How well the Browns do this season may depend on how quickly Phil Taylor can return from a torn pectoral. (Getty Images)
With NFL training camps just around the corner, we’re taking a team-by-team look at how the offseason played out and what you can expect in 2012. Click here to read them all.
Give the Browns credit for consistency, at least. Since re-joining the league in 1999, the team has averaged just a hair over five wins a season. In eight of those 13 seasons, they've had between three and five wins. Last year was one of them, a 4-12 campaign in Pat Shurmur's first season as head coach.
The campaign actually didn't start out too terribly, with Cleveland sitting at 3-3 at one point before losing nine of its last 10 games. But even when the losses were mounting, the Browns weren't completely blown out of the water; half of their defeats came by a touchdown or less. Though Shurmur came to Cleveland with an offensive pedigree, it was actually the team's defense that kept them remotely competitive, allowing just 18.7 points per game in that final 1-9 stretch
The unit was far from dominant, but it held up its end of the bargain, which is far more than the dreadful offense could say. There's a reason that four of Cleveland's first five draft picks in 2012 came on offense, but little hope that anything will change in 2012.
2011 Record: 4-12 (fourth place, AFC North)
Key Additions: RB Trent Richardson, QB Brandon Weeden, DE Frostee Rucker
Key Subtractions: RB Peyton Hillis, S Mike Adams
Team Strengths: RB, ST
Team Weaknesses: WR, G, DT
Three Things to Watch:
1. Can the offense approach anything resembling respectability?: Regarding that offense: it was a mess, by just about any measure. So the Browns were bold in the first round of the draft, trading up a pick to make sure they got Trent Richardson at No. 3 overall, and replacing Colt McCoy with 28-year-old Brandon Weeden at starting QB. Both picks have come with some controversy; in Richardson's case, from one of the franchise's all-time greats.
Whether the addition of the two first-rounders helps remains to be seen (minicamp reports on both have been generally positive, but not overwhelmingly so), but the Browns didn't do much to improve around them. The offensive line has two big-time pieces in LT Joe Thomas and C Alex Mack, but the rest is very suspect. Second-round RT Mitchell Schwartz is projected to start, which will help, but the Browns passed up better-rated linemen like Cordy Glenn in making that pick, and the guards are far from dependable. That'll make both Richardson's and Weeden's job a lot harder.
The other big failing is in the team not adding a receiver for Weeden to throw to. Greg Little is a good No. 2 option, but the Browns will rely on him as a No. 1. Expect the team to score more than its 13.6-point average in 2011, but there's still a large gulf between that and being competitive.
2. The continued irrelevance of Josh Cribbs: After years of fans clamoring for Josh Cribbs to have a major role in the Browns' offense, the playmaker had a career-high 41 receptions in 2011. That's the good news. The bad? Cribbs had just 39 kickoff returns, the lowest of his career. Sadly, the good news is likely to be an aberration, while the bad news feels like a sign of things to come.
The career receiving numbers were a pleasant surprise, but 41 catches still isn't a number to be thrilled about, and it's hard to see Cribbs setting a new high mark in a season in which he'll turn 30 and play with a rookie quarterback. At this point, Cribbs basically is what he is as a receiver. And while he's always been dangerous as a returner, the league's new kickoff rules somewhat marginalized him in 2011, which should continue this season.
What does that mean for Cribbs' future? After years of being the team's lone star, it's being floated by some that there could be a divorce on the horizon after this season.
3. What kind of production will come from the defensive line?: The line was the weak spot on the Browns' defense in 2011. The unit finished 23rd in sacks and 30th in yards per carry against, and Football Outsiders ranked it 31st in defensive line efficiency against the run, and 26th against the pass. As with Cribbs, there's some good news and bad news on that front in 2012.
The signings of Frostee Rucker and Juqua Parker as help for promising second-year end Jabaal Sheard will boost the pass rush. Rucker and Parker aren't elite, but they've proven they can get to the quarterback, and are each valuable pieces in a rotation that desperately needed contributing bodies. The Browns will also be getting Marcus Benard back from injury; the former 3-4 outside linebacker is transitioning to 4-3 end, but he had 7.5 sacks in 2010 and can bring an edge rush strictly on passing downs.
But the unit suffered a big blow when it lost massive tackle Phil Taylor for the first half of the season, maybe more, with a pectoral tear. Taylor was a major revelation as a rookie in 2011, and depth was already an issue before his injury. Even if they use a committee at nose tackle, the Browns won't come close to replacing Taylor's contributions. It's that devastating a loss, especially given the team's weakness at linebacker. D'Qwell Jackson is a beast, but the men flanking him leave something to be desired. If running backs have an easier time breaking through the Browns' front, the second level won't provide much resistance, meaning you can expect a lot of big plays on the ground against Cleveland while the big man is missing.
Outlook: The Browns aren't actually devoid of top talent at key spots. They're set at left tackle (Thomas), center (Mack), defensive end (Sheard), middle linebacker (Jackson) and cornerback (Joe Haden), all positions you typically need great players at (Taylor at DT would qualify as well, if he plays). And Weeden and Richardson may live up to the Browns' hopes, too. But the team simply doesn't have enough of those upper echelon players. Worse, there's precious little depth anywhere on the roster; the dropoff in talent after the starters is enormous.
With another offseason or two of smart moves, the Browns may be a team to watch. This season, however, expect more of the same: not enough offense, not enough defense, and a record that falls squarely in line with that three-to-five-win trend we've come to know so well.
– By Tom Mantzouranis