The Cleveland Browns are entering the 2008-2009 with high expectations. With a successful offense returning, a much-improved defensive line, and the fans more excited than ever about the team, anything short of a playoff berth will be a disappointment.
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Now, let”s take a look at this year”s official season preview, brought to you exclusively by Dawgs By Nature.
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|Cleveland Browns Season Preview – 2008-2009 Edition|
|Offensive Depth Chart||Defensive Depth Chart|
|1st String||2nd String||3rd String|
|QB||Derek Anderson||Brady Quinn||Ken Dorsey|
|RB||Jamal Lewis||Jerome Harrison||Jason Wright|
|FB||Lawrence Vickers||Charles Ali|
|WR||Braylon Edwards||Joshua Cribbs||Steve Sanders|
|WR||Donte Stallworth||Syndric Steptoe||Martin Rucker (TE)|
|TE||Kellen Winslow||Steve Heiden||Darnell Dinkins|
|LT||Joe Thomas||Isaac Sowells|
|LG||Eric Steinbach||Scott Young|
|RG||Seth McKinney||Rex Hadnot|
|RT||Kevin Shaffer||Ryan Tucker|
|1st String||2nd String||3rd String|
|LDE||Corey Williams||Shaun Smith|
|NT||Shaun Rogers||Ahtyba Rubin|
|RDE||Robaire Smith||Louis Leonard|
|LOLB||Willie McGinest||Alex Hall||Shantee Orr|
|ILB||D”Qwell Jackson||Kris Griffin||Beau Bell|
|ILB||Andra Davis||Leon Williams|
|LCB||Eric Wright||Terry Cousin||Gerard Lawson|
|RCB||Brandon McDonald||Travis Daniels|
|FS||Brodney Pool||Mike Adams|
|SS||Sean Jones||Nick Sorensen|
Quarterback controversy? For the first time since returning to the NFL, the fans, the coaching staff, and all of the other players on the team have confidence in the starting quarterback. Derek Anderson is coming off of an unprecedented year, throwing for nearly 30 touchdowns. After leading the Browns to a 10-5 record as a starter last year, he”ll have to improve his game this season though. With expectations higher, a tougher schedule ahead of him, and a decision needing to be made about backup quarterback Brady Quinn, Anderson now needs to show that he can enter the ranks of the Peyton Manning”s, Tom Brady”s, and Tony Romo”s.
Meanwhile, Quinn can”t feel too good about his situation in Cleveland right now. No matter what a quarterback says, they want to play right away. When he looks around the league, all of the other young quarterbacks — Matt Leinart, Vince Young, JaMarcus Russell, Alex Smith, Joe Flacco, and Matt Ryan — have received starting opportunities in their first or second years. Quinn has shown the ability to manage the Browns offense if needed though, and third-stringer Ken Dorsey will continue to remain a mentor for him.
I graded the defensive line a D+ last season. Looking back, that was probably being too optimistic. Robaire Smith was a welcome addition to the Browns at the time, but I can”t say I”m too upset about seeing guys like Ethan Kelley and Simon Fraser replaced by two potential Pro Bowlers.
When free agency first hit, the Browns didn”t make a single move involving the defensive line. Fans were outraged and confused as more and more of the “higher-rated” free agents were being signed by other teams. Then, out of no where, Phil Savage pulled out his bag of magic tricks with two trades. First, he somehow worked a deal to acquire Packers defensive end Corey Williams in exchange for just a third-round draft pick. Then, he paid a lot for Pro Bowl defensive tackle Shaun Rogers, giving up top cornerback Leigh Bodden and a second-round draft pick. We wanted improvement, and we got it.
The optimism for the defensive line is extremely high now. Some fans are dying to see a pass rush, but the thing I”m looking forward to is Rogers” ability to stop the run. I can definitively remember teams like the Houston Texans running their third-string running back against us for 100+ yards with ease. With the versatile Shaun Smith becoming depth as opposed to a starter, the talent of rotation should improve too to ensure everybody stays fresh for four quarters.
