After Brian Hoyer made it known that he would not accept being a backup, he departed for Houston. The Browns brought in McCown to mentor Manziel, and to simultaneously hold down the fort while Manziel gets himself ready to take over. No disrespect to Hoyer (I think he did a tremendous job here and I wish him the best of luck) but McCown seems to be a better role model for the young Johnny. Josh knows his role and even said he would be fine accepting a backup role. He’s gone above and beyond to help teach Manziel and that kind of veteran leadership is invaluable.
Skills wise, I don’t necessarily think of McCown as a downgrade from Hoyer. At 36 years old, we kind of know what Josh is all about at this point. Nothing flashy and he’s known to take the occasional risky pass at times, but brings quality leadership and the occasional dominance in the pocket that can surprise teams and lead to points. I’m not going to say he’s the best QB in the world, but he’s done something right if he’s still in the league at his age. Despite having a poor season with Tampa last year, I’m not willing to put that all on him; the Buccaneers had a pretty horrendous team all around, especially the offensive line. Two seasons ago, Josh looked tremendous with Chicago.
McCown’s the type of guy you want on your team as a backup, and with the kind of supporting cast the Browns have on the offensive line, he should be very comfortable. I expect he’ll be fine as he starts the season for us. (Totally unrelated, his brother, Luke McCown, played QB for the Browns in 2004.)
Let’s talk about Johnny Football for a second. At this point in time, no matter how many people seem to oppose Manziel, he is our current quarterback of the future. Despite not playing much last season, people are already willing to write him off and jump ship. His alcohol troubles didn’t improve how people perceived him, either. This offseason, Johnny was in rehab. He came out of rehab, eliminated negative influences and distractions in his personal life, and is reported to be completely sober with a positive mindset. I applaud him for realizing he had a problem and taking the necessary steps to fix them. Now that his attitude is in the right place, we can begin to develop him into our QB (another reason why I feel that McCown is so valuable to the team right now).
Manziel showed some improvement in preseason before being sidelined with an elbow injury. I’ve heard ad nauseam how Manziel isn’t tall enough, how he scrambles too much, how his passes aren’t accurate, blah blah blah. Outside of height (which, to me, isn’t necessarily a disadvantage and he’s not that short anyway), these things can be worked on. The key is to just be patient with Johnny as he continues to hone his skills. I cannot stress enough how important it is to not rush him into play yet, so I’m alright with him taking a seat behind McCown for the time being. As the season progresses, we might see Johnny in there at some point, but I think the best move is to keep him as a backup this year.
How it looks right now, Hartline and Andrew Hawkins will be our one-two combo at receiver. Hawkins had a breakout season last year with us and will be looking to continue his success this year. Hartline was Miami’s primary receiver since 2011 and has two 1000+ yard seasons under his belt. These two guys will be McCown’s go-to targets and I’m pretty confident in both of their abilities. Nothing over the top, just two formidable players that will get plenty of targets.
Next on the depth chart is Taylor Gabriel and Travis Benjamin. I especially like Gabriel and I’m thinking he will take a significant step forward in his sophomore campaign. What he lacks in size (only 5’8’’) he compensates for with quick speed and an amazing understanding of where the football is at all times. He’s the perfect second option and teams need to keep tabs on him at all times. Travis Benjamin normally works as a punt returner and only occasionally lines up as a receiver. When he does, he has the speed of a cheetah and is virtually uncatchable if not tackled immediately. His ball handling needs to improve (was a huge problem on special teams last year), but he’s a great plug’n’play option when needed. He is Josh Cribbs 2.0 with a better understanding of the wide receiver position.
Crowell showed explosive speed last season while splitting duties with Terrance West. An undrafted player, Crowell overcame a lot of odds to make the team and stands today as our best option at running back. I really like the kid and his speed gives defenses fits. With the bulk of the work load on him now, he’s got a prime opportunity to solidify himself as a premier back. Also, pick him up in fantasy on the waiver wire. I did.
Is there cause for concern? Sure. Especially since we are expecting the Browns to be a run-first team this season. Once Robert Turbin is healthy, I think the team will be just fine at the position. I like Turbin and he’s young enough to still have upside. The Crow must fly until Week 4 and we should get Duke’s feet wet by the time Turbin is ready.
With the Billy Winn trade freeing up a roster spot, the Browns have activated Shaun Draughn from the practice squad to backup Crowell.
Barnidge has been with us for a few years now and brings a little bit of everything to the table. He’s a versatile tight end who can contribute on offense as well as block. He won’t really blow you away with his game, but he’s decent enough at what he does.
Jim Dray was a big surprise to me last season. I didn’t expect the offensive ability that he displayed and he’s a great option for the occasional pass. His toughness is also exceptional and he is a viable option to help block.
The underdog of the group is E.J. Bibbs, who exploded onto the scene as an undrafted free agent. Coach Pettine really likes this kid and he possesses some awesome offensive skills. Similar to Housler in that he’s strictly an offensive option, I feel he will eventually over take the tight end depth chart if given enough opportunity.
At fullback, we’ve got rookie Malcolm Johnson. Last season was an odd one for our fullbacks, as we flip flopped between two dudes and cut both of them. Despite being a fullback (a position normally reserved for more defensive players), Johnson has some above average offensive skills. He’s got great hands and has some surprising speed, so I won’t be surprised if we get creative this year and incorporate the fullback position into some offensive situations.
Starting with left tackle, future Hall of Famer and God incarnate Joe Thomas is the best left tackle to ever play the game. Don’t even care how biased that sounds; it’s the truth. He is sitting at 7,917 consecutive plays for the Browns since 2007 (his rookie year), one of the most ridiculous ironman streaks in sports history. He has been in the Pro Bowl every single year since coming into the league and will continue to do so until he retires in 50 years. Joe is the pinnacle and gold standard of reliability and he is a defensive lineman’s worst nightmare. There’s nothing he can’t do and I have absolutely nothing bad to say about his game.
At left guard, Joel Bitonio stands out as a dominant player in his sophomore campaign. As of today, he’s the best pick from our draft last year and he played beyond expectations in his rookie season. It’s a tall task to line up between Joe Thomas and Alex Mack and I think Joel is a phenomenal compliment to the offensive line. Look for this guy to take his game even further this year.
Alex Mack is our center and has been nothing short of stupendous since being drafted in 2009. A Pro Bowl lineman, Mack is just not a guy you mess with if you’re on defense. He’s gigantic, he’s nasty, and he protects his players like a mama bear protects her cubs. Similar to Joe Thomas, he’s just the pure definition of reliability and also didn’t miss a snap until a broken leg last year took him out of action.
At right tackle, there’s Mitchell Schwartz. I commend him for his improvements but he needs to take the next step this season. An offensive line is only as strong as your weakest link and Schwartz has seen his share of struggles. His blocking is exceptional, I feel he just needs to recognize his surroundings just a little bit more.
We have first round pick Cameron Erving and waiver wire pickup Austin Pasztor backing up the offensive line. Erving is incredibly versatile and can play just about anywhere on the line, so we’ll see how the Browns will insert him into the lineup. We don’t like to talk about this but we almost lost Alex Mack to Jacksonville not so long ago and he is able to opt out of his contract after this season. We all hope he doesn’t, but if he decides to leave, Erving is a worthy replacement for him at center.
There you have it, a colossal description of our offense. I’d say on the offensive side of the pigskin, the Cleveland Browns might seem a little thin on production at the moment. With that being said though, there’s a ton of upside here and I think we will see several key youngens take the next step in their game and elevate this team.