|By Shawn Childs, Tuesday, June 9, 2015|
What a difference a year makes for the Browns. In 2014, their fans were all jacked up with the thought of Johnny Manziel throwing the ball to superstar wide receiver Josh Gordon. Sixteen games later, Cleveland couldn't give Johnny Football away, and Gordon is now slated to miss the entire 2015 season after another violation of the NFL's substance-abuse policy. The reports on Manziel this offseason have been largely positive, so he may still have the keys to the franchise. The Browns have made the playoffs only twice in the last 25 years with their last appearance coming in 2002. Mike Pettine returns for his second season as head coach. His team went 7-9 last year, which serves as Cleveland's best record since 2007. The Browns have ranked poorly in points scored in each of the last seven years. In 2014, they finished 23rd in yards per game (324.6) and 27th in points per game (18.7). The defense did a nice job to finish among the top 10 in points allowed, but it gave up the 10th-most yards per game (366.1). John DeFilippo was brought in to take over as offensive coordinator. He spent the past three seasons as the quarterbacks coach of the Oakland Raiders. A move from the Raiders doesn't create a lot of excitement for me. Jim O'Neil will coordinate Cleveland's defense for a second consecutive season. He had success as the Buffalo Bills' linebackers coach in 2013.
The Browns made quite a few changes during the offseason. Their WR corps lost Miles Austin to the Philadelphia Eagles but added Brian Hartline and Dwayne Bowe. Harline is a possession receiver who was phased out in Miami. Bowe has struggled to produce for the past couple of years with the Kansas City Chiefs under head coach Andy Reid.
Tight end Jordan Cameron signed with the Miami Dolphins, so Rob Housler was brought in for TE depth. Last year's opening day starting QB, Brian Hoyer signed with the Houston Texans, and Josh McCown has taken over his roster spot. McCown will enter training camp as Cleveland's No. 1 signal caller.
On defense, Cleveland lost starting cornerback Buster Skrine to the New York Jets. He allowed 70 catches on 123 pass attempts for 864 yards and eight TDs with four interceptions last season. Tramon Williams will replace him in the starting lineup after being only league average in pass coverage last season while with the Green Bay Packers.
Defensive end Jabaal Sheard left to play for the New England Patriots. Sheard was the Browns' best run defender in 2014. Randy Starks was signed to replace him in the starting lineup. Starks struggled in run support last year while with the Dolphins at age 30. He did record 4.5 sacks.
The Browns attempted to replace about 25 percent of their roster through this year's draft. They had 12 picks, seven of which addressed their defense.
With their two picks in the first round, the Browns added nose tackle Danny Shelton and center Cameron Erving. Shelton will instantly help the run defense. He is extremely strong, has slow feet and will have his motor tested at the next level against tougher competition. In a way, the Browns selected the best player available to mirror Shelton on the offensive side of the ball in Erving. He has plus strength with some quickness for his position. He adds versatility to Cleveland's O-line and is best in run blocking.
Cleveland took D-linemen with two of its next three picks -- defensive end Nate Orchard and defensive tackle Xavier Cooper. Orchard looks like a one-dimensional pass rusher who provides limited value in run support. His quickness is his biggest asset, but his speed doesn't match up with his ability. Nate has upside if he can develop his pass-rushing skills. Cooper is a plus athlete with solid speed and quickness. He'll be a disrupter with some sack ability and can stop the run.
In between those two, the Browns selected running back Duke Johnson in the third round. He'll add breakaway speed to Cleveland's offense, and he's at his best in space. Duke runs with patience and vision, but he fails in both areas when attacking the middle of the line. His blocking skills need work, so that limits his upside for 2015.
In the fourth round, Cleveland invested in safety Ibraheim Campbell and wideout Vince Mayle. Campbell is a physical player with value against the run, but he tends to get lost when spying on the QB and gives up too many big plays. He has enough talent to cover second-tier backs and and tight ends. Mayle has excellent size (6 feet 2, 224 pounds) but below-par speed. Vince struggles in press coverage, so he'll need to add strength and improve his technique. His hands don't appear to be an asset at this point of his career. He needs time to develop. He is currently recovering from thumb surgery but should be ready for training camp.
The Browns doubled up at tight end in the sixth round with Malcolm Johnson and Randall Telfer. Johnson is more of an H-back with limited upside in the passing game. Telfer is a solid blocker with below-average receiving chops. However, a foot injury will probably keep him from doing much on the field until late in the 2015 season.
The Browns also drafted cornerback Charles Gaines in the sixth round. He has good cover skills and sub-4.50 speed. He has some playmaking ability but doesn't help versus the run a la Deion Sanders.
In the final round of the draft, Cleveland added linebacker Hayes Pullard and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Pullard plays like a pretty boy at the linebacker position. He's more of a read-and-react guy rather than an attacker. He could have some value in pass coverage. Ifo fell in the draft after suffering a torn ACL and a dislocated kneecap in December. He could turn into a major value pick. He has very good coverage skills and playmaking ability. Ekpre-Olomu likes cheat on throws, which raises his risk of getting burned.
Cleveland Browns NT Danny Shelton
Cleveland attempted the sixth-most rushes in the league last year (477). However, they gained just 3.6 yards per carry and scored 17 rushing TDs.
Left tackle Joe Thomas was Cleveland's best lineman last year. The former first-rounder is solid in run and pass blocking. He allowed just two sacks in 2014. Second-round draft pick left guard Joel Bitonio started every game in his rookie season and had winning value in all areas of the game. Center Alex Mack's season ended in Week 6 when he fractured his leg. Mack has been an excellent run blocker since getting drafted 21st overall in 2009. Right guard John Greco has played well in the run game for two of the past three years.
Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz has been the weak link on this line for the past two years after playing well as a rookie in 2012. Mitchell has allowed 18 sacks since.
The Browns' offensive line allowed 31 sacks last year, which was slightly better than the league average. They attempted the seventh-fewest passes per game (31.4) and threw a league-low 12 TDs. Cleveland averaged a respectable 7.3 yards per pass attempt despite having subpar receiving talent. The Browns have a stellar offensive line. Improved QB play is desperately needed.
The above chart shows the Browns' 2015 offensive strength of schedule in terms of rushing attempts (RATT), rushing yards (YDS), yards per attempt rushing (YA), rushing touchdowns (TDs), completions (COMP), passing attempts (PATT), passing yards (YDS), yards per attempt passing (YA) and passing touchdowns (TDS).
This information is based on 2014 stats, which we will work with as our starting point for 2015. We'll look at all the changes on offense for each team in the NFL plus the upgrades and downgrades each team has made on the defensive side. We'll update this table when we finish researching all 32 teams.
2014 Average: The league average of each stat from all 32 teams in 2014.
2014 Results: The results for each specific team in the NFL.
2015 Adjustment: The difference between a team's result and the league average in a certain statistic. This number will show if a team is above or below the league average in each stat and will serve as the basis for the strength of schedule.
The Browns have some tough matchups waiting for them in their own division. They have only three games which could be considered favorable for their running backs: versus the Tennessee Titans, at the San Diego Chargers and at the Kansas City Chiefs. They face five tough pass defenses: the Chiefs, Chargers, Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks. Realistically, the Pittsburgh Steelers are the only weak pass defense on Cleveland's schedule.
In terms of its run-pass split, Cleveland had one of the more balanced attacks in the league last year. They completed only 11.6 percent of their passes to the RB position, the lowest rate in the league. Wide receivers accounted for 68.8 percent of their completions.