There were a lot of questions surrounding Jamal Lewis prior to last season. He was coming over from a Baltimore Ravens team where he had looked injury-plagued and on the downside of his career. He answered all of his critics by having a tremendous season overall last year, especially by establishing his role as a “closer” against teams like the New York Jets and the Buffalo Bills. There is still room for improvement though, and that”ll have come against the stiffer competition he”ll face this year in the NFC East, the AFC South, and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
No matter what he does though, there will always be a concern in the back of everyone”s mind if Lewis suffers an injury. Phil Savage decided to stick with Jerome Harrison and Jason Wright as the backups for the second year in a row, but their roles have become a little more defined. If Lewis suffers an injury, Harrison will be the starting running back. Whether Lewis is healthy or not, Wright will be the third-down running back. That boils down to Harrison still being a poor blocker — something you can”t afford in third-down passing situations.
Part of the reason I graded the Browns” backs a C+ last season was due to the question marks at the fullback position. In his first season as a starter though, Lawrence Vickers was more than impressive. And, in training camp and throughout the preseason, Charles Ali has looked like one of the best No. 2 fullbacks in the league.
So, what has changed at the linebacker position this year? Absolutely nothing.
Our starters are still Kamerion Wimbley, Andra Davis, D”Qwell Jackson, and Willie McGinest. Leon Williams is still the backup middle linebacker. Antwan Peek still has the injury asterisk next to his name. The lone differences are the rookie draft picks — Beau Bell and Alex Hall. While there is a lot of excitement surrounding Hall, until he shows what he”s capable of on gameday, it”s impossible to evaluate his true value.
I”ve always been negative towards Andra Davis, but I”m going to go out on a limb and say that he is going to have a break out year. I have criticized him for always making his tackles five yards down the field as opposed to in the backfield or closer to the line of scrimmage. Considering that he”s had to suffer through running backs getting through the defensive line so quickly though, a change in talent up front can only be beneficial to him. Wearing the defensive headset this year, he”ll also be counted on more than ever to be the leader of the defense.
Wimbley”s expectations are also high, but I”m still not sold on him. It”s frustrating to see that he has yet to develop a solid inside move — the better left tackles have had no problem defending him if they know he”s one-dimensional. I overrated our linebackers last year with a B+; this year I”m setting my sights a little lower (not because we got worse).
Clearly, Dennis Northcutt was a better third wide receiver than Tim Carter (last year”s candidate) and Travis Wilson (this year”s original candidate). Thankfully, due to the talent at the top two receiver positions and at tight end, the third wide receiver shouldn”t be an issue for the second year in a row.
Braylon Edwards is coming off of a career year, and now enters this season as one of the most respected receivers talent-wise in all of football. The impact he has on opposing defenses is greater than anybody else on our team — just look how sorry the offense looked in the preseason when Wilson was starting as opposed to Edwards. Veteran receiver Joe Jurevicius is still with the team, but unfortunately the soonest he”ll be able to come back is after Week 6 as he tries to return from offseason surgery. Replacing Jurevicius in the starting lineup is former Patriots receiver Donte Stallworth, who was one of the top free agent receivers on the market this year. Stallworth adds a different dimension than Jurevicius did — more catch-and-run, with the deep ball sprinkled in.
Without Jurevicius though, the Browns will be in search of a new go-to-guy on third downs. That man has to be tight end Kellen Winslow. While he”s had two consecutive solid seasons, you still get the feeling that he”s yet to reach his fullest potential. Around Week 6, the Browns also hope to have rookie tight end Martin Rucker available to open up the offensive playbook even further by being able to shift Winslow to receiver more often while still having a pass-catching threat at tight end.
This is the problem area heading into the season, but with a lot of luck, things don”t have to turn out so bad.
When you look up and down the NFL, how many teams actually have a dominant secondary? I can probably count them on only two hands, meaning far less than half of the league. The Browns are receiving so much attention because we”re playing young players and we traded away our best cornerback in Leigh Bodden. Since when do two young players, paired with two safeties who are in command of their positions, warrant an automatic notation for failure? The risks are certainly high, but until we see what happens over the first several weeks of the season, it”s not time to write the unit off just yet.
