Offseason acquisition Paul Kruger should fit right in with new defensive coordinator Ray Horton's blitzing scheme. (Mark Duncan/AP)
With the 2013 NFL season rapidly approaching, we’re taking a spin around the league for a closer look at all 32 teams. Track all of our Snapshots here.
Over the past five seasons, Cleveland has shuffled through three head coaches, not once won more than five games and spent the majority of its time toiling at the bottom of the AFC North. Reversing that type of negative momentum in the span of one offseason won’t be easy; the Browns are facing a massive uphill climb. Even if they don’t make it all the way up, Cleveland’s 2013 season should be vastly different from the ones that preceded it.
Why? Start with the front office, where Cleveland hired a new chief executive officer (Joe Banner) and vice president of personnel (Mike Lombardi). The Browns also revamped their coaching staff, dismissing Pat Shurmur after an uninspiring two-season tenure, hiring former Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski as his replacement and tabbing two new, highly-respected coordinators: Norv Turner (offense) and Ray Horton (defense).
Early training camp reviews have been positive, and the Browns appear to have a more talented roster than the losing groups of recent years. Seeing that talent mesh with the new offensive and defensive schemes installed by Turner and Horton, respectively, will be fascinating. And really, when you’ve spent the past five seasons (and most of its post-1999 rebirth existence) taking gut punches from Pittsburgh and Baltimore, what more can you ask for?
The Browns may not make a postseason breakthrough this year, but they will be interesting for a number of reasons. After a whirlwind top-down offseason facelift, Cleveland will enter this season with plenty of compelling storylines to track.
- Biggest storyline: A defensive transition.
Last season’s Dick Jauron-led defense was conservative and predictable. With Dick LeBeau disciple Ray Horton now in charge, the Browns are embracing a totally new philosophy. Cleveland is going to blitz. A lot. The 3-4 scheme Horton is installing will involve a lot of pre-snap movement, a disparate range of formations and plenty of inventive ways to get after the quarterback. The Browns actually fielded an above-average pass-rush last season, ranking 11th in the league with 38 sacks. The inherent aggressiveness of Horton’s scheme should increase that number on its own; throw in the various upgrades Cleveland made to its linebacking corps and defensive line -- more on them below -- and putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks should be one of Cleveland’s biggest strengths this season.
Questions still loom regarding a secondary with holes at cornerback and free safety, and it’s possible the Browns’ defenders could struggle to grasp Horton’s new scheme early in the season. In the long run, an attacking defense with multiple blitz packages, despite the possibility of leaving a below-average secondary without sufficient help from linebackers in coverage, should be a welcome change for a unit that ranked 22nd in defensive DVOA last season, per FootballOutsiders.
An aside: If Horton lives up to his defensive reputation and turns the Browns into one of the league’s stingier units, his name will be near the top of plenty of coaching-replacement short lists this offseason, if it isn’t already.
- Most intriguing position battle: Quarterback.
Because Chudzinski refuses to name a starting quarterback, the Brandon Weeden-Jason Campbell situation qualifies, in a superficial sense, as a “battle.” But if we’re being totally honest, this isn’t really a “battle” at all. Weeden will be leading the first-team offense Week 1, and it’s not hard to figure out why. For starters, he has outplayed Campbell throughout the preseason, including in Thursday night’s 24-6 win over Detroit, in which Weeden completed eight of 12 passes for 117 yards and two touchdowns and posted a 137.8 quarterback rating. More importantly, Cleveland needs to use this season to determine whether Weeden is their quarterback of the future or whether his less-than-impressive rookie season exposed the true limits of his potential.
Some will contend Weeden – both because of his age (29) and the flaws he revealed last season – can never be Cleveland’s long-term solution at quarterback. That may be true, but Cleveland can’t know for sure unless it allows Weeden the opportunity to pilot Turner’s vertical passing game and prove last season’s hiccups were more a product of Shurmur’s misguided West Coast system and less one of his own passing limitations. And if Weeden does struggle again, and Campbell has to take over sometime down the road, the Browns will have a clear mandate heading into this offseason: find a new starting quarterback. What’s more, the 2014 draft class, one of the better prospective groups in recent memory, should offer an instant replacement if Weeden doesn’t have Browns brass convinced by season’s end.
