NFL Team Previews: Cleveland Browns

The Cleveland Browns have not made the playoffs since 2002 and only broken .500 one time during that dry spell. This summer the team was bought by an owner who’s a self-professed Pittsburgh Steeler diehard, only the archrival of the Browns. Can things get much lower? Or will the arrival of rookie running back Trent Richardson and rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden—two of the most productive skill-position players in college football last year—signal the start of winning football again in Cleveland? TheSportsNotebook breaks down the Browns…

OFFENSE: Weeden may be a rookie, but he is 28 years old. After leading Oklahoma State to a major bowl win last year he won the starting job in Cleveland. He better hope that Richardson, the focal point of national champion Alabama’s offense and the fourth overall pick in the draft, can get over nagging injuries by the September 9 opener. Because Cleveland’s veteran skill position talent is woeful. Greg Little, better suited to be a third wide receiver is the first option in the passing game and tight end Ben Watson is finding that numbers were a lot easier to get when he was in New England and Tom Brady was throwing the passes.

An offensive line can cover a lot of ills and allow average skill players to look good, but Cleveland’s a mixed bag here. Alex Mack is good at center and left tackle Joe Thomas is the best in the NFL at his position. It’s the other three spots that are completely up in the air. Performance to date by a trio of lineman under the age of 25 is well below average. If there’s improvement in 2012, Cleveland’s offense can make some big strides. If not, Weeden’s going to be running for his life and Richardson’s going to be longing for Tuscaloosa.

DEFENSE: The defense has got some promise, with a potentially good defensive front and lockdown play on the corners. The interior of the 4-3 front is good, with the key question mark being the health of tackle Ahtyba Rubin. If he’s healthy, Cleveland will be tough to run up the middle on and Jabaal Sheard has the chance to do some serious damage rushing the quarterback off the end.

While the linebackers are going to be sunk below the combination of injuries, suspensions and flat-out mediocrity, and the safeties are even worse, Cleveland can rely on Joe Haden to be a lockdown corner and Sheldon Brown on the other side is more than capable of holding his own. Overall the combination of a strong front four and excellent cornerback play can be enough to make the Browns competitive. The issue is going to be whether play at linebacker and safety can at least be manageable. If it hemorrhages into a complete disaster—which is possible—it might not be possible to hide.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN PROJECTION: 5—With the Browns having won five or fewer games each of the last four years and seven times since the ’02 playoff year, this is a logical number. While Cleveland has the real strengths noted above, they’re going to experience growing pains at quarterback and while I can see the offensive line coming around, I also incline to a worst-case scenario when it comes to the safeties. A combination of bad safety play and shaky skill position work on offense would put Cleveland in a deficit when it comes to big plays and that means wins go the other direction in the closely contested NFL. The safe thing to do on any Cleveland team is to assume they’ll play short of expectations and that’s what I’m going to do here with the Under.