1. Who is the easiest player on the roster to root for?
That's a tough question, considering this franchise just lost two players who fans could root for any day of the week in kicker Phil Dawson and special teams return man Joshua Cribbs. Dawson played for this team from 1999-2012 at an extremely high level, but he only got to experience one playoff game during that stretch. Cribbs put his body on the line and his heart and soul into being the best special teams player possible from 2005-2012.
This team has a lot of relatively new players on it, with the team also being constructed as one of the youngest in the NFL. Therefore, there aren't many players who fans are attached to yet. I have a feeling many other teams are picking an underdog in this category, but for the Browns, we're going with our best player: left tackle Joe Thomas. He will be entering his seventh year with the team since being the No. 3 overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, and he has not missed one snap in his career. He has made the Pro Bowl all six years and is the best left tackle in football, period.
The icing on the cake to root for Thomas is the fact that he gets it. While other cities around the country have seen the Browns and this organization as a laughingstock since their return to the league in 1999, Cleveland fans have stayed loyal through it all. We are hungry for a winner, and Thomas' mission is to make sure he and his teammates deliver.
The Browns have hired front office members to improve the fan experience on gamedays this season. Back in late-July, when Thomas was asked about those improvements, here's what he said he wants to see on gameday:
"I think about the day I run out of the tunnel of Cleveland Browns Stadium for a home playoff game," Thomas said. "That’s my dream, that’s why I show up every day. ... I try to talk to the young guys and let them know how important this team is to the city. We could be legends if we bring this organization back to where it was a couple decades ago or even win a Super Bowl. You’d never buy another drink, never buy another dinner the rest of your life if you won a Super Bowl here."
2. If you could buy a ticket to just one game this year...
It would be the Browns' Week 2 match-up against the Baltimore Ravens. I'm probably going against the grain by picking a road game, but here are a few reasons why the game is intriguing:
- The Ravens are already getting screwed out of their home game to begin the season, an honor typically associated with defending Super Bowl Champions. Not only that, they have to face the Denver Broncos, arguably the best team in the AFC.
- I am projecting the Ravens to lose that opening game. In Week 2, they will be expecting their "home opener" to quickly set them back on the right path. I'm sure they'll be celebrating their Super Bowl victory prior to the start of the game. The fans will be all riled up...and then, Cleveland will stun them (or at least that's the plan) and let them know that things are a little bit different when you don't have Ed Reed and Ray Lewis on the field.
- This is the type of game that sets the tone for the Browns and the Ravens in 2013. Cleveland made a lot of improvements, both on the coaching staff and in defensive personnel, so the expectations are that this will be close to a .500 team this year. The Ravens suffered a lot of key defensive departures, and also lost two key offensive players. Are these teams finally starting to head in opposite directions, with Cleveland on the upswing and Baltimore trending downward?
3. Which veterans were notable cuts from the 53-man roster?
There weren't too many veterans on this team to begin with. After the 2012 season, the new coaching staff made it clear that they wanted to go young when they chose not to re-sign the likes of kick returner Joshua Cribbs, kicker Phil Dawson, tight end Benjamin Watson, and cornerback Sheldon Brown.
They further solidified that line of thinking by cutting running back Brandon Jackson a couple of days ago and replacing him with two guys with virtually no NFL experience as the backups to Trent Richardson. The youth may show for this team early on, but all of these guys can really come together strong over the next couple of seasons.
4. Which second year player is going to make the biggest leap?
Although I feel quarterback Brandon Weeden will make steady improvements in his second year, I'm going with wide receiver Travis Benjamin. He had just 18 catches for 298 yards in 2012, but should be given a lot more opportunities to use his speed to stretch the field in Norv Turner's offensive system. More important, though, will be his contributions as a punt returner.
Benjamin's success rate in his recent punt return attempts is simply remarkable. When he got one opportunity late last season to return a punt, he took it back 93 yards for a touchdown. In the first preseason game this year, he had a 91-yard punt return for a touchdown. In the second preseason game, he had another punt return for a touchdown (which was nullified by an iffy penalty). Benjamin could very well be one of the league's fastest players, and it won't be long before teams are trying to angle the ball away from him. He could really help the offense out in terms of field position in 2013.
5. What are the odds of your head coach getting fired?
It's not going to happen. First-year head coaches don't get fired very often, and on top of that, Rob Chudzinski assembled a great staff in offensive coordinator Norv Turner and defensive coordinator Ray Horton. Chudzinski has already gained the respect of the locker room, something we never really got out of Pat Shurmur (and by respect, I mean "buying into things").
6. What franchise or NFL records could be broken this season?
You hate to go overboard with projections, so I'm speaking in hypotheticals here. In 2007, when Chudzinski was the Browns' offensive coordinator, his quarterback was Derek Anderson. That season, Anderson finished with 29 touchdowns, which was second in franchise history to Brian Sipe's 30 touchdowns in 1980. Anderson also threw for 3,787 yards, which was fifth in franchise history; Sipe is the leader with 4,132 yards in 1980. Could Brandon Weeden be Chudzinski's next success story in Cleveland?
If my suspicions about Travis Benjamin as a punt returner are true, I think he could shatter Gerald McNeil's single-season record of 496 punt return yards in 1989, as well as the team's single-season record of two punt return touchdowns in a single season.
7. Which rookies will see regular playing time this year?
Despite the fact that this team is extremely young and filled with a bunch of first-year players, none of them are expected to start in 2012. The only player really even expected to see much playing time is first-round pick Barkevious Mingo, who will be a rotational pass-rushing outside linebacker behind Paul Kruger and Jabaal Sheard.
8. Predict the order of finish in your division.
2nd Place: Baltimore Ravens
3rd Place: Cleveland Browns
9. What do you expect your season-end record will be?
7-9. The Browns made a lot of positive moves in the offseason, both in assembling a new coaching staff and adding key personnel on defense. Head coach Rob Chudzinski and offensive coordinator Norv Turner call an offensive style that is much more suitable to quarterback Brandon Weeden, having him in the Shotgun more often and going downfield with his passes.
Defensively, coordinator Ray Horton brings an attacking defense that is expected to blitz often on third down. Additions like Paul Kruger, Desmond Bryant, and Barkevious Mingo, coupled with a better-than-expected transition from Jabaal Sheard, help make Cleveland a threat to wreak havoc on both sides of the ball. They are still projected to finish below .500, as the team is young and still trying to take steady strides forward, rather than jumping beyond expectations in one year flat.