miami-Florida), DE Juqua Parker (from Eagles), DT John Hughes (3rd Round, Cincinnati), OLB James-Michael Johnson (4th Round, Nevada)

KEY DEPARTURES: RB Peyton Hillis (to Chiefs), LG Eric Steinbach (to Dolphins), RT Tony Pashos (released), DE Jayme Mitchell (to Buccaneers), FS Mike Adams (to Broncos), WLB Chris Gocong (out for season), WR Carlton Mitchell (released), OT Artis Hicks (to Dolphins), MLB Titus Brown (not tendered), P Brad Maynard (free agent)

QB: Incoming rookie and anointed starting quarterback Weeden was nothing if not prolific in a collegiate career at Oklahoma State that came after a stint in professional baseball. He set Cowboys' single-season records in passing yardage (4,727), completions (408) and completion percentage (72.3) in his final year, as well as single-game records for passing yards (502, against Kansas State) and completions (47, against Texas A&M). He's backed up by Texas alum Colt McCoy (2733 passing yards, 14 TD, 11 INT in 2011), who won six of 21 starts in two injury-plagued seasons after inheriting the job from veteran Jake Delhomme in 2010. Also on the roster and listed third on the depth chart is Seneca Wallace (567 passing yards, 2 TD, 2 INT), who lost all three of his starts last season and completed 51.4 percent of his throws.

RB: An anemic Cleveland running game that averaged a paltry 3.7 yards per carry in 2011 with the injured remnants of former Madden cover boy Peyton Hillis should get an immediate jolt with the arrival of this year's No. 3 overall pick Richardson -- though the ex-Alabama star's status for the season opener is questionable after a minor knee procedure on Aug. 9 kept him out of all preseason games. With Hillis gone as a free agent, the interim solution is holdover Montario Hardesty, who went for 266 yards on 88 carries in nine games last year after missing his entire rookie campaign of 2010 due to injury. Also lingering from 2011 is Chris Ogbonnaya, who gained 340 yards on 76 carries with the Browns and Texans, while former Packers third-down specialist Brandon Jackson is back in the fold as well after sitting out all of last season with a toe problem. The No. 1 fullback on the depth chart is 2011 fourth-rounder Owen Marecic, who's being chased by newcomer Brad Smelley, a seventh-round pick in this past draft who was Richardson's teammate at Alabama.

WR/TE: Richardson's health is a vital issue both because of Weeden's rookie status and the dearth of proven commodities at wide receiver, where the corps are led by Greg Little, who had 61 catches for 709 yards and two scores last season. Georgia alum Mohamed Massaquoi had 31 catches for 384 yards and two scores, while an intriguing question mark comes in the form of 6-foot-3, 224- pound Josh Gordon, who was chosen in the second round of this year's supplemental draft after posting 43 receptions for 721 yards and seven touchdowns over two seasons with Baylor. He was suspended last season for a marijuana arrest and ultimately transferred to Utah, where he did not play. Veteran Josh Cribbs (41 receptions, 4 TD) remains in the mix and rookie Travis Benjamin (Miami-Florida) was a fourth-round pick whom the team believes can be a factor out of the slot. At tight end, starter Ben Watson had 37 catches for 410 and two touchdowns in 13 injury-dotted games, while second-year pro Jordan Cameron could be in line for an increased role after being used sparingly in his debut.

OL: Former No. 3 overall draft pick Joe Thomas has been everything advertised since arriving in Cleveland in 2007, and the All-Pro left tackle will be flanked this season by another highly-touted bookend, 2012 second-round pick Mitchell Schwartz from the University of California. The 6-foot-5, 320-pounder is already first on the depth chart ahead of fellow rookie Ryan Miller (Colorado), a fifth-round pick. Alongside Schwartz at right guard is Shawn Lauvao, a 6-foot-3, 315-pounder from Arizona State who allowed six sacks and was penalized 11 times in 2011. Center Alex Mack is a returning starter and stabilizing presence who played all 16 games last year, while Jason Pinkston is back at left guard after starting every contest in first NFL season of 2011.

