Each year, it seems that a team comes out of nowhere to make the playoffs. When people look back, there were signs of improvement in these teams, but people chose to focus on what could go wrong instead of what could go right. This year, that team is the Cleveland Browns, as they will not only make the playoffs, they will win the AFC North.
1. The Secondary
Joe Haden is a stud as their top cornerback as he is probably one of the five best cover corners in the league. He may not put up big interception numbers, but he can blanket most number one receivers without help which gives incredible flexibility to defensive schemes. On top of that, they have added Justin Gilbert who is battling Buster Skrine to be the other starter at corner, but with the increased use of three and four-receiver sets, a third corner is basically a starter in today’s defenses.
I will admit that going from TJ Ward to Donte Whitner is a downgrade, but it is not a monumental one. Also, don’t be surprised if Jordan Poyer proves to be a valuable member of the secondary. He was a ballhawk at corner for Oregon State a couple of years ago, and although he is limited physically, he could still be very valuable as a free safety with his instincts.
2. Barkevious Mingo
Mingo was my favorite pass rusher in the 2013 NFL Draft. Although he had a relatively quiet year, I think he is now in the perfect system to exploit his talents. He is going to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks, and although I don’t see him quite having a Robert Quinn like breakout, I do see him getting double-digit sacks this season.
Along with that, the Browns have good linebackers in the other three spots. Karlos Dansby may seem like he’s been around forever, but he was very effective in Arizona last year, and as long as he is healthy, he should be good again. Paul Kruger might be overpaid, but he’s still a solid outside linebacker for this team. For the other linebacker spot, Christian Kirksey is already getting very positive reviews for what he has been able to do. Although he probably had the least impressive statistics of Iowa’s linebackers, he was definitely the best player of the three, and he has the type of skill-set that will help him immediately make positive contributions to the defense.
3. Mike Pettine
The Browns got turned down by all of their top candidates to be their next head coach, and yet they somehow may have lucked into the perfect guy for the job. Pettine did an excellent job turning the Bills into one of the best defenses in the league last year. He did this by finding ways to get the most out of his pass rushers, which is a big reason why I am so excited for Barkevious Mingo. It’s impossible to say that Pettine will be a great Head Coach, but I think he has all the tools necessary to prosper in his new position.
4. They Have Running Backs
Without looking, who were the Browns three leading rushers last year? Don’t worry; I have no idea either. My guesses were Peyton Hillis, Reuben Droughns, and Earnest Byner; shockingly, neither was correct. It was actually a combination of Willis McGahee (who led the team with a blistering 377 yards), Chris Ogbonnaya, and Edwin Baker. Fourth in rushing was Jason Campbell.
Any running backs would be an upgrade, but they brought in some very interesting talents. When Ben Tate has gotten on the field, he has been very productive, and the coaching staff is already raving about Terrance West. On top of that, they brought in Isaiah Crowell whose talent has never been questioned.
The Browns have a good offensive line, so there is no reason to think that this team won’t be much better at gaining yards on the ground, which brings me to my next point…
5. Brian Hoyer Isn’t Bad…
Any quarterback who has to deal with that poor excuse for a running game is going to struggle. No, Brian Hoyer is not Peyton Manning, but is it crazy to think he could be a poor man’s Andy Dalton? I know that isn’t great, but serviceable may be all they need with the talent around them. Brian Hoyer can steer a ship, but he’s not going to save The Titanic.
6. Johnny Manziel Is Probably Better
That is why even if Hoyer plays solid, the Browns are going to find a reason to replace him with Manziel sometime during this season. You don’t earn the nickname Johnny Football without being a special talent, and Manziel definitely fits the bill. That doesn’t mean that he will be a great NFL Quarterback, but he does have all of the talent necessary to become one, and that’s more than Brian Hoyer can say, as he is limited physically. Manziel can make plays with his feet and with his arm, and much like RGIII did during his rookie season, he can give defenses headaches with his ability to make something happen when plays break down.
7. The Bengals Have Question Marks
The Bengals won the division last year, but lost both of their coordinators as well as Michael Johnson. Geno Atkins is back, but it is tough to expect him to be the same player less than a year after major surgery. And Andy Dalton is not a quarterback who creates fear in opposing defenses.
8. The Steelers Don’t Have a Secondary
The Steelers could win the division as well, but it is not something anyone can be confident in. I actually like the offense quite a bit, as I think the offensive line can improve to average, and Roethlisberger has Antonio Brown as a true number one receiver as well as a variety of targets for when teams focus on Brown. Also, Le’Veon Bell showed a lot of promise in his rookie year and should improve this season. The defense is the bigger question mark. The front seven looks like it has been retooled, but the secondary is nothing but question marks. Ike Taylor finally fell off last year, Cortez Allen should not be a starting cornerback, and Mike Mitchell was free talent for the Panthers last year, and the Steelers paid him a premium for the one average season he’s had. Finally, Troy Polamalu is one of the most fun players I have ever had the pleasure of watching, but unless he has found some Samoan Fountain of Youth, he’s probably just going to be an average safety (and that is only when he is healthy enough to play). The Steelers have a good front seven, but they are going to need tremendous play to not get carved up every game by opposing passing attacks.
9. The Ravens Have Flaws
The Ravens are the biggest threat to a potential division title for the Browns. They were 8-8 last year, and they seemed to only add talent this offseason. With Dennis Pitta being healthy, an improved offensive line, and Steve Smith Sr. I think the offense will be better this season, but would anybody be shocked if they struggled up front? I think Haloti Ngata’s a future Hall of Famer, but he’s definitely on the downside of his career. Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil are both aging outside rushers, and if they are unable to generate pressure up front, the defense could struggle.
10. They Don’t Need Josh Gordon
If the Browns had Josh Gordon this year, I would feel great about this prediction. One of Manziel’s greatest strengths is his deep ball, so Gordon would be an ideal target for him. Actually, Gordon’s an ideal target for any quarterback. He’s an awesome talent, and it is unfortunate that he will be unable to play this season. Still, the Browns receiving corps is not nearly as bad as people are making it out to be. Jordan Cameron proved that he is an upper echelon receiver at tight end. Andrew Hawkins is dangerous in the slot as he finds ways to get open. Finally, Miles Austin may not be the Pro Bowl caliber player he was a few years ago, but he is still a dangerous threat on the outside if he can stay healthy. Together, they may not be the top receiving threats in the league, but they are more than capable of being a part of a winning franchise.
Obviously, it is going to take a lot of things going right for the Browns to win the division, but considering how well they played early last season before the injuries at quarterback became too much to overcome, it certainly isn’t crazy to think it’s possible. That’s why I’m buying the Browns in 2014.