2015 AFC Preview: Cleveland Browns
2015 AFC Preview: Cleveland Browns
From now until the Patriots begin training camp, Phil Perry looks at the 15 other AFC teams: The biggest question they face heading into the season, their storyline on offense, their storyline on defense, and their "threat level" to the Patriots.
Today's opponent: The Cleveland Browns
THE BIG STORY
How are the Browns going to score?
The attack in Cleveland could be offensive in more ways than one this season.
The issues begin with, but aren't limited to, the situation at quarterback. Josh McCown appears to be the best bet as the team's starter, but Johnny Manziel would surely like to push for a more significant role and provide some value to the team that deemed him worthy of a first-round draft pick.
At receiver, the headliners are Dwayne Bowe, Brian Hartline and Andrew Hawkins. Hawkins may be the team's best talent at this position, but it's a relatively shallow group that could have a hard time providing the Browns offense any legitimate threats -- especially given what's expected from the quarterbacks.
The scenario is a little less dire at running back where Isaiah Crowell, Terrance West and rookie Duke Johnson out of the University of Miami could give the team a spark. But if opposing defenses flood the box in order to slow what Cleveland does on the ground, this looks like it will be a group that struggles to put points on the board.
OFFENSIVE STORY LINE TO WATCH
Can the offensive line be dominant?
By far, the most talented offensive position group in Cleveland is its offensive line. Joe Thomas is one of the top left tackles in the league, and the same can be said for Alex Mack at center. Joel Bitonio and John Greco are more than serviceable at guard, and first-round rookie draft pick Cameron Erving -- someone that many pundits saw as a good fit in New England -- should only help bolster an already solid unit.
We saw last season in Dallas that an overpowering line can make very good skill players look great at times. Is Cleveland's line at the level where it can take below-average skill players and make them good enough to win games?
DEFENSIVE STORY LINE TO WATCH
Is Danny Shelton enough to scare opposing running games?
The Browns finished last season as one of the worst run defenses in the league. They placed last in rush yards allowed per game (141.6) and 28th in yards allowed per rush attempt (4.5). In order to help solve that quandary, they selected massive defensive tackle Danny Shelton out of the University of Washington.
Shelton (6-foot-2, 339 pounds) projects as a powerful run-stuffer in the middle of the Browns defensive line, but he may not be able to hold up as an every-down player as he gets a feel for the pro game.
The Browns have improved a defense that, despite its deficiencies against the run, kept teams out of the end zone relatively well last season (21.1 points allowed per game, ninth in the NFL). Shelton should provide a bit more resistance, as should Randy Starks, a veteran pass-rusher signed in free agency. But is that enough pop in the front seven to support a talented secondary led by corner Joe Haden and free-agent pickup from Green Bay Tramon Williams?
THREAT LEVEL: LOW
Despite talent in the defensive backfield and on the offensive line, the Browns will have a hard time competing for a playoff spot with their quarterbacks, never mind challenging the Patriots for the conference title.