Sean Jones had his ups and downs last season, but he really seemed to get things going towards the latter part of the season, as did Brodney Pool. Pool”s coverage abilities are still questionable, but he knows how to lay the big hit at the right time. Now, we just have to hope he”ll be able to deliver those hits still after sustaining several concussions over the span of his career.
At cornerback, Brandon McDonald”s starting role is the our only new dimension in reality. When the team traded Bodden, they envisioned cornerback Daven Holly filling one of the starting role, allowing McDonald to become the nickel back. Holly”s injury is what triggered the chain of concerns — and with Terry Cousin and Travis Daniels being the only depth behind the starters, I am concerned if one of them has to start. The signing of a free agent cornerback like Ty Law isn”t completely out of the question still if the unit is unbearably bad to start the season. For depth reasons, the secondary suffers a low grade here.
I gave the Browns” offensive line a “B” at the start of last season. Again, I completely underestimated our line”s capabilities. Rookie left tackle Joe Thomas exceeded expectations, becoming one of the few rookie tackles to actually live up to his potential. Free agent pickup Eric Steinbach anchored the left side with Thomas very well all season long. Meanwhile, Kevin Shaffer was better at right tackle than he was at left tackle, Hank Fraley held his own at center, and the right guard position was held down by either Seth McKinney or Ryan Tucker.
This year, nothing has changed with the exception of a few backups on the offensive line. Considering that the line only allowed Derek Anderson to be sacked 14 times all season and that Jamal Lewis ran for over 1,300 yards, I think it”s safe to say that this unit warrants a higher grade.
Take a look at this quote from last year”s special teams preview I wrote, regarding Browns kicker Phil Dawson:
“Phil Dawson is back for another year, but if he”s not able to produce some more “clutch” kicks this year, some of the once loyal fans could finally be giving up on him.”
Boy, did I unknowingly foreshadow something at the time? Not only did Dawson have several game-winning field gals last season, he improved his leg strength in the offseason and could be in line to attempt more 50-yarders this season. At punter, Dave Zastudil is healthy again after having somewhat of a down year last season.
The X-factor remains Joshua Cribbs. Sorry Deven Hester, but Cribbs by far has you beat as the best all-around special teams contributor in all of football. Any time he touches the ball, he”s a threat to take it the distance. Any time he”s a gunner, he”ll mow down the opposing returner in a flash.
|9/7||Dallas – Win||4:15 pm|
|9/14||Pittsburgh – Win||8:15 pm|
|9/21||at Baltimore – Win||4:15 pm|
|9/28||at Cincinnati – Loss||1:00 pm|
|10/13||New York Giants – Loss||8:30 pm|
|10/19||at Washington – Win||4:15 pm|
|10/26||at Jacksonville – Loss||4:05 pm|
|11/2||Baltimore – Win||1:00 pm|
|11/6||Denver – Win||8:15 pm|
|11/17||at Buffalo – Win||8:30 pm|
|11/23||Houston – Win||1:00 pm|
|11/30||Indianapolis – Loss||1:00 pm|
|12/7||at Tennessee – Win||1:00 pm|
|12/15||at Philadelphia – Loss||8:30 pm|
|12/21||Cincinnati – Win||1:00 pm|
|12/28||at Pittsburgh – Loss||1:00 pm|
I predicted that the Browns would win seven games last season, and at the time, that was a high prediction. After winning ten games, look at the respect we earned on the schedule to the left: five nationally televised prime time games. Forget those typical Ian Eagle/Soloman Wilcots- announced games that we became accustomed to the past several seasons: in our first ten games, only two of them will be played at 1:00 pm.
This season, I expect the Browns to rise to the occasion of a tough schedule. It”s time for the Browns to become one of the elite teams in the NFL again rather than always being the underdogs. More important than anything else though, it”s time to dethrone the Pittsburgh Steelers from atop the AFC North.