To start things off, let me say that I am really looking forward to seeing Mike Pettine coach this football club. Yeah, we’ve had a lot of coaching changes in recent years, but I feel this is the time when the carousel finally stops. Pettine is going to turn the Browns into a hard-nosed football team that will be a menace to play against. We won’t be the “kid brother” of the AFC North any longer—but a powerful team that demands respect. I would also like to acknowledge Ray Farmer as a savvy general manager. The way he handled the 2014 draft was superb; I expect more of the same in the future. These two men, so far, have done all the right things since arriving in Cleveland. I am eager to see that translate into success on the field.
Looking at the roster, I see a lot of potential on offense. Quarterbacks Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel are set to compete for the starting quarterback job in the preseason games. It’s refreshing to see some depth at the position. Should Hoyer win the job, he has the tools to lead the team and be successful, as shown last season in the few games he played. Should Manziel be the starting quarterback, we get to see the former Heisman trophy winner showcase his talents and prove to the world that he has what it takes to succeed in the NFL. If Manziel is a success in Cleveland, he could become the best Browns quarterback since Bernie Kosar—or even better.
One unfortunate matter: controversy could not be avoided with superstar receiver Josh Gordon, as he faces a possible yearlong suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy once again. Such a suspension would hurt us—however, we have some pieces I am confident will help soften the blow from this probable loss.
· Free agent signings Miles Austin and Andrew Hawkins are formidable names to have on the team, with plenty of juice left in the tank, while Nate Burleson was brought in to help stabilize the position. Being the oldest player on the receiving unit, I expect Burleson to help mentor the younger players.
· Returner Travis Benjamin could also potentially be plugged in at receiver, as his explosive speed is valuable to the team.
· At tight end, Jordan Cameron is a superstar in the making, entering his first Pro Bowl last season after a career-high seven receiving touchdowns.
· Chris Ogbonnaya mans the fullback position. While not his natural spot to play, Ogbonnaya filled in admirably last season and I expect the same result this season.
So Josh Gordon is a huge loss if he is indeed suspended, but we still control dangerous pieces on the offense for Manziel or Hoyer to utilize.
Our offensive line, anchored by veterans Joe Thomas and Alex Mack, is possibly one of the best in the entire NFL. I’m also very eager to see how newly drafted Joel Bitonio contributes to the line. Having elite linemen is so critical to a quarterback (especially a rookie such as Manziel) because it protects our quarterback and allows him to gain confidence in the pocket. We saw with Tim Couch that an inadequate offensive line can turn your prized quarterback into an injury-plagued athlete.
The Browns have newly acquired Ben Tate and rookie Terrance West looking to lead the charge at running back. With a greater focus on running the football this season, I expect a smashmouth style of play from these two. Dion Lewis or Edwin Baker will be solid backups should our main guys get hurt. This is one spot on the roster where we have a ton of depth, so I do not see us becoming depleted like we were in the 2013 season.
Now let’s take a look at what the defense looks like for this season. I get goose bumps looking at the roster and seeing just how lethal the Browns might be this season on the other side of the pigskin. From the front line to the secondary, we seem to be dangerous at every position. This is the part of the roster that gets me most excited.
Our defensive line, consisting of Ahtyba Rubin, Phil Taylor, Billy Winn, Ishmaa’ily Kitchen and company, is a very entertaining group to watch. Thunderous hits and an insurmountable tackling are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what these men can do on the field. Rubin has been with the Browns since 2008 and has been the definition of consistency. My favorite player these days, Phil Taylor, is an absolute mammoth, laying out opposing players with ease and efficiency as he stifles the opposing offense—sometimes single-handedly. Billy Winn has come up big since being drafted in 2012; while Kitchen brings bone-crushing hits to those who try to oppose him. I have the utmost confidence in this unit of the Cleveland Browns and I love watching them work.
The linebacker corp is equally lethal as the defensive line for the Browns. Paul Kruger, Jabaal Sheard, Barkevious Mingo, and Karlos Dansby are the main pieces of this defensive unit. Kruger, a free agent obtained from rival Baltimore in 2012, and newly arrived Karlos Dansby bring veteran leadership to the younger guys while maintaining a strong style of play. Last year’s first round pick for the Browns, Barkevious Mingo, did not have the breakout rookie year many were hoping for. However, he showed flashes of brilliance and I am excited to see how he contributes to the team. Perhaps the most important player at the linebacker position is Jabaal Sheard. Sheard enjoys terrorizing opposing quarterbacks, leading the Browns with 5.5 sacks in 2013.
At strong safety, newly-signed Cleveland native, Donte Whitner, will showcase his hitting skills along with free safety Tashaun Gipson. Our safety unity is one to be feared, as both Gipson and Whitner bring elite level talent to the playing field. This rejuvenated secondary has already garnered the nickname of “Lockdown on the Lake” for their talents. I can’t even begin to describe the excitement I have to see our secondary perform!
Looking at our special teams, I feel secure having Billy Cundiff as our kicker, while relying on Spencer Lanning for punting duties. A well-traveled veteran, this is Cundiff’s second stint with the Browns in his career. He's not a long range launcher, but keeps his accuracy consistent and has adapted to kicking in colder climates fairly well, making over 80.8% of his field goals as well as making all 32 extra points last season. Punter Spencer Lanning performed very well in his rookie 2013 campaign, pinning opposing offenses inside their own 20 yard line 28 times, seven of which were inside the ten yard line.
Filling in an often overlooked position, long snapper Christian Yount seems to be doing quite well at the position. I do not recall the last time there was a botched kick or punt attempt for the Browns. Travis Benjamin most likely will handle kick and punt returns once again, as his previously mentioned explosive speed is a phenomenal fit for this position. We may not have the best special teams unit in the NFL, but there is a sense of reliability to be had here with plenty of potential to be achieved.
It’s time to get excited, Cleveland! While there may not have been many successes since the Browns returned to Cleveland in 1999, I think we finally have a legitimate team. A lot of non-Browns fans I’ve spoken with recognize that the Browns are a much improved team and will be a force to be reckoned with. We certainly have a talented team going into the 2014 season and I, for one, have never looked more forward to the start of the season. I know the Browns will make the city of Cleveland proud.