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Cleveland Browns 2013 Season Preview
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - During his introductory press conference back in January as new head coach of the Cleveland Browns, Rob Chudzinski said he wanted his club to have an attacking style on both sides of the ball.
While he might not yet have the right roster to put the rest of the AFC North on notice, the Browns certainly won't lack the energy to carry out his desired scheme.
The Cleveland franchise has made the postseason just once since its return to the NFL in 2000 and Chudzinski becomes the team's third different head coach in five seasons. He takes over an offense stacked with young talent, so adding to the defense was priority No. 1 for the new coach and CEO Joe Banner.
The front office certainly didn't spend its offseason idle, quickly signing linebackers Paul Kruger and Quentin Groves in the early days of free agency in addition to defensive lineman Desmond Bryant.
The draft also saw Cleveland add to its defensive unit as the club made a character selection in Barkevious Mingo with the sixth overall pick before finally addressing its secondary with cornerback Leon McFadden in the third round.
Those additions should improve the unit and balance out the Browns' overall roster.
"I don't think there is a particular side of the ball that is going to be an identity of this team," said Chudzinski. "I think the identity that we want is a bunch of guys that come out that are hungry and anxious to play and are passionate about playing, who are going to play tough, physical football and want to win for the Cleveland Browns. Where that ultimately stands is that teams that win are teams that have balance on all sides of the ball, offense, defense and special teams."
The likes of Kruger and Mingo are expected to be contributors to the new 3-4 scheme under defensive coordinator Ray Horton, but the rookie Mingo was hospitalized with a bruised lung suffered during a preseason game and his return date is unknown.
On the offensive side of things, Chudzinski and new offensive coordinator Norv Turner will blend a few new faces with the core young core of running back Trent Richardson and receivers Greg Little and Josh Gordon. Chudzinski also made the expected choice of sticking with 29-year-old quarterback Brandon Weeden, who enters his second year in the NFL.
Weeden held off Jason Campbell for the starting job and picked up some new targets in wideout Davone Bess and tight ends Gary Barnidge and Kellen Davis.
"Well that's part of this process in training camp," Chudzinski said of the unknown of his offense. "We want to be able to look at them and for them to give a chance to show what they can do, for us to assess them and to be able to see what their strengths are, to be able to adjust and put in the best things to succeed."
2012 RECORD: 5-11 (4th, AFC North)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2002, lost to Pittsburgh Steelers in wild card round
HEAD COACH (RECORD): Rob Chudzinski (first season)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Norv Turner (first season with Browns)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Ray Horton (first season with Browns)
KEY ADDITIONS: QB Jason Campbell (from Bears), QB Brain Hoyer (from Cardinals), RB Dion Lewis (from Eagles), WR Davone Bess (from Dolphins), WR David Nelson (from Bills), TE Gary Barnidge (from Panthers), TE Kellen Davis (from Bears), OT Rashad Butler (from Texans), DT Desmond Bryant (from Raiders), LB Paul Kruger (from Ravens), LB Quentin Groves (from Cardinals), LB Barkevious Mingo (1st round, LSU), LB Justin Cole (from Rams), CB Leon McFadden (3rd round, San Diego State), CB Christopher Owns (from Falcons), P Spence Lanning (from free agency), K Shayne Graham (from Texans)
KEY DEPARTURES: QB Josh Johnson (to Bengals), QB Colt McCoy (to 49ers), WR Joshua Cribbs (to Raiders), WR Mohamed Massaquoi (to Jaguars), TE Alex Smith (to Bengals), TE Benjamin Watson (to Saints), DE Juqua Parker (free agent), DE Frostee Rucker (released), LB Scott Fujita (retired), LB Kaluka Maiava (to Raiders), LB Chris Gocong (released), LB Emmanuel Acho (to Eagles), CB Sheldon Brown (free agent), S Usama Young (to Raiders), S Ray Ventrone (to 49ers), P Reggie Hodges (free agent), K Phil Dawson (to 49ers)
QB: Weeden wasn't the ideal candidate to take over an NFL franchise given that he didn't reach the draft until his late 20s because of a professional baseball career, but the Browns still took him 22nd overall in 2012.
Weeden won the starting competition and played in 15 games before missing the finale due to a right shoulder injury. Along the way, he set franchise rookie records with five wins and 3,385 passing yards, but was picked off 17 times to 14 touchdown passes.
The Browns signed Campbell, a former first-round pick, to push Weeden and he responded by impressing the new coaching staff and grasping the new system.
"He has been able to manage the games and go out and make good decisions, lead his teammates and obviously, succeed," Chudzinski said of Weeden winning the starting job. "He has made the personal-technique improvements that he has needed to make to improve himself. I just see him on a constant basis. There are going to be ups and downs along the way, but overall, the general trend has been upward."
Campbell is an experienced backup, having made 71 starts in 77 career appearances, and will slot ahead of Brian Hoyer.
RB: Weeden's selection last year came 19 picks after the Browns had already moved up a spot to grab Richardson out of Alabama.
