2014 Record – 7-9
WR Dwayne Bowe, CB Tramon Williams, DE/DT Randy Starks, P Andy Lee
CB Buster Skrine, TE Jordan Cameron, OLB Jabaal Sheard, QB Brian Hoyer, DT Ahtyba Rubin
Defensively, this is a tale of two teams. FootballOutsiders rated the Browns as the 31st team in rush defense DVOA.1 They gave up 5.2% more scoring against the run than average, better only than the New Orleans Saints. They’ve looked to deal with that issue below with my pick for their breakout player. The other side of the defense was fantastic though as the Browns were the second best team in pass defense DVOA at -10.7%. The loss of Buster Skrine will matter, but he was the worst cornerback for Cleveland, though he had the task of defending opposite Joe Haden, making him the easier target in all games. K’Waun Williams will continue to be a nominal starter at nickelback and Tramon Williams, still a good cover corner though a bit weak against the run, will likely take over for Skrine outside.
They were better offensively than it may have seemed, though they were very inconsistent. It was a much smaller sample size than Brian Hoyer, so it should be taken with a large shot of penicillin, but Johnny Manziel actually was the Browns best starting quarterback last season according to ProFootballFocus. All were negative starters, but Manziel was the least negative and is clearly the one with the most upside heading into 2015. Even if Manziel succeeds personally, he’ll need help from a receiving corp that is thin at best. No one should anoint Terrelle Pryor a success yet for obvious reason, but he is intriguing and could give the Browns a threat out wide after another Josh Gordon suspension.
X-Factor – Johnny Manziel
I’d like to get cute with the x-factor and bring someone up that is outside the box. But it’s just this simple. As Manziel goes, so go the Browns. He may not even be the named the starter to begin the year, he certainly still has an uphill climb. Josh McCown is a really fun story after coming out of the classroom, joining the Chicago Bears, and reviving his career after a fantastic few starts in relief of an injured Jay Cutler. A nice story doesn’t make a good player by itself. McCown has shown who he really is as a player, before his comeback and since leaving Chicago. Manziel still hasn’t shown what he is. The signs have pointed down without a doubt, but throwing 12 TDs to 13 INTs and a weak 55% completion percentage won’t get the Browns more wins than whatever Manziel might provide.
2015 Breakout Player – Danny Shelton
I mentioned it above. The Browns were absolutely awful against the run last year and still managed to have a good defense. In the end, they were 11th best in DVOA because they were so much better against the pass and all teams skew toward passing in the current NFL. But, they aren’t taking the next step without shoring up the run defense. That’s exactly what they’re trying to do with their first round pick. Shelton is hyperbolically, but favorably, being compared to Vince Wilfork. That’s the cure-all for a bad rush defense. At 6’3″ and 339 lbs., Shelton fits the bill as a classic nose tackle. He also won the workout room with 39 reps on the benchpress, though that doesn’t translate to all that much in itself. He will be given every chance to become the next stalwart nose tackle in the NFL.2
Believe it or not, this is a best case scenario that I think is very possible. Still not likely though. The issue is the high risk with the Browns. They need to reset their rush defense and they’ll be relying on a rookie to do so. They need their pass defense to remain elite, possible but difficult. Finally, they need Johnny Manziel to turn into a serviceable QB at worst and likely better than that if playoffs is the outcome. 10-6
McCown is not the answer. Manziel hasn’t shown much at the NFL level, though he still contains immense upside. If the upside never shows they will once again struggle to score – they had the 24th best DVOA in 2014 – and anything short of an elite defense on both sides of the ball won’t hold them up. 4-12
I think this is a good division. There will be wild card implications involved in this division once again, last year they had both wild card teams. This may be cheating, but if things go similarly to last year, the Browns will come off their Week 11 bye and come back against the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals. The Browns will probably need to win both those games coming off the bye, in the division, against both AFC wild cards from 2014 to work toward a wild card berth of their own.