Cleveland Browns: 2015 Outlook

 
 
 
 
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Cleveland Browns

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.

Free Agency

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.

Draft

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

Offensive Line

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.

Schedule: Offense

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.

Offense

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.

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In today's NFL game, there aren't many QBs who can make their living by running for their life while throwing up-for-grabs passes down the field. Manziel had two exciting years at Texas A&M where he rushed for 2,169 yards on 345 carries with 30 TDs. He also threw for 7,820 yards, completed 68.9 percent of his passes and recorded 63 TDs with 22 interceptions. He went 20-6 and his skill set is very attractive to fans, but his style invites some downside risk in the NFL, where you need to be a passer first in order to succeed. Manziel's rushing ability is a huge bonus, but he doesn't have the mentality to sit back and pick apart a defense. His mental game is unproven and his gambling attitude will lead to many turnovers in the NFL. He is really one false move away from sustaining a major injury.

In a way, he has some Brett Favre in him, but Manziel's style is closer to Ben Roethlisberger's. I consider him a looker; he won't make tough pre-snap reads. After the hike, he'll have his eyes downfield, but he is looking for something to break open. If the play doesn't develop quickly enough or if the pocket breaks down, he'll do his best to make pass rushers miss. Many times, his throws on scramble plays are late and into heavy coverage, which leads to possible interceptions.

When I look at Manziel, I see a QB using his legs to make plays in both the run game and passing game. His style gives him the ability to make big plays, but his arm isn't an asset yet. His talent screams "Yes!' but his overall package invites failure in the NFL. Johnny made two starts as a rookie, although he lasted through only one of them due to an injury. In that full game, he completed only 10 of 18 passes for 80 yards, tossed two INTs and added no value as a runner (five carries for 13 yards). A recent report stated that the Browns' organization has moved on from Manziel as being a part of their long-term plans.

However, Manziel worked on himself, the human being, during the offseason. He completed a rehab program, and reports on his commitment to the game have been positive. Manziel could still win the starting job. Cleveland can win with him as its QB if he can be a better game manager. He won't produce gaudy passing stats, but his legs will definitely boost his fantasy stock. With 16 starts, Manziel will deliver a season similar to Colin Kaepernick's in 2014: 20 combined TDs with about 3,400 yards passing and 500-plus yards rushing. That gives him backup QB value on the fantasy market.


Cleveland Browns QB Johnny Manziel

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Many football experts predict McCown will win the starting QB in Cleveland job. I don't agree. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers gave him a chance last year, but he went 1-10 while completing only 56.3 percent of his passes. He didn't have one game with more than two passing scores. In his 11 games, Josh threw for 2,206 yards with 11 TDs and 14 interceptions. In 2013, McCown flashed upside in the Chicago Bears' offense when Jay Cutler went down with an injury. McCown's success that year was driven by Chicago's offensive system and strong receiving personnel. The Browns barely throw to their running backs and have questionable talent at wide receiver and tight end. Manziel has a much better chance of keeping defenses honest due to his running upside. Josh is 17-32 as a starter through 12 NFL seasons. He'll be 36 in July. Even if he wins the starting job out of training camp, he won't keep it for the whole season. Josh has no fantasy upside in 2015.

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The Browns split the carries between Crowell and West last year. Isaiah started four of the season's last seven games. After receiving only three snaps in Week 9, Crowell averaged about 14 touches per game over the next five weeks. His best game came against the Atlanta Falcons' hapless run defense when he ran for 88 yards on 12 carries and scored twice. Over the last five games of the year, Isaiah averaged only 2.8 yards with his 58 carries. His struggles led to him losing his leading role to West. Crowell finished the year with 607 yards rushing on 148 carries and a team-high eight rushing TDs. He didn't offer any upside in the passing game -- nine receptions on 14 targets for 87 yards. He's only 22 years old, but West offers a more balanced skill set, and Johnson possesses much more big-play ability. Overall, Crowell will be a tough ride in 2015 barring an injury to another Browns back.

