On Thursday, the Falcons will travel to Cleveland to take on the Browns in the second preseason game of the year. The Browns are a team in transition (again), so most fans may not be aware of what team Atlanta will be taking on. To say that Cleveland has had an eventful off-season would be an understatement. Let’s take a look at their biggest changes, as we get to know our upcoming opponent.
In what seems like an almost yearly cycle, the Browns will enter 2016 with another new head coach. Offensive genius Hue Jackson is the latest to take on the responsibility, and there’s some excitement over what he is bringing to the franchise. Jackson is a hugely respected coach within league circles, with many surprised it’s taken this long for him to get another head coaching opportunity.
He takes over a roster that is in upheaval, whether it was due to free agent departures (Mack, Schwartz) or necessary cuts (Manziel). Jackson refuses to label 2016 a rebuilding season, but the reality is this roster is restarting on multiple fronts.
The team kissed goodbye to troubled QB Johnny Manziel and brought in former first-round pick Robert Griffin III. RG3 has already been declared the starter for the season, with veteran Josh McCown the backup, and rookie Cody Kessler a potential long-term option. If anyone can rescue RG3’s career, it’s Hue Jackson. Whether that happens or not is a big question mark for the season.
However, the rest of the offense lost quite a few important pieces as well. Alex Mack left to join our Falcons, while right tackle Mitchell Schwartz bolted for Kansas City. Additionally, the team lost speedy wide receiver Travis Benjamin, leaving tight end Gary Barnidge as one of their only reliable receiving options.
Troubled but talented receiver Josh Gordon can return to the field in week 5, but there is a long ways to go for him to be ready to play. There’s also the question on whether he can stay focused long-enough to not get into trouble again. The team hopes that first round pick WR Corey Coleman can step in and make a difference in year one, given the lack of offensive weapons currently on the roster.
This is an offense lead by a great coach, but one that is full of turnover.
Similarly, the Browns have seen quite a few departures on the defensive side of the ball as well. Safety Donte Whitner was cut in early April, leaving a hole at the strong safety position. Veteran linebacker Karlos Dansby was cut and subsequently crossed the state to play for the Bengals. Safety Tashaun Gipson left for the warmer climate in Jacksonville.
The team did bring in quite a few defensive players via free agency, including Safety Rahim Moore, LB Justin Tuggle, DE Jackson Jeffcoat and CBs Eric Patterson and Jamar Taylor.
The team is looking to the draft to help rebuild the defense, selecting four defensive players in rounds 1-4 (out of a total of 9 picks) alone. They’re also hoping 2015 first round pick Danny Shelton continues to develop, while hopes for 2013 pick Barkevious Mingo are waning.
The defense will be a big question mark for the team in 2016, but Cleveland appears to be focused on the long-term with this unit.
Let’s not mince words: the Browns have the potential to be a very bad team in 2016, but they could also surprise. If Jackson can get through to RG3, the offense may make some improvements, especially if rookie Corey Coleman can deliver. The offensive line lost some important players, but they still have one of the best tackles in the league in Joe Thomas.
The defense looks to be in rebuild mode as well, but it could also be better than a disaster if key players can deliver. Much will depend on how good this coaching staff is, and whether key acquisitions and draft picks are ready to be on the field day one.
Otherwise, it looks like it will probably be more of the same out of Cleveland in 2016. They may not want to call it a rebuilding season, but it certainly looks like one.