Expectations are high for Brandon Weeden as the Cleveland Browns embark on a new season, complete with a new coaching staff in head coach Rob Chudzinski, offensive coordinator Norv Turner, and defensive coordinator Ray Horton. The Browns begin their 2013 journey against the Miami Dolphins, a team that is also hoping to make strides this year. Our position-by-position evaluation and game prediction are below.
Brandon Weeden and Ryan Tannahill each had mediocre, near-idential rookie seasons, especially when you consider some the of the feats that the other rookie quarterbacks in the league accomplished. Neither was was terrible, though -- they weren't playing Blaine Gabbert or Christian Ponder football -- which is the reason why expectations are high for Weeden and Tannahill to take a step forward in 2013.
Who is looking forward to a healthy Trent Richardson on Sunday? No knee issues, no broken ribs -- just explosive talent. Cleveland plans on utilizing Richardson heavily. The only other running back on their roster is Bobby Rainey, who was not even with the team in the preseason. Chris Ogbonnaya is expected to be the fullback and could see situational reps at running back, though.
The Dolphins are handing the reigns over to second-year running back Lamar Miller this year, after a productive season from Reggie Bush in 2012. Miller rushed for 250 yards (4.9 YPC) in limited reps as a rookie, and fans have high hopes for him to be a complete back. Daniel Thomas, another player who the team invested in during the 2011 season, hasn't fared as well, and will be the backup. The Browns get the advantage here because this is Miller's first season as a starter, and Richardson should be among the best running backs in the league.
The Browns will be without starting wide receiver Josh Gordon, who will serve a two-game suspension to begin the season. Gordon appeared to have been Brandon Weeden's favorite target, so Weeden will have to find another go-to guy. Greg Little will be one of the starters, and the tandem of Davone Bess and Travis Benjamin will rotate at the other receiver spot. The key guy in the game should be tight end Jordan Cameron. Expectations are extremely high for him to be "the next big thing" at the tight end position, and Weeden will probably give him a lot of targets with Gordon out.
The Dolphins addressed the receiver position this offseason by signing Mike Wallace to a massive deal. They also added former Rams receiver Brandon Gibson, and tight end Dustin Keller. Unfortunately for the Dolphins, Keller is gone with an injury, leaving Charles Clay as the starting tight end. He is not viewed as a very viable receiving option. The only significant contributing returning receiver is Brian Hartline, who had over 1,000 yards last season. I actually like the Browns' receiver situation a bit better because of tight end, but it's close enough to call it even this week.
There are some concerns on the Dolphins' offensive line, particularly at left tackle with Jonathan Martin. Martin struggled at the end of last season filling in for Jake Long, and now Long is in St. Louis. Martin will be going up against two quality defenders in Desmond Bryant and Jabaal Sheard, so he'll have his hands full. Mike Pouncey, the team's center, is good up the middle, and Tyson Clabo was signed in the offseason to play right tackle. John Jerry, the team's right guard, can be viewed as a relative weakness.
The Browns are comfortable with their outside guys -- Joe Thomas and Mitchell Schwartz -- as well as center Alex Mack. The big question mark is at right guard, where Oniel Cousins gets the start. He has not looked good in the past, but that was as an offensive tackle. The Browns are hoping he'll perform adequately at guard until Shawn Lauvao gets back. Schwartz will also have his hands full with containing the Dolphins' Cameron Wake.
Cameron Wake delivers an impressive pass rush; he is among the best in the NFL at his craft. He'll be lined up against Mitchell Schwartz. Miami should also give split reps to Olivier Vernon and rookie Dion Jordan on the other side of the line, across from Joe Thomas. Besides the pass-rushing threat, Paul Soliai is an absolute load to handle at defensive tackle, giving the Dolphins a stout run defense up front.
Comparing the defensive lines of two teams with different base defenses is always tough. Miami operates from the 4-3, and Cleveland from the 3-4. Cleveland's depth on the defensive line is outstanding, and Desmond Bryant and Phil Taylor can create havoc on Miami's offensive line. The Browns might be without Ahtyba Rubin this week, though -- he showed up on Friday's injury report with a calf injury. Billy Winn would start in his place if Rubin can't go, hence Miami's advantage.
The Browns put a ton of effort in bolstering their depth at outside linebacker this offseason. Although they won't be without Barkevious Mingo this week, Paul Kruger looked much better than I expected during the preseason, as has Jabaal Sheard on the other side. My concern with Kruger is the fact that he's never been an every down guy, so we'll see how he holds up in a full game. D'Qwell Jackson and Craig Robertson form a solid, but not spectacular, tandem on the inside.
The Dolphins feature Koa Misi, Dannell Elerbe, and Phillip Wheeler as their trio of starting linebackers. Pro Football Focus rated Misi very highly last season, so I'm interested in paying attention to how he plays for the first time. Elerbe was one of Miami's big defensive signings, as he comes over from the Ravens. Wheeler comes over from the Raiders, so this really is a rather re-tooled group of linebackers for Miami. We'll see how they work together, but Cleveland gets the edge because of their pass-rushing and coverage potential.
The Dolphins also re-tooled the cornerback position during the offseason, signing Brent Grimes and naming former Brown Dimitri Patterson a starter. Grimes has had a strong camp and may deliver on the level of talent he had on display from his Atlanta days, but Patterson has struggled in the past as an outside cornerback. The Dolphins' depth at cornerback is somewhat suspect as well, although the play of the safeties isn't bad.
The Browns have the best overall cornerback in Joe Haden, but their other starting role is somewhat questionable. Buster Skrine was named the starter, but he is now iffy to play with a shoulder injury. Is Chris Owens has to start in place of Skrine, it's not a big deal. The big deal would be that Leon McFadden would play three-receiver sets. The rookie McFadden was hurt most of the preseason, and when he did play, he was constantly picked on. T.J. Ward is good at safety, and Tashaun Gipson is unproven but highly touted by the coaching staff.
Special teams is no longer a guaranteed asset for the Browns. They signed Billy Cundiff after a tryout this week, and there's no telling how well he'll kick in a Browns uniform. Spencer Lanning won the punter competition, but this will be his first NFL action. The strength is Travis Benjamin on punt returns -- he can score on any given touch in a flash. I would expect Bobby Rainey to return kickoffs.
The Dolphins have a rookie kicker in Caleb Sturgis, but he excelled in the preseason, going 9-of-9, including a 58-yarder. The punter, Brandon Fields, is one of the best in the league in terms of distance. Margus Thigpen returns kickoffs and punts and scored a touchdown in each area last season.
The Browns have preached an attacking offense and an attacking defense this whole offseason, and now it's time to see it on display. The Dolphins were big spenders in free agency and are hoping their acquisitions pay dividends as well.
I think the Dolphins' offensive line will have a tough time containing the Browns' pass rush early, and they'll have difficulties getting the ground game going at a consistent clip. Joe Haden has owned Mike Wallace over their past few meetings, and Miami lacks a threat at tight end. Although Weeden will be missing Gordon, he has a go-to tight end, and a security blanket who Miami might be longing for before the end of the game: Davone Bess. Cleveland will get off to a hot start and then hold on to the lead late.
Cleveland Browns 24, Miami Dolphins 17
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