Richardson showed his toughness right out of the gate, starting in 15 games despite missing most of training camp and the preseason while recovering from knee surgery. He also battled a rib injury throughout the campaign, but still set a number of franchise rookie records.
Formerly called "ordinary" by Browns legend Jim Brown, Richardson's 950 rushing yards bested Brown's previous rookie mark of 942, and the former's 11 touchdowns broke the Hall-of-Famer's mark of nine.
Richardson was also a threat in the receiving game, finishing second on the club with 51 receptions, and one has to wonder what he will have in store if he stays healthy.
"No surgeries before the season. I don't plan on having one this year," the 23-year-old said. "It's on the uprise right now. I'm taking one step at a time, like I said earlier. I just love it right now; there is nothing like football shape and it's a long way to go. I still have to work hard so I can play all four quarters and I want to be in the best shape I can be when it comes September."
The Browns took a hit at depth when both Dion Lewis (broken left fibula) and Montario Hardesty (knee surgery) were placed on injured reserve. Chris Ogbonnaya will take over at fullback as Owen Marecic was cut during the preseason. He is a solid blocker and can also play tailback. Brandon Jackson is slated to back up Richardson.
WR: Cleveland's receivers are young, but have talent and a variety of tools.
Gordon led the Browns with 805 receiving yards and five touchdowns, representing Weedon's best deep threat. He finished third among rookies in receiving yards and hauled in scoring passes of 71 and 62 yards from Weeden.
However, the 22-year-old will miss the first two games of the regular season for violating the NFL Policy and Program for Substances of Abuse. Gordon said he took medicine that contained codeine when diagnosed with a strep throat in February.
Little, meanwhile, led the Browns 53 catches and added four touchdown grabs in his second NFL season and Chudzinski noted that Little has made big strides this spring.
Travis Benjamin can also stretch the field and should slip into Gordon's role early on, while the Browns added an experienced receiver to the mix by acquiring Bess. The 27-year-old hasn't shown a knack for finding the end zone, but is a possession compliment to Gordon and Little.
Cleveland also took a chance on the 6-foot-5 David Nelson, who managed eight TD receptions in his first two NFL seasons with Buffalo before being limited to one game last year due to a torn ligament in his right knee.
TE: Tight end was not a go-to position for Weeden at Oklahoma State, but in his first season with the Browns he connected with Benjamin Watson 49 times for 501 yards and three touchdowns.
Cleveland overhauled the position this offseason, parting ways with Watson and Alex Smith while signing Barnidge and Davis. Those two should slot in behind third-year USC product Jordan Cameron, who figures to get a bigger role this year after making 20 catches in 14 games last year.
Cameron was very adapt at being the safety net, with 12 of his receptions going for first downs.
Barnidge, meanwhile, is familiar with Chudzinski, having played under Cleveland's new head coach when the latter served as the offensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers the past two seasons.
"He has worked hard to develop as both a blocker and a receiver," Chudzinski said of Barnidge. "His familiarity with our offense will give him the opportunity to make a smooth transition with us."
Davis started 30 games for the Chicago Bears the past two seasons and owns 11 career touchdown catches.
OL: A consistent presence on the line, Joe Thomas is a perennial Pro Bowl selection at left tackle and has taken every snap since being selected third overall in the 2007 draft. Thomas has this football thing down, so Chudzinski will also rely on his as a leader in the locker room.
Right tackle was also a non-issue for the Browns a season ago after they took Mitchell Schwartz in the second round of the draft and he made 16 starts.
Jason Pinkston moved from tackle to guard as a rookie in 2011 and made 16 starts, but missed the final 10 games of the last campaign due to a blood clot in his lung. John Greco filled in and performed well, earning a new five-year deal this offseason, and could open as the Week 1 starter.
Center Alex Mack and right guard Shawn Lauvao both made 16 starts last year, giving Weeden a nice consistent front.
Pinkston and Lauvao have both been slowed by ankle injuries, meaning Oniel Cousins could be the Week 1 starter at right guard and seventh-round pick Garrett Gilkey is also in the mix.
DL: Cleveland's defensive lineman combined for 25 of the club's 38 sacks last year, but contributors Juqua Parker and Frostee Rucker do not turn, while leading sack-getter Jabaal Sheard will drop back in the club's new 3-4 scheme.
Cleveland will look for healthy seasons from end Ahtyba Rubin (44 tackles, 2 sacks) and nose tackle Phil Taylor (14 tackles, 1 sack), with the two combining to miss 11 games a season ago. That led to rookies John Hughes and Billy becoming part of the line's rotation, so at least the experience was gained.
Bryant joins the group after spending his first four seasons with the Oakland Raiders, where he notched 11 1/2 sacks while playing in 63 games with 18 starts. He is massive at 6-foot-6, 310 pounds and the Browns signed him to a five-year deal despite his Feb. 24 arrest on a misdemeanor charge of criminal mischief and ensuing viral mug shot in which his mouth is open, tongue half out and eyes half closed.
"I obviously made a mistake. I apologize for everything that happened. I feel like I have learned from it and I have moved on from that. I think I have done enough over the years I have been in the league to exhibit that that's really not the kind of person that I am," Bryant said when he was signed by the Browns in March.