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As a rookie in 2014, West led the Browns' RBs in carries (171), rushing yards (673), catches (11) and snaps (416). His only 100-yard rushing game came in Week 1 off the bench as he gained exactly 100 yards on 16 carries at Pittsburgh. He recorded 90 yards and a score with 21 touches in Week 2 before struggling for the next month. In his next four games, West totaled just 86 yards on 31 carries. He was productive in Week 10 and Week 17, but his production and playing time were inconsistent. On the year, West averaged only 3.9 yards per rush while fighting Isaiah Crowell for snaps in a hot-hand committee for much of the season. Terrance was this backfield's best pass blocker, so he will see the most playing time on third downs and in passing situations. I believe the Browns view him as their top RB option, and I expect him to have growth in his second season in the league. There are two keys to his value in 2015: touchdowns and receptions. The Browns completed only 32 passes to their backs last year, and West averaged only 5.8 yards per catch. His ability to pass block should help him catch at least 25 balls in 2015. I'm not convinced he'll lead the team in rushing TDs. I see West accruing about 225 touches for 900-plus yards with a half dozen scores, which makes him a high-end RB3 in PPR leagues.

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When comparing Johnson's highlights to Crowell's, it's pretty clear which back is more dynamic. Johnson has explosive acceleration that threatens the defense in all areas of the field. His eyes are always looking for daylight and he has the moves that can make would-be tacklers miss. He should be at his best when running outside the tackles. Duke could have value as pass catcher, but his blocking skills aren't strong enough for him to play in blitzing situations. The Browns may use him as a kick returner as well. This year, Cleveland will get him on the field on first and second downs. I expect him to enter the regular season at the team's No. 2 RB behind West. He should get a minimum of 150 touches while leading the team in yards per carry. Duke doesn't have the home run speed of Chris Johnson or Jamaal Charles, but he'll add a similar aspect to Cleveland's offense. The Browns have a solid offensive line, one that will look much better when a back can hit the hole quickly. Johnson has some ball security issues and isn't a great runner between the tackles. He's worth gambling on in fantasy drafts. He could be a big difference maker if he ever earns the bulk of the RB snaps.


Cleveland Browns RB Duke Johnson

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Bowe has delivered three straight weak seasons after posting three 1,000-yard receiving campaigns in his first five years as a pro. Last year, Dwayne posted 60 catches on 95 targets for 754 yards and was held out of the end zone. He missed the first game of 2014 due a suspension stemming from a failed drug test. Bowe had only two games with the Chiefs last year in which he saw double-digit targets. He had a four-game stretch during the middle of the season during which he caught 25 passes for nearly 300 yards, but Dwayne had only one game in his last seven starts with more than three catches. He'll try to fill the void created by the loss of Gordon, but he may deliver only 60 cents on the dollar. He has the most TD upside of any of Cleveland's receivers despite getting shut out last year. Last year, the Browns completed 190 passes to the WR position for 2,643 yards and seven TDs. Bowe can't help but catch at least one-third of this production, which comes to 63 catches for 881 yards with a handful of touchdowns. He was the No. 36 wideout in FFWC leagues last season, but he's more of a WR4 or a deep flex option. He'll have more value if given a greater number of targets.

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Following back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, Hartline was a forgotten man in the Miami Dolphins' passing attack last season, due in part to the development of Jarvis Landry. Brian finished the year with 39 catches for 474 yards and two touchdowns despite seeing the most snaps of any Dolphins receiver not named Mike Wallace. Hartline has scored just 12 times in 92 career games. This year, he'll slide into the No. 2 WR role for the Browns. His style of play may lead to him leading Cleveland in catches, and he has a chance of reaching 1,000 yards for the third time on four years. His success is all about opportunity. He won't be flashy or break a lot of big plays, but he should be a steady WR3 in 2015 at the very least.

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Hawkins led the Browns in catches (63), receiving yards (824) and WR snaps (667) in 2014. His success was driven by Gordon's 10-game suspension and the team's otherwise underwhelming receiving options. Despite the additions of Bowe and Hartline, Hawkins will still see plenty of action as the No. 3 WR. Last year, Andrew lined up in the slot on 234 of his 406 passing plays. From there, he caught 29 passes for 365 yards and one TD. He'll spend most of his time in the slot again this season. But don't draft him expecting a repeat of his career-best stats from 2014. Hawkins has low upside and scoring ability. I don't expect him to catch more than 50 passes this season.


