State of the Franchise: Cleveland Browns
April 14, 2011 Leave a comment
Year One under new team president Mike Holmgren saw improvement on the field, but not enough for the team to retain head coach Eric Mangini. Instead, Holmgren decided to replace the defensive-minded Mangini in favor of the offensive guru Pat Shurmur. Shurmur, the architect of the revamped St. Louis Rams offense last year, will have strong assests at his disposal in his first tour with the Browns.
When you talk about the Cleveland offense, you have to start with everybody’s favorite fantasy football waiver wire darling, running back Peyton Hillis. Acquired for former first-round draft pick turned bust quarterback Brady Quinn, Hillis began the season as a back-up. By Week Three, Hillis wrestled away the full-time running back job from Jerome Harrison with a 144 rushing yard performance and a touchdown. After that, there was no turning back from the former seventh-round draft pick out of Arkansas. By the end of the year, Hillis had gained 1,177 yards on the ground, another 477 through the air and a total of 13 touchdowns.
What held the Browns back was the lack of production from other aspects of their offense. The team ran out former Super Bowl quarterback Jake Delhomme as their Week One starter. However, as the Carolina Panthers found out before them, the wheels were completely off the Delhomme bandwagon. Delhomme through for 827 yards in his limited action, and through seven interceptions to only two touchdowns. The team then turned to rookie quarterback Colt McCoy to find any sort of offensive stability. McCoy played well, not great, but well. He threw for 1,576 yards, six touchdowns and nine interceptions. Protecting McCoy was a bit of a problem, as the rookie was sacked 23 times and suffered a few injuries towards the end of the season.
When McCoy was on his feet, he didn’t have a lot of options to complete passes to. Incumbent number one receiver entering the season, Mohamed Massaquoi, fought injuries all year long, limiting him to 483 yards and two touchdowns. The team’s leading receiver wasn’t even a receiver. Instead, it was tight end Benjamin Watson, who caught 68 passes for 763 yards and three touchdowns, all team highs.
On the other side of the ball, the defense was a work in progress. Rookie safety T.J. Ward led the team in tackles with 123 total, and had two interceptions to his credit as well. A second-round draft pick in 2010, Ward will be expected to lead this young defense along with last year’s first round pick, cornerback Joe Haden. Haden had impressive spurts in 2010, a season in which he recorded 64 tackles, six interceptions, a sack and a forced fumble. The team also got an unexpected burst from linebacker Marcus Benard, who led the team with 7.5 sacks. Defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin also continues to develop into a force along the front, recording 82 total tackles. However, the team continued to get disappointing performances from their high-profile tackle Shaun Rogers, who the team finally released and was signed by the New Orleans Saints.
Going into this month’s NFL Draft, the Browns own the sixth overall selection and can choose to go in a couple directions with that pick. From an outsider’s perspective, I would think the team will want to address their lack of depth at the wide receiver position. There are two premium receivers in this year’s draft, Georgia’s A.J. Green and Alabama’s Julio Jones. In all likelihood, one of those two talents will be available for the Browns to select in the sixth position. If the team wants to go in a different direction, there is ample defensive talent available for this team to continue to build around Rubin, Haden and Ward.
Last year, the Browns beat the likes of the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots in consecutive weeks. The team has what they feel is a franchise quarterback in McCoy. They have a workhorse at running back in the form of Peyton Hillis. Add a dynamic receiver to that dynamic, you have the makings of a very strong offense.