2015 Season Preview: Cleveland Browns

Through 11 games in 2014 the Browns stood 7-4 and were in contention for the division title. Then, a combination of inexperience and injuries set in, and the Browns lost their final five games to finish with a 7-9 record. This year, under second-year head coach Mike Pettine, the Browns have more depth and experience as they attempt to challenge for the AFC North title. Quarterback Like with any NFL club, quarterback is the key position, and going into training camp, the Browns don't have a capable NFL signal caller. Last year, Cleveland drafted Johnny Manziel with the hopes that he would be their quarterback of the future. Immaturity issues caused Manziel to play poorly and spent a good part of the offseason in rehab. He is back and ready to play, but he has lost the confidence of management and his teammates, and it remains to be seen if he ever will become what the Browns thought he was going to be. While they wait on Manziel, the quarterback job is in the hands of journeyman Josh McCown. McCown has shown flashes of of top play over the years, especially with Chicago in 2013, but he has never been able to stay consistent. The Browns hope that he can play like he did with the Bears and give them some stability at the position. He looked good during their recent mini-camp. Offensive Line The Browns needed to improve the offensive line in 2015 and think they did that with the drafting of versatile lineman Cameron Erving from Florida State. Erving can play any position along the line and will most likely line up at right guard for the Browns this year. The right tackle will most likely be Mitchell Schwartz, who has shown flashes during in his three previous years. The left side of the line is strong, with All-Pro Joe Thomas at left tackle and second year man Joel Bitonio at left guard. Bitonio started all 16 games last year as a rookie and has the traits to become a very good NFL lineman. The center is Alex Mack who was missed when he was injured in week five a year ago. John Greco, who started at right guard last year, is the main backup along the line. Running Back This could be a key position for the Browns this year, with the Browns not having a star at quarterback. Last year, rookies Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell had their moments, but neither is the bellcow type. West ran for 673 yards while Crowell added 607. Both are big and strong and have very good inside run ability. This year, third round pick Duke Johnson from Miami will enter the picture. Johnson doesn't have the size and power of the other two, but he is quick, fast, and explosive. He will give the Browns the big-play element they don't have with West and Crowell. With the Browns looking to run the ball a lot this year, they added Mississippi State's Malcolm Johnson in the sixth round to carry the lead blocking duties. Wide Receiver and Tight End In each of the last two drafts, it was thought the Browns would draft a wide receiver high to replace Josh Gordon. That was not done, but Cleveland feels good about their receiver corps. At wide receiver, the Browns added two productive veterans in Dwayne Bowe from Kansas City and Brian Hartline from Miami. Both are young enough to still have top years and give the Browns some reliability and leadership at the position. The slot receiver will most likely be Andrew Hawkins who led the Browns with 63 receptions a year ago. Depth will come from rookie Vince Mayle and second year man Taylor Gabriel. At tight end, the Browns will miss departed Jordan Cameron. In his place will most likely be Rob Housler who was signed in the off season. The blocking tight end will be veteran Gary Barnidge. Defensive Line Cleveland looked to shore up the defensive line during the offseason and hope they did with the drafting of Washington's Danny Shelton with the twelfth pick in the first round. Shelton is a 335-pound prototypical nose tackle who is excellent versus the run and a better than average interior pass rusher. The Browns hope to have Phil Taylor back at 100% to play one of the end spots. Taylor is another 330+ pound run stuffer, who has had a problem staying healthy. The other end will most likely be Desmond Bryant, who is the most athletic of the Browns' defensive linemen. Cleveland has depth along the line with free agent signee Randy Starks, Billy Winn, John Hughes, and Ishmaa'ily Kitchen. They also added rookie Xavier Cooper in the draft who gives the Browns another athletic lineman. It wouldn't shock me if the Browns use one of their defensive linemen as trade bait to add depth at another position sometime during training camp. Linebackers While the Browns added depth to the defensive line this year, such was not the case in the linebacker corps. Inside, the starters will be Karlos Dansby who is a 12 year vet and Craig Robertson. Last year's third round pick Chris Kirksey is the main backup inside and is good enough to play in a rotation. Rookie Hayes Pullard could also supply inside depth. The Browns hope to get improved play on the outside. Third year player Barkavious Mingo has not lived up to expectations but did show some improvement in 2014. He still has a ways to go. Paul Kruger played well with 11 sacks last year. Rookie second round pick Nate Orchard was a sack machine at Utah and will challenge Mingo for playtime. Secondary The secondary also needs to pick it up in 2015. The group suffered a key loss when Buster Skrine left for the Jets. He will most likely be replaced by free agent Tramon Williams who was a starter in Green Bay. The other corner is very reliable Joe Haden, who played well last year but not as well as in previous seasons. Justin Gilbert, who like Johnny Manziel, was a first round disappointment. He has the natural talent to be a very good NFL corner but does he have the confidence and maturity to play up to expectations? Second year man Pierre Desir could really come on in 2015. The safety group is as good as any in the NFL with Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson. Rookie Ibraheim Campbell has a chance to become a quality NFL safety and will proved excellent depth while he develops. Outlook On paper, the Browns look strong just about everywhere except the most key position...quarterback. If they can get good play from McCown or if Manziel lives up to expectations, then the Browns could challenge for a playoff spot in 2015. Follow Greg on Twitter @greggabe

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