Essentially, even if Weeden isn’t the guy, the Browns need to make sure. The 2013 season should provide an answer in relatively short order.
- New face, new place: Paul Kruger, LB.
The Browns paid a steep price for the former Ravens standout (five years, $40 million), but if Kruger realizes his potential in a 3-4 scheme that accentuates his pass-rushing abilities, it may well be worth it. Indeed, there were few better scheme-to-player matches on the free-agent market this offseason. Kruger should thrive in Horton’s blitz-heavy system.
Adding one of the better pure-pass rushers in the league is an obvious bonus, but Kruger is merely one piece of a suddenly-loaded linebacking corps. Kruger, free agent signee Quentin Groves, 2011 second-round pick Jabaal Sheard and 2013 first-rounder Barkevious Mingo give Cleveland one of the more fearsome (and underrated) units in the league. And those are just the linebackers. Former Raider Desmond Bryant, and long-time 4-3 tackle Ahtyba Rubin, are physical presences off the edge who, like the linebackers behind them, should take well to Horton’s scheme.
Kruger is the biggest name Cleveland added this offseason, and the importance of his presence on a defense undergoing a scheme change is impossible to understate, but he is only one of a promising band of attack-minded defenders –- all of whom should help infuse Cleveland with more tenacity and aggressiveness than it ever had under Jauron.
- Impact rookie: Barkevious Mingo, LB.
On sheer name value, Mingo was a huge win. Anytime the name “Barkevious,” “freakish athleticism” and “8.5 tackles for loss in the SEC” appear on the same draft scouting report, selecting that player in the first round almost goes without saying. On a more serious note, Mingo, despite being surrounded by a batch of capable outside linebackers, should be an immediate boost to Cleveland’s pass-rushing efforts.
Hailed as one of the 2013 draft class’ best athletes, Mingo starred at LSU for two seasons, tormenting opposing SEC quarterbacks and running backs alike with an imposing blend of speed, sound tackling discipline and instinctual sideline-to-sideline playmaking. His transition to the NFL should be seamless. Despite suffering a bruised lung against the Lions, Mingo should be healed in time for the Browns' season-opener against Miami on Sept. 8.
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The good news for Mingo is that, unlike many high first-round picks, he doesn’t need to start, or even play significant snaps, right away. He can acclimate himself to the NFL’s physicality – not to mention the new scheme he has to learn – at his own pace. Cleveland does not lack for pass rushing depth. Adding Mingo for 2013 was a bonus.
- Looking at the schedule: Navigable.
Finding three wins out of six division games against Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Baltimore will be a huge challenge. If Cleveland goes .500 in AFC North play, the rest of its schedule will feel manageable by comparison. The chances Cleveland actually does break even against division competition are low, which makes non-division games, especially those at home, hugely important.
A home matchup with Miami in Week 1 is a winnable game, and back-to-back visits from Buffalo and Detroit in Weeks 5 and 6, respectively, are two other possible early victories. The Browns also host Cincinnati, play Baltimore twice and visit Minnesota all before a Week 10 bye. The slate toughens up a bit after that, starting with a road trip to Cincinnati and a home game against Pittsburgh. Cleveland also visits New England, the Jets and Pittsburgh between Weeks 14 and 17. If that sounds like way too many road games scrunched together, well, you’re right: from Oct. 20 (Week 7) through the end of the regular season, Cleveland plays just four games at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Dawg Pound will need to make plenty of noise during the first five weeks of the season to compensate for their favorite team’s travel-heavy late fall and winter.
Cleveland – provided the NFL’s divine statistical forces turn one or more of the five games the Browns lost by seven points or fewer last season into wins – has a reasonable shot to break through its recent 5-win plateau. The AFC North is one of the best divisions in football, and it’s unlikely Cleveland pushes for a playoff spot this season, but nudging up towards respectability – with a .500 record as the best-case scenario – is a reasonable expectation. Eliminating the losing culture that led to an entirely new coaching staff and a revamped front office is the most important objective.