Fantasy Football 2014 draft prep: Cleveland Browns


Veteran Additions:
RB Ben Tate, WR Andrew Hawkins, WR Miles Austin, WR Nate Burleson, S Donte Whitner.
Draft Picks:
CB Justin Gilbert, QB Johnny Manziel, OT/G Joel Bitonio, ILB Christian Kirksey, RB Terrance West, CB Pierre Desir.  
Offseason Losses:
QB Brandon Weeden, QB Jason Campbell, WR Davone Bess, G Shawn Lauvao, G Oniel Cousins, ILB D’Qwell Jackson, CB Chris Owens, S T.J. Ward.

2014 Cleveland Browns Offense:
Browns’ fans have to believe that they are cursed. Hours after everyone in the city of Cleveland was jumping for joy in the wake of the Johnny Manziel selection, it was revealed that Josh Gordon was facing a year-long suspension for marijuana use. And just like that, all of the excitement died down. The Browns sold thousands of season tickets in a span of about 20 hours, but they were probably fielding calls from people demanding their money back.

The Browns should still be fun to watch because of Manziel alone. Of course, there’s no guarantee he’ll win the starting job. Manziel has been criticized for partying too much in Vegas this offseason. Meanwhile, Brian Hoyer was solid in two starts last year, winning a pair of games against the Vikings and Bengals, before suffering a season-ending ACL tear. However, Hoyer is small and injury-prone, so even if he gets the nod, it’s unlikely that he’ll last very long. The same could actually be said for Manziel, but perhaps he and Hoyer will be able to combine for 16 starts.

The issue, however, is that neither Hoyer nor Manziel will have anyone to throw to, aside from tight end Jordan Cameron. He’s the obvious No. 1 target on the team because all of the receivers stink. With Gordon gone, the two starting wideouts are projected to be Miles Austin and Andrew Hawkins. The latter has some potential; he’s small – 5-foot-7, 180 pounds – but very speedy. Austin, however, is completely done. All of the injuries he has sustained over the years have sapped his ability.

One name to watch out for is Charles Johnson. The 2013 undrafted free agent was coveted by the Packers, but Cleveland snatched him as he hit injury waivers in the summer. He’s a 6-foot-2, 215-pound athletic receiver who might have played last year had he not torn his ACL.

While the receivers won’t help the quarterbacks very much, Manziel and Hoyer should at least be happy that the running game has improved. Ben Tate, the top free agent running back on the market, was signed over from Houston. Tate fits perfectly into Kyle Shanahan’s scheme, and he could compile a ton of rushing yardage if he stays healthy. That, of course, is the main concern. Tate has missed 24 games in his 4-year professional career, and he has been banged up in many others. He’ll probably miss some time. If he does, third-round rookie Terrance West will be asked to step in.

The Browns used another earlier selection on some offensive help. That was spent on Joel Bitonio, who will upgrade the left guard position. Shawn Lauvao occupied that spot, but he was brutal. Bitonio will start inside with Alex Mack, one of the top centers in the NFL, and Jason Pinkston, who can’t be counted on to stay healthy. Pinkston has played in just nine games the past couple of seasons, thanks to various injuries. He’ll probably be a liability again.

Mack is terrific – he was re-signed to a 5-year, $42 million contract this spring – but the best lineman Cleveland has is Joe Thomas, one of the premier left tackles in the league. He’s bookended by Mitchell Schwartz, a third-year right tackle. Schwartz began the 2013 season by allowing a ridiculous seven sacks in his first four games, but he improved, allowing just four sacks the rest way.

2014 Cleveland Browns Defense:
Many have criticized the Browns for choosing cornerback Justin Gilbert with their initial first-round pick when they knew that Josh Gordon was going to be suspended. They could have obtained Sammy Watkins, an ultra-talented receiving prospect. They traded down, however, taking Gilbert and picking up a 2015 first-round choice in the progress. The result is that the Cleveland quarterbacks won’t have anyone to throw to – but opposing teams won’t be able to pass either.

Gilbert was the consensus No. 1 corner in the talented 2014 class. He was exceptional this past season. He would have been fine as a top cornerback anywhere, but he’ll cover No. 2 targets because the Browns have Joe Haden to take care of the elite receivers. Haden is one of the better corners in the NFL, so he and Gilbert project to be a terrific tandem.

Cleveland lost stud safety T.J. Ward in free agency, but managed to acquire Donte Whitner in response. Whitner isn’t as good as Ward, but he’s still a very talented safety coming off a strong 2013 campaign. There’s no reason to think he’ll decline either, given that he’ll be just 29 at the end of the month. He’ll start next to the one potential liability in the secondary, Tashaun Gipson. The former Wyoming defensive back had an up-and-down 2013 campaign, but given that he’s just entering his third year, he could improve.

The secondary will be even better if the Browns can get more pressure on the quarterback. They struggled to do so this past season, as the leader in sacks was Jabaal Sheard, who had 5.5. Cleveland will be hoping that Barkevious Mingo, last year’s first-round pick, can improve on his pass-rushing abilities. He posted five sacks, but three of them came in the first quarter of the season, so the lack of improvement can’t be encouraging. There’s also Paul Kruger, whom the Browns paid $40.5 million over five years last March. However, Kruger just proved to be yet another example of a player taking the money and running from a superior team to an inferior franchise. Kruger showed that his football career is not a priority, so it’s no surprise that he was a bust signing. He’s unlikely to improve in 2014.

One other example of this is Karlos Dansby, who was added this spring. Dansby had an awesome 2013 campaign for Arizona, but like Kruger, he left a superior team to sign with the sorry Browns. Dansby, 33 in November, is bound to decline tremendously as D’Qwell Jackson’s replacement. He’ll start next to either Craig Robertson or third-round rookie Christian Kirksey. The Browns will be hoping the latter shows enough to get the nod because Robertson was absolutely brutal last year.

Cleveland’s defensive line remains intact, as the starters will once again be Ahtyba Rubin, Desmond Bryant and Phil Taylor. Both Rubin and Taylor don’t get to the quarterback at all, but they’re excellent run-stuffers. Bryant, meanwhile, provides a decent pass rush, but he missed the final four games of the season because of an irregular heartbeat.

2014 Cleveland Browns Schedule and Intangibles:
The Dawg Pound is just not an intimidating place to play. Since their expansion year in 1999, the Browns are a dreadful 44-76 as hosts (17-31 the past six seasons).

Billy Cundiff took over for long-time Cleveland kicker Phil Dawson. He was just OK, hitting 21-of-26 attempts, including 2-of-4 from 50-plus.

Spencer Lanning had one of the league’s worst net punting averages this past season, ranking 28th in the league. He’ll be back as the team’s punter.

Thanks to Travis Benjamin and Fozzy Whittaker, the Browns outgained their opponents on punt and kickoffs. Benjamin scored once.

Here are some of the winnable games Cleveland has on its schedule: all three home divisional games, Titans (road), Jaguars (road), Raiders (home), Buccaneers (home), Texans (home), Bills (road) and Panthers (road).

2014 Cleveland Browns Analysis: The Browns are the Browns, and that’s why they’ll continue to struggle to achieve victories. They have Johnny Manziel now, but of course they already began sabotaging his career by not providing him with any receiving talent. He may not even start this year, but if he does, Cleveland will at least be entertaining to watch for a change.

Projection: 6-10 (4th in AFC North)




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