With less demand to get to the quarterback, the strength of this line could be its ability to knock the ball loose. Last year, the line was responsible for seven of the team's 16 forced fumbles.
LB: A fresh look and added players give Cleveland's linebacking group a whole new identity, outside of middle man D'Qwell Jackson.
Jackson continues to shake off two pectoral tears that held him to just six games in 2009-10. He made 158 tackles in 2011 and another 118 last year while starting all 16 games both years. In addition to 3 1/2 sacks, he was solid in coverage by posting seven passes defensed and two picks while also forcing two fumbles.
He also has experience in the 3-4 from earlier Cleveland teams.
Craig Robertson is expected to lineup beside Jackson after the undrafted former practice squad member made 93 tackles in 16 games a season ago. Horton is a fan of Robertson's speed and size and he is quick to the ball.
The rush from the edge will come in the form of Kruger, Groves, Sheard and eventually Mingo.
Kruger was Cleveland's first big signing of free agency and the 27-year-old is coming off a Super Bowl title with Baltimore. He led the Ravens with nine sacks in the regular season and added another 4 1/2 in the playoffs.
The Browns invested $40 million into the linebacker hoping he can perform without playing alongside the likes of Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis.
"Just to be an every down player that is really affective and creating a strong force on defense," Kruger said of what his next progression is.
Sheard led the Browns in sacks as a defensive end over his first two NFL seasons, notching 8 1/2 as a rookie and seven last year, while Groves had a career year in 2012 in Arizona under Horton in a 3-4.
Then there is Mingo, who the Browns selected despite corners Dee Milliner and D.J. Hayden still on the board. Mingo had 15 sacks in three years at LSU and earned high praise for his character.
Growing pains and injuries could be the only thing that holds this group back from becoming an elite unit.
DB: The Browns have a solid foundation in the secondary between corners Joe Haden and Buster Skrine in addition to safety T.J. Ward.
The 24-year-old Haden has shown a talent for getting his hands on the ball. He had six picks as a rookie in 2010 and added another three in 2012 despite missing five games due to injury and a suspension. He has also logged 47 passes defensed over his career.
"Joe has really stepped up as a leader, has stepped up as a professional. Joe wants to focus on improving and being more consistent and I see that in his approach. I think he has done a great job in that way and I'm expecting him to keep getting better and better," Chudzinski said of his corner.
Skrine lines up opposite of Haden and is a solid tackler, leading the Browns with 72 solo tackles last year.
Former Falcon Chris Owens was signed for depth and McFadden was selected 68th overall out of San Diego State. He knocked down 12 passes and took two of his three interceptions to the end zone last season to earn his third straight selection to the first-team All-Mountain West Conference.
The talented Ward starts at strong safety for a fourth straight season, while second-year pro Tashaun Gipson, who made three starts a year ago, should hold off sixth-round draft pick Jamoris Slaughter for the other starting nod.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Browns saw both Phil Dawson and Joshua Cribbs make the Pro Bowl a season ago, but neither veteran returns for 2013.
Dawson opted to sign with San Francisco and will be replaced by another veteran in Shayne Graham, a long-time Cincinnati Bengal who spent last year with Houston. It was a solid campaign for the 35-year-old, who set a career high with 138 points by going 31-of-38 on field goal attempts while hitting all 45 of his extra points. His 28 touchbacks were also a career best.
Punter Spencer Lanning appears to be in line for the punting role after T.J. Conley was cut. Undrafted in 2011, Lanning has never punted in an NFL game and averaged 45.8 yards per punt on eight kicks in the preseason.
Long snapper Christian Yount, armed with a new five-year deal, is in his third season after handling the duties in all of 2012 and the last five games of the previous campaign.
Cribbs was always a threat to break a big run and averaged 27.4 yards per kick return last year. The speedy Benjamin will be his replacement after limited experience in the role last year.
COACHING: It was a homecoming for Chudzinski, who spent 2004 with the franchise as tight ends coach and returned to the club as offensive coordinator in 2007-08. Under his watch, Derek Anderson, Kellen Winslow Jr. and Braylon Edwards were all Pro Bowlers.
This is his first head coaching job, so he was wise to bring in the experienced Turner. The two know each other as Chudzinski was his assistant head coach and tight ends coach in San Diego from 2009-10.
Turner is expected to call the plays and coach the quarterbacks, while Horton will run the defense after serving as the Arizona Cardinals' defensive coordinator for the previous two seasons. He spent 10 years as a defensive back in the NFL and coached the position with the Pittsburgh Steelers before going to Arizona.
THE SKINNY: The Browns are starting over yet again, but should be slightly ahead of the curve thanks to a young core and still seems moldable. Cleveland showed some good progress towards the end of the season, but playing in a division with Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati will wear you down fast.
Still, five wins is a low bar to jump over and the franchise will take any steps forward it can manage.
"I think we feel like we were better than our record indicated last year. We're a good football team. I am excited about the guys in our locker room and we are chomping at the bit to get started again," said Weeden.
08/28 12:02:35 ET