DL: The Browns were gashed for 147.4 yards per game on the ground last season, only 30th-best in the league. The outlook didn't get better after an offseason weightlifting injury to standout second-year tackle Phil Taylor that will likely keep him out most of the year. Taylor recorded 59 tackles and four sacks while making 16 starts in his initial year. Cleveland drafted a pair of interior linemen, John Hughes (3rd Round, Cincinnati) and Billy Winn (6th Round, Boise State), to compete with veterans Scott Paxson (21 tackles, 1 sack) and Brian Schaefering (29 tackles, 0.5 sacks) for Taylor's starting spot. At the other tackle is 330-pounder Ahtyba Rubin, who had 83 stops and five sacks in 16 games, but was initially listed questionable for the start of the season with a pelvis injury. The top ends are veteran Frostee Rucker, who made 44 tackles and registered four sacks with Cincinnati last season, and second-year man Jabaal Sheard, who racked up 8 1/2 sacks in an outstanding rookie campaign. Also in the mix is Juqua Parker, an 11-year veteran with 36 1/2 career sacks who played in 12 games for Philadelphia last season.

LB: Middle linebacker D���Qwell Jackson signed a five-year, $42.5 million deal in the offseason, cashing in on a 158-tackle season in 2011 that also included 3.5 sacks, an interception and three fumble recoveries. On the strong side is New Orleans refugee Scott Fujita (50 tackles, 1 INT), who played 10 games for the Browns last season and is expected to be out for this year's initial three game as a result of his role in the New Orleans bounty scandal, though he's appealing the penalty through the court system. If Fujita's ban is upheld, his replacement for the first part of the year is rookie fourth-round pick James-Michael Johnson (Nevada). With projected starter Chris Gocong out for all of 2012 with a torn Achilles, holding the No. 1 spot on the weak side is USC alum Kaluka Maiava, who had 34 tackles and a forced fumble in 16 games (six starts) last season.

DB: The Browns were second in the league against the pass with an average 184.9 yards allowed last season, some of it because of the 30th-ranked run defense and some of it due to the excellence of cornerback Joe Haden, who had a sack, a fumble recovery and 65 tackles while also holding opponents to a 49.4 completion percentage against him in a Pro Bowl-caliber year. His right- side complement is veteran Sheldon Brown, who played all 16 games last season and picked off two passes while making 48 tackles. Eric Hagg and T.J. Ward occupy the No. 1 preseason slots at safety. Ward had 39 tackles and a sack in eight games before his season ended with a sprained foot. Hagg, a seventh- round pick last year, played 10 games and made 11 tackles as a rookie.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Cribbs returned to his high-end pedestal among the league's best returners in 2011, boosting his punt return average from 8.4 to 11.4 yards and his kickoff return average from 20.4 to 25.0 yards. Dawson made 24- of-29 field-goal attempts overall and seven of eight from 50 or more yards last year, while punter Reggie Hodges bounces back after missing all of 2011 with a torn Achilles. He averaged a solid 43.9 yards per boot in 2010.

PROGNOSIS: Watch any cable television show about the NFL. Listen to any midday network TV pre-game broadcast. The talking heads will be unanimous in their mandate that it's a play maker's league and that successful teams will be stocked with that sort of dynamism on one side of the ball or the other. The problem in Cleveland is that there doesn't seem to be enough of those types of players, and the one guy who might be -- Richardson -- is already dinged up. Elsewhere, it's a rookie quarterback in his late 20's, an unproven bunch of wide receivers and a defense that's indeed dotted with talent, but simply overworked because a lack of offensive production. Unless a handful more candidates for stardom step up quickly, expect the Browns to be swallowed up just as fast in one of the league's toughest divisions.