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A Thought About the Cleveland Browns: My 2011 Sleeper Team

You always have to be careful of overreaction in the preseason. So, I’m going to violate that when it comes to the Cleveland Browns. I’ll rationalize it by saying that I already had this team circled this offseason, and I already had them as “an easy over” at 6.5 wins. So, I’m not just reacting to how the Browns’ starters played against the Packers on Saturday night (Cleveland, after all, beat Green Bay in the opener last year as well). Of all the teams that are currently projected at 7 or fewer wins by the betting public, they are the team that I think presents the greatest upside to have one of those turnaround seasons that have become so common in the NFL.

Before we get to this year, though, let’s take a quick assessment of 2010. At the outset of the season, I don’t think there was much optimism. Eric Mangini was as lame duck as a coach could be. The team had acquired Jake Delhomme as its quarterback (a move that defines negative energy), and though they also drafted Colt McCoy, that move seemed something that would not matter yet. Peyton Hillis was a little-known fullback traded for Brady Quinn.

On the surface, if you skip ahead, the 5-11 record would have confirmed all the negative thoughts. As it turns out, the Browns were a lot more competitive than people thought, closer to an average team, just one that was cursed by two things: a tough schedule, and a tendency to play to the level of (or just below) their competition. Cleveland played 10 teams that won 10 or more games, going 2-8. However, the two wins were impressive, at New Orleans and handing New England their only dominant defeat of the year. They also lost 4 other games by 7 or less against 10+ win teams, including in overtime to the Jets.

They only went 3-3, though, in games against teams with a losing record, and the Browns ended the year 3-7 in close games. They played one of the hardest schedules in the league, and the simple rating system has them as just below average and 20th in the league (-1.5 points below), and Football Outsiders’ DVOA likewise had them at 20th, but in both cases, a lot closer to several teams in front of them.

What the Browns had were some fatal flaws that prevented them from taking a step forward. On offense, they lacked explosiveness in the passing game, and the leading wide receiver was Mohammad Massaquoi, who managed 483 yards. The passing offense relied heavily on veteran TE Ben Watson and RB Peyton Hillis, and the result was limited big plays and, combined with the schedule, the 2nd fewest points scored. On defense, the issue was generating consistent pass rush, as the team ranked in the bottom quarter of the league with 29 sacks, as well as controlling the middle of the line, as teams weren’t afraid to run at Cleveland (4th most rush attempts against).

I happen to think that teams who show some promise but “play to the level of their competition” due to some inconsistency are better bets for future breakouts than teams that beat the teams they are supposed to beat but get consistently outclassed by quality competition (i.e., Jacksonville). Cleveland flashed against New England, New Orleans, and the Jets, but also struggled with Carolina, Cincinnati, and Jacksonville.

So the question is, have they addressed those flaws? Here are some reasons to like Cleveland in 2011:

–The offensive line has the potential to be very good. The left side is perhaps the best in the league, with Joe Thomas at left tackle, Eric Steinbach at guard and Alex Mack at center. The right side could be upgraded if Tony Pashos and Shawn Lauvao stay healthy this year, as they both were hurt last season but should take over and upgrade John St. Clair and Pork Chop Womack.

–Stability at the quarterback position. Last year, Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace both started 4 games along with rookie Colt McCoy. McCoy is entering his second year as the starter and has the confidence of the coaching staff. Several breakout teams in the past have involved young quarterbacks moving into their second year as a starter.

–New Coach. Pat Shurmur, offensive coordinator in St. Louis last year, takes over. Mangini was the lame duck, but Shurmur is GM Mike Holmgren’s choice. He’s got a good coaching lineage, and will install a West Coast offense that fits Colt McCoy, has a good pass catching back in Hillis, and a line that can execute. We’ve seen plenty of examples (Mike Smith, Sean Payton come to mind) of coaches turning things around quickly.

–Upgrade of the Receiving Group. I like Greg Little as a talent that slipped to the second round because he missed all of last year at North Carolina. He upgrades the position, even as a rookie. It’s also a young group, with Brian Robiskie (23 years old), Carlton Mitchell (23 years old-finger surgery) and Massaquoi (24 years old, foot), though the latter two are injured right now. If any of those three guys emerge, the team should take a step forward.

–The defensive line. They’re going back to more of a 4-3, and selected Baylor DT Phil Taylor to play in the middle, and also added DE Jabaal Sheard. D’Qwell Jackson returns from missing all last year at linebacker, and the linebacker corp battled injuries last year. With better health, and the emergence of corner Joe Haden late last year, the back 7 will be fine. If the line is improved with the young additions (a big if), this team could take a big leap.

There is a tendency to wait too long on things. So maybe I’m a little early on the Browns, and it won’t happen for Cleveland this year. I’d rather be early than late. They still have Pittsburgh and Baltimore twice, though the schedule appears to open up (NFC West, AFC South, and Oakland/Miami). I’ll throw my hat in the Browns’ early bandwagon. I can at least see the possibility, if a couple of things work out, of this team making a big jump in 2011.

[photo via Getty]

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