NFL Training Camp Snapshot 2013: Cleveland Browns

NFL Training Camp Snapshot 2013: Cleveland Browns

With the 2013 NFL season rapidly approaching, were taking a spin around the league for a closer look at all 32 teams.


2013-08-20

Over the past five seasons, Cleveland has shuffled through three head coaches, not once won more than five games and spent the majority of its time toiling at the bottom of the AFC North. Reversing that type of negative momentum in the span of one offseason wont be easy; the Browns are facing a massive uphill climb. Even if they dont make it all the way up, Clevelands 2013 season should be vastly different from the ones that preceded it.

Why? Start with the front office, where Cleveland hired a new chief executive officer (Joe Banner) and vice president of personnel (Mike Lombardi). The Browns also revamped their coaching staff, dismissing Pat Shurmur after an uninspiring two-season tenure, hiring former Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski as his replacement and tabbing two new, highly-respected coordinators: Norv Turner (offense) and Ray Horton (defense).

Early training camp reviews have been positive, and the Browns appear to have a more talented roster than the losing groups of recent years. Seeing that talent mesh with the new offensive and defensive schemes installed by Turner and Horton, respectively, will be fascinating. And really, when youve spent the past five seasons (and most of its post-1999 rebirth existence) taking gut punches from Pittsburgh and Baltimore, what more can you ask for?

The Browns may not make a postseason breakthrough this year, but they will be interesting for a number of reasons. After a whirlwind top-down offseason facelift, Cleveland will enter this season with plenty of compelling storylines to track.

Biggest storyline: A defensive transition.

Last seasons Dick Jauron-led defense was conservative and predictable. With Dick LeBeau disciple Ray Horton now in charge, the Browns are embracing a totally new philosophy. Cleveland is going to blitz. A lot. The 3-4 scheme Horton is installing will involve a lot of pre-snap movement, a disparate range of formations and plenty of inventive ways to get after the quarterback. The Browns actually fielded an above-average pass-rush last season, ranking 11th in the league with 38 sacks. The inherent aggressiveness of Hortons scheme should increase that number on its own; throw in the various upgrades Cleveland made to its linebacking corps and defensive line more on them below and putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks should be one of Clevelands biggest strengths this season.

Questions still loom regarding a secondary with holes at cornerback and free safety, and its possible the Browns defenders could struggle to grasp Hortons new scheme early in the season. In the long run, an attacking defense with multiple blitz packages, despite the possibility of leaving a below-average secondary without sufficient help from linebackers in coverage, should be a welcome change for a unit that ranked 22nd in defensive DVOA last season, per FootballOutsiders.

An aside: If Horton lives up to his defensive reputation and turns the Browns into one of the leagues stingier units, his name will be near the top of plenty of coaching-replacement short lists this offseason, if it isnt already.

Most intriguing position battle: Quarterback.

Because Chudzinski refuses to name a starting quarterback, the Brandon Weeden-Jason Campbell situation qualifies, in a superficial sense, as a battle. But if were being totally honest, this isnt really a battle at all. Weeden will be leading the first-team offense Week 1, and its not hard to figure out why. For starters, he has outplayed Campbell throughout the preseason, including in Thursday nights 24-6 win over Detroit, in which Weeden completed eight of 12 passes for 117 yards and two touchdowns and posted a 137.8 quarterback rating. More importantly, Cleveland needs to use this season to determine whether Weeden is their quarterback of the future or whether his less-than-impressive rookie season exposed the true limits of his potential.

Some will contend Weeden both because of his age (29) and the flaws he revealed last season can never be Clevelands long-term solution at quarterback. That may be true, but Cleveland cant know for sure unless it allows Weeden the opportunity to pilot Turners vertical passing game and prove last seasons hiccups were more a product of Shurmurs misguided West Coast system and less one of his own passing limitations. And if Weeden does struggle again, and Campbell has to take over sometime down the road, the Browns will have a clear mandate heading into this offseason: find a new starting quarterback. Whats more, the 2017 draft class, one of the better prospective groups in recent memory, should offer an instant replacement if Weeden doesnt have Browns brass convinced by seasons end.

Essentially, even if Weeden isnt the guy, the Browns need to make sure. The 2013 season should provide an answer in relatively short order.

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