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Talking Cleveland Browns With Football Outsiders

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With the NFL season starting today, it is time for our annual interview with Football Outsiders! Every year, the 2011 Football Outsiders Almanac is worth a good read to familiarize yourself with all 32 NFL teams, and to gain some insight on various statistical categories. Per Football Outsiders, the Almanac is "the essential guide to the 2011 season, the book that correctly predicted 9 of 12 playoff teams last year, fully updated with post-lockout free agency and trades."

We asked Football Outsiders five questions about the Cleveland Browns, including why the team is projected to do so well this year and how effective Peyton Hillis can be depending on who else is in the game. Our interview was conducted with Aaron Schatz, who wrote the chapter on the Browns in this year's Almanac.

Chris: "In your preview for the Cleveland Browns, it seems as though there is a confidence that the team is going to enter the month of December with a winning record. I know Cleveland has an easy schedule up until that point, but is there anything besides the soft schedule that gives them an optimistic projection?"

Aaron: "How about the fact that they really weren't that bad last year? They had -3.1% overall DVOA, which was 20th in the NFL. They had bad luck in close games, 3-7 in games decided by a touchdown or less. And they have a lot of young, maturing players like Colt McCoy and T.J. Ward who should be better this year with more experience."

Chris: "Much has been made among some Cleveland fans over the loss of fullback Lawrence Vickers. Do you think his absence (not including other factors) will affect Peyton Hillis' production this season?"

Aaron: "Well, I can give you a disappointing statistic. Last year, the Browns were much better running with two backs (4.1 yards, 4.5% DVOA) than with one back (3.8 yards, -21.7% DVOA). However, that's not necessarily because Vickers is a great blocker. It could be because Hillis' running style works better with a lead blocker than it does in more spread-out formations."

Chris: "Since free agent safety Usama Young has missed most of training camp, it's uncertain who will be the opening day starter between he and Mike Adams. If you were going based on previous production, who should start?"

Aaron: "Honestly, I have no idea. Safety is the most difficult position to judge based on advanced statistics. So much of what they do is a) off-screen and thus difficult to chart and b) dependent on scheme."

Chris: "Tight end Evan Moore has been having a great camp and preseason, and fans loved the mismatches he created with the few reps he had last season. Was there anything that showed an advantage whenever Moore was in the lineup?"

Aaron: "Well, Moore himself had great numbers in our play-by-play analysis, with a DVOA of 41.4%. That was fourth among all tight ends with at least 25 passes."

Chris: "It seemed like the Browns' backup running back situation was terrible last year. Were there any other teams in the league -- who had one primary back who stayed healthy most of the year -- that had a similar lack of productivity from their backup running backs?"

Aaron: "St. Louis is the most obvious example."

Thanks again to Football Outsiders for their time!