Cleveland Browns WR Andrew Hawkins

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This rookie speedster finished 2014 with the second-most snaps of any Browns wideout (629). He recorded 36 catches for 621 yards and one TD on 72 targets. Taylor saw more than seven targets in only one game. He'll offer some big-play ability, but he has a low catch rate (50.0). He has no fantasy value right now.

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The cupboard is pretty bare at tight end for the Browns in 2015. Housler offers the most receiving upside. He secured 45 catches in 2012 and 39 in 2013 with the Arizona Cardinals. Last year, Rob lost his starting job to John Carlson, which led to him catching only nine passes for 129 yards and no TDs on 17 targets. Last year, Cleveland completed 53 passes for 809 yards and three TDs to their tight ends. Housler can't match the talent of Jordan Cameron, so I expect Browns TEs to have no consistent value on the fantasy market. Housler has low upside and is nothing more than a bye-week fill-in or short-term injury cover.


Cleveland Browns WR Andrew Hawkins

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The Browns are likely to hold a kicking competition between Carey Spear and Travis Coons. Both players are undrafted free agents. Coons was slated to be the Tennessee Titans' kicker last year but was released before the season when the Titans signed Ryan Succop. Travis made 24 of his 30 field goal attempts in his two seasons at the University of Washington while also doubling as the punter. Spear spent three seasons as the kicker for Vanderbilt. He made 39 of his 50 field goal tries. The Browns had 194 possessions last year. Those resulted in 32 TDs and 25 field goals. No matter who wins this job, there is no real upside with either player unless this offense improves significantly.

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Cleveland has the second-toughest schedule of any run defense thanks to eight matchups against above-average ground attacks. On the passing side, the Browns' defense has the fourth-easiest schedule with 10 games against poor aerial offenses. They will, however, have to face Ben Roethlisberger twice and Peyton Manning.

The Browns allowed the most rushing yards in the league last year (2,265) with opponents gaining 4.5 yards per rush and 13 rushing scores. They lost their best run defender, DE Jabaal Sheard, to the New England Patriots. Cleveland addressed this issue by adding three defensive linemen in the first three rounds of the draft. Nose tackle Danny Shelton will move into the starting lineup as a run stopper with some ability to rush the quarterback. The only player returning on the defensive line is tackle Phil Taylor. He missed most of last year due to knee problems. At best, Phil is a league-average player who can't get after the QB. Free agent addition defensive end Randy Starks is expected to start, but he struggled against the run last year.

Cleveland has some talent at linebacker. Karlos Dansby will enter the season at age 33. He is very good in pass coverage. 2013 first-round pick, Barkevious Mingo, showed growth in his second season in the league. He would be better if the Browns' had a stronger defensive line. Mingo is valuable against the run.

The Browns had only 31 sacks last season, the sixth-fewest in the league. However, they permitted the eighth-fewest passing yards, and opposing receivers gained only 6.4 yards per catch against them. They allowed 22 passing TDs and hauled in 21 INTs.

Joe Haden is the Browns' best cornerback. Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson played well at safety. Gibson had the most value in coverage while Whitner added value in run support. 2014 first-rounder, cornerback Justin Gilbert, struggled in his first season and settled into a backup role. On the year, Gilbert allowed 29 catches on 49 pass attempts for 379 yards and one touchdown. Cleveland needs him to make a step forward with Buster Skrine no longer on the roster. Tramon Williams will add experience to the cornerback position.

Overall, the Browns have a strong secondary and one upside linebacker. Their defensive line will have more talent this year, but that doesn't mean there will be a ton of improvement. The ultimate key will be an improved pass rush. Cleveland needs to have more success on first and second downs against the run. This defense would also improve if the offense could control the clock. The Browns' defense will have value in some games, and Duke Johnson could add scoring